Last week English National Opera had its Arts Council England grant cut by 29%, or pounds 5m per year. One reason given was that ENO, whose spirit of adventure is at once thrilling and at times, depending on taste or inclination, maddening, had "struggled to reach box-office targets". Their loss became the headline of the entire funding story. You would think, from the barely repressed glee in some quarters, they were being punished for classroom misbehaviour rather than over-extended artistic ambition.
As ever, the facts are more complicated: it appears ENO knew the reduction was coming, has long been revising its "business model" to fit a different financial climate - not least with plans to open its spaces and bars during the day - and has been awarded pounds 7.6m transition money to help with the process. In a measured response, ENO's chief executive, John Berry, said this made the reduction closer to 13% in real terms: more of a jab than a knockout.
The timing, nevertheless, was ironic. Opera companies the world over would have given their collective right arm to attract the audience who last week swarmed to the Coliseum for the UK premiere of Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler's River of Fundament, given in collaboration with the Whitechapel Gallery and organised by the Manchester international festival. Buzzy, fashionable, multicultural, young, arty, many were entering the auditorium for the first time. They had paid pounds 25 or pounds 15 for this sprawling film-opera lasting six hours, which makes Gotterdammerung (around 4.5 hours of music) seem the soul of brevity.
Barney (b 1967), one of the most influential American artists of the past two decades, has a cult following, not least for his Cremaster Cycle which was screened as a taster at the Whitechapel last Saturday. Clearly the art world can stomach anything. While Cremaster takes its name from a muscle in the testes, River of Fundament is more gaily faecal. Based loosely on Norman Mailer's 1983 novel Ancient Evenings and clogged with magic realism and sewage fantasy, it melds American car culture with notions of death and rebirth, either at Mailer's wake in his Brooklyn Heights home, or outside, in some spectacular set pieces, on the great freeways and waterways of New York, Detroit and Los Angeles.
The filming, in three parts, is mesmerising, beautiful, revolting and too long by about an hour. The narrative, hard to follow, borrows from Whitman, Burroughs, Emerson and other literary icons. The cast features everyone from Elaine Stritch, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Joan La Barbara, Ellen Burstyn and Deborah Harry to, briefly, Salman Rushdie and, more expansively, Barney himself. It has been widely written about, in excremental detail, and YouTube clips are easy to find.
Less has been said about composer Jonathan Bepler's music, or why River of Fundament, all prerecorded, has been called an opera and shown not in a cinema but at the Coliseum, which was specially adapted with big screen and surround sound. I notice it was advertised somewhat shyly, if at all, to the usual opera-going audience who, admittedly, might have rebelled. Yet it raises intriguing questions. At the precise moment opera is seeking out the cinema - whether by using film directors (Terry Gilliam, Mike Leigh) to try their hand, or by big-screen relays - here is an example of the reverse. A grand film-maker is, as it were, forcing his way into the red plush. Barney insisted River of Fundament be shown in traditional theatres, within a proscenium arch (among them, so far, the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. The tour continues until next year.) I am still not sure why he required this, yet it worked.
Music grows out of every episode of the film, not as background but as "live" performance, with actors suddenly turning to song. Whether the British improv-jazz singer Phil Minton and his "feral choir", or a mariachi band or a beatboxer, each is an extension of the action. Bepler, Barney's regular collaborator, embraces every stylistic mix from native American to step music, blues, R&B, African American and ballad lament. Bands consisting of one kind of instrument - woodwind, trombones, banjos, percussion - created mood and atmosphere. An ensemble of viols made from what looked like car-industry sheet metal conjured their own eerie version of Dowland's Lachrimae
None of it sounded like "opera" but many of the voices were operatically trained: the baritone twins Eugene and Herbert Parry, who once sang the Don and Leporello in a production of Don Giovanni for Peter Sellars; the countertenor Brennan Hall, whose appearance as the Egyptian deity Horus in a flooded New York dry dock was a high point of the film, more often sings Bach and Handel. The singer-composer Shara Worden is known for her work with Sufjan Stevens and has just written her own opera. The list is long. Together these musicians feed into a quite different musical and visual form, unlike any other.
Opera as a genre only lives by reinventing itself. Mozart knew this, precociously early. His La finta giardiniera - the title refers to a young woman disguised as a gardener - had its premiere shortly before the composer's 19th birthday in 1775. Young he may have been, but he was no novice. This was his ninth opera and has moments of prodigious brilliance. Mixed-up love, mistaken identity and class are at its heart, with a brief mad scene which Rossini, who revelled in turning crazed humanity into dazzling musical ensemble, might have found useful as a model.
With a lively young ensemble cast, Glyndebourne's new production has made the most of the music, conducted by Robin Ticciati, while throwing no light on the action, or the reason for staging the work. Frederic Wake-Walker's production, charmingly designed in decaying 18th-century style by Antony McDonald, was pleasing to watch, and the undiscomforted audience cheered warmly. It will feature in the autumn tour.
In terms of youthful achievement, Shadwell Opera's staging of Philip Glass's In the Penal Colony, based on Kafka's story about torture, was impressive and horrifying. Directed by Jack Furness and conducted by Matthew Fletcher, it was played by the Perks Ensemble and had outstanding lead singers in Andrew Dickinson and Nicholas Morris. Love Ssega and James Swanton gave strong spoken support. Taut and menacing, this staging conveyed its message powerfully - in a mere 80 minutes.
Brennan Hall in a scene from River of Fundament: 'mesmerising, beautiful, revolting and too long
by about an hour'.