Seven years ago Anthony Minghella made his operatic debut producing Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. It premiered at the reasonably modest English National Opera in London before moving to the even more exotic Lithuanian National Opera and settling at the New York Met. Although I live in London and am a keen consumer of culture, it took me seven years and a three-and-a-half thousand miles to see it. Why? – Because New Yorkers are better at spotting, fostering and promoting talent. Well-marketed, the production could have been conjugating European opera fetishists in a passionate spending extravaganza; instead they stay at the Empire (Plaza Athénée) and eat at Hangawi (Daniel).
It is not a one-off but rather a systematic trend. New York loves inventive. In opera, both the Royal Opera House and the Met run La traviata but the Americans prefer Willy Decker’s production (also originally European and now adding to the reputation of the New World); in music, the Book of Mormon over Billy Elliot; even gastronomy, Bar Masa over Defune. The Yankees may not always be great at mastering original productions (the recently unveiled Enchanted Island is a vaudeville that literally lasts forever) but they don’t fear experimentation and that is a big deal. Spotting good ideas and recognising talent is a gift of its own. A gift but also a skill that can be learned- the students of the FIT have access to an on-site museum that, besides having a very decent permanent collection, features unique exhibitions worthy of V&A, something those who go to St Martins can only dream of.
London is extraordinary in many respects. Home to brilliantly creative professionals, the city is well known for its history, heritage and current excellence in many areas. But therein lies the danger: we have been so good for so long we have become complacent. We may have great products but are too finical to sell them. At an industry level we seem to prefer to let life take its natural flow, assuming that true genius will find its way to shine. It does; it shines in the States. The brand of London is dominated by images from the 19th century- the Palace of Westminster, Turner landscapes and Sherlock Holmes. It’s certainly not all we’ve got, but it’s a very safe sell, one that we have been living off for a long while. If we don’t get inventive, if we don’t foster and heavily promote the new London, be it in fashion, food, theatre or architecture, we will become a living museum. A Harrods-Soho-Oxford Street- extravaganza, a loud and tacky shadow of what we could have been. And where would people find the cutting edge Cool Britannia? – Probably somewhere around SoHo. That’s the one with the capital “H”, the one in the home of the brave.