Letter from London
The Queen of England died on September 8 after a reign of seventy years, and three months later on December 8 the English National Opera offered at the London Coliseum theater a tribute performance of Gloriana, an opera about Queen Elizabeth I which Benjamin Britten created for the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. The four centuries separating the two Elizabeths meant that Elizabeth I exercised far more real political power than Elizabeth II could ever have imagined wielding, and the Renaissance queen was more profoundly purposeful in her political calculations, more fiercely defensive of her royal prerogatives, and more artfully spectacular in her courtly self-presentation (as was clear from the recent Tudor show at the Metropolitan Museum in New York).
December 8 is observed throughout the Roman Catholic world as the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, so the very date offered some reminder that Elizabeth I (whose Protestantism preserved England from such Roman observances) celebrated herself as a virgin queen, making her chastity into an emblem of her personal mystique and political independence. In an almost comical contrast, the exceptionally conjugal Elizabeth II left behind a whole flock of descendants, to the fourth generation, who, precisely on December 8, 2022, were presenting the world with the premiere of a Netflix series that demonstrated all the embarrassments that can make royal families appear foolish and inconvenient, tabloid fodder at the taxpayers’ expense.
Elizabeth was crowned before either of us was born, but we’re none of us as young as we used to be, and we’ve been coming to London for five of Queen Elizabeth’s seven decades on the throne; long ago Perri did a medical rotation at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and Larry had his classic academic stint of research in the British Museum Library. We’re both moderate anglophiles who raised our children on Gilbert and Sullivan and P. G. Wodehouse, as we were raised ourselves by our moderately anglophile parents (one actual British grandparent out of eight, Perri’s grandmother, the daughter of a Jewish tailor in the East End of London). And since the death of the Queen has stimulated many people to recall their royal encounters, let us say that we were actually presented to Queen Elizabeth at a White House reception in 2007 (Perri learning to curtsey, Larry renting white tie and tails), and, yes, she was warm, charming, and covered with diamonds during our two minutes.
December 2022 was our first trip to London since before Covid; we had largely missed the frenzied three-year government of Boris Johnson, with its confused and self-destructive decisions on Brexit negotiations, its scandals and rule-breaking around pandemic public health regulations. Now England was ruled by an elderly King Charles III and governed by a young Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, a Tory millionaire from a Punjabi immigrant family. The country was roiled by the Harry-and-Meghan Netflix indictment of the royal family and nervous in anticipation of a “winter of discontent,” anticipated strikes by nurses, railway personnel, postal workers, even weather forecasters, facing off against Sunak’s Tory government. The harsh economic impact of Brexit, no longer camouflaged by the economic consequences of Covid, was evident in a shrinking economy and rising inflation. Elizabeth, gone but three months, was already shrouded in a spirit of anxious nostalgia, not least at the English National Opera which, after five decades at the London Coliseum and a previous history as the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company dating back to the 1930s, had been informed by the government British Arts Council that it would lose all of its funding unless it moved to Manchester.
Before the second act of Gloriana, someone in the audience called for three cheers for the ENO, and the crowd responded enthusiastically. The company has long been proudly presenting British opera—and has always insistently presented opera in English. They had been performing Gilbert and Sullivan’s Yeoman of the Guard and were about to present Jake Heggie’s contemporary American opera It’s a Wonderful Life, based on the Frank Capra film, about angelic intervention to save vulnerable mortals from fiscal crisis and spiritual despair. (The ENO has, since then, been granted a one-year reprieve.)
The name “Gloriana” was Edmund Spenser’s Renaissance tribute to Elizabeth as a fairy queen, but Britten’s opera was based on the ironically conceived account of Lytton Strachey, Elizabeth and Essex: A Tragic History, from 1928, and perhaps a little influenced by the Hollywood film The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex from 1939, starring Bette Davis and Errol Flynn, with cinematic music by the Viennese Hollywood émigré Erich Korngold. For Britten, as for Strachey, the subject was Elizabeth’s late-life romance with Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, thirty-two years younger, the man she ultimately condemned to death for treason in 1601.
For Strachey—who had already demonstrated his brand of historical irony in Eminent Victorians and a biography of Queen Victoria—there was something implicitly bizarre about the passion of the aging Elizabeth for young courtiers and the “grotesque intensity” with which she sought to preserve herself cosmetically: “Yet as her charms grew less, her insistence on their presence grew greater . . . from the young men who surrounded her in her old age she required—and received—the expressions of romantic passion. The affairs of State went on in a fandango of sighs, ecstasies, and protestations. Her prestige, which success had made enormous, was still further magnified by this transcendental atmosphere of personal worship.” Writing in the 1920s, while his younger brother psychoanalyst James Strachey was translating Freud into English, Lytton found the key to the character of the virgin queen in psychoanalysis: “in Elizabeth’s case, there was a special cause for a neurotic condition: her sexual organisation was seriously warped.”
Britten’s music, more than Strachey’s prose, allows the Queen unironic dignity in some of her scenes, like the great prayer aria of the first act, in which she prays God to “maintain in this weak woman the heart of a man”—and rises vocally to a regal climax imploring God to “protect my people in peace.” Elizabeth was sung magnificently at the Coliseum by mezzo-soprano Christine Rice, who was performing the role for the first time, and was honored by King Charles with the Order of the British Empire in January 2023.
Yet, Britten’s Elizabeth, sometimes musically glorious, is also a creature of jealousy, rage, cruelty, and caprice, ultimately sending Essex to his death in a fit of pique. It is generally accepted that the young Elizabeth II in 1953 was not pleased with Britten’s operatic offering, his semi-satirical treatment of her namesake and predecessor. In 1953 the young queen might not have appreciated the tenderness of the women’s chorus in the final act, led by the soprano lady-in-waiting, as they cosmetically restored the youth of their aging monarch, gratifying her royal vanity: “tint with powder, touch with tincture.” Elizabeth II did not live to see the scandal around her own real-life lady-in-waiting at the end of 2022, when Lady Susan Hussey, having transferred her service to Queen Consort Camilla, insistently asked British charity executive Ngozi Fulani, a Black guest at Buckingham Palace, where she was “really from”—and then had to resign for the implicit racism of the question.
Willard White, born a subject of the crown in Jamaica in 1946, was one of the great British bass-baritones of the last generation, knighted by Queen Elizabeth; in Gloriana he brought his still imposing voice and presence to the smaller role of the blind ballad singer mocking Essex before his arrest and execution in the final act. The ballad is only one of the many different musical forms that Britten employs to give the opera a sense of musical fidelity to the age of the Renaissance Elizabeth. When Gaetano Donizetti wrote his Elizabeth-and-Essex opera Roberto Devereux for Naples in 1837 (an opera Britten probably didn’t know in 1953, since the first modern performance came in Naples in 1964), the Italian composer had no hesitation about presenting Tudor England entirely in the idiom of nineteenth-century Italian bel canto. Britten, however, offered not only folk ballads, but also Tudor court dances, an Elizabethan masque within the opera, an exquisite lute song for Essex to serenade his queen, and a moving hymnal tribute to Elizabeth: “Green leaves are we, red rose our golden Queen, o crownèd rose, among the leaves so green.” If Gloriana is not among the more regularly performed Britten operas in the contemporary repertory, it is partly because the cleverness of its musical construction, even with the recognizable character of Britten’s Modernist orchestral coloration and text setting, gives the opera some of the spirit of pastiche.
There can hardly be any doubt that the second Elizabethan reign formed a remarkably rich period of British culture, literary, dramatic, artistic, balletic, and not least musical: from Benjamin Britten to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Sting, and Adele. British dramatic culture, however, is still dominated by the titan of the first Elizabethan age, William Shakespeare. And the National Theatre’s production of Othello spoke to the ways that Shakespeare continues to be refracted through the prism of current controversies and sensibilities. Clint Dyer, the first Black director of a production of Othello at the National Theatre, has talked in interviews about his own first visit there, in the 1980s, about being inspired by the size of the stage and the skill of the actors. But then, he said, it “broke my heart” to see a photograph of Laurence Olivier, in blackface, as Othello, from decades earlier. In videos put out by the National Theatre to publicize Dyer’s version, Shakespeare’s characters are discussed very much with today’s language; Othello has experienced “othering,” Desdemona recognizes that she is considered a “race traitor.” Signs posted in the theater lobby, giving the running time, also warned the audience that the production contained “racially offensive language and imagery, and depictions of mental and domestic abuse and violence, which some people may find upsetting.”
For Dyer, the essential distinguishing aspect of the production is the context of social disapproval which hovers around the interracial love story from the beginning. Venice prizes Othello’s military skills but subjects him to constant insults, as when the Duke sends him on assignment to Cyprus but refuses to shake his hand. “We haven’t shied away from the societal pressure, the systemic issues that Othello and Desdemona face,” Dyer says in the video, “they are isolated to such a degree that it bonds them closer, but also makes their relationship fragile.” That societal pressure was conveyed on stage by a chorus of the ensemble, all white, who watch Othello and Desdemona with hostility and easily become a mob—even a torch-bearing mob, whether in Venice or later on Cyprus. This is a public marriage from the very beginning, inspected and dissected by hostile spectators, thus offering yet another echo of the ongoing dramas of the current royal family, with the accusations about racist treatment of Meghan Markle by royals and by the ever-present tabloid press.
At the center of the drama, Giles Terera as Othello was relatively soft-spoken, a somewhat more introspective Othello, though one clearly skilled in martial arts and soldiering, a man scarred across his back with the violence of his personal history of slavery. Rosy McEwen was an appealingly assertive and self-confident Desdemona, suggesting, perhaps, the misplaced confidence of a highly privileged young woman who understands that she has broken the rules but perhaps also believes that she is above them. When Othello doubts her fidelity, she is shocked that he feels entitled to strike her. Her maid, Emilia—Tanya Franks—is clearly being beaten by her own husband, Iago, and bears visible marks—a bandage, a facial bruise—and her heroism in finally speaking out against her husband gives her some of the strongest moments in the play. The editing of the text stripped both Desdemona and Othello of some of their most resonant lines; her description of the stories which caused her to fall in love with Othello was truncated, as was his final speech, in the course of which he stabs himself—“Soft you; a word or two before you go.”
As is often true in productions of Othello, the real motor of the play was Paul Hilton’s Iago, intense, almost frenetic at times, and skillfully manipulating the chorus. Iago was all over the stage, speaking directly to the audience, rousing the mob, pushing too close to Othello to offer his troubling observations about Desdemona and Cassio. In a production meant to evoke modern issues of racism and domestic violence, set in no particular historical moment, Othello and Desdemona both had modern edges, but it was perhaps Iago who offered the most direct modern references, preying on prejudices, manipulating with misinformation.
Shakespeare wrote Othello in 1603, the year of the death of Elizabeth I, and it was therefore the last Elizabethan masterpiece of her reign. One of the most important theatrical companies created during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, the Donmar Warehouse (now also facing huge cuts from the British Arts Council) was presenting a remarkable American revival in December: Lillian Hellman’s rarely performed 1941 drama Watch on the Rhine. It’s probably best known from the 1943 film, nominated for an Academy Award, starring Bette Davis again, but the stage play is an impressively sturdy dramatic work and perhaps unexpectedly gripping in this 2022 London production.
Set in 1940, during Queen Elizabeth’s childhood, it tells the story of a young American woman Sara who comes home from Europe as a refugee with three children and her German husband, a member of the anti-fascist underground in and out of Nazi Germany. With their fierce political convictions and dangerous associations, they crash into the home and life of Sara’s mother, Fanny, a wealthy Washington, D.C., widow who is suddenly compelled to confront the menacing shadows in Europe. In the movie Bette Davis is the star as young Sara, but on stage the star is old Fanny, played here by the great Patricia Hodge (made an Officer of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth in the Birthday Honours of 2017), here assuming a growling American accent and dauntless Hellmanesque presence as the stage matriarch. Watch on the Rhine opened on Broadway in April 1941, while London was defiantly enduring the Luftwaffe Blitz but before America actually entered the war in December after Pearl Harbor.
It’s a play about getting ready for war and recognizing the sacrifices and dangers involved, and it’s particularly powerful in London at a moment when a terrible war is actually taking place in Europe, when Ukrainians are fighting for national liberty against Russian tyranny in ways that inevitably make us think back to the era of Watch on the Rhine. Queen Elizabeth herself, two weeks before her death, acknowledged Ukrainian Independence Day, August 24, 2022: “In this most challenging year, I hope that today will be a time for the Ukrainian people, both in Ukraine and around the world, to celebrate their culture, history and identity.” There was some speculation that she was purposefully making use of the Ukrainian colors of blue and yellow in both her flowers and her hat.
There were over 100,000 Ukrainian refugees in Britain by the end of 2022. The biggest art exhibit in London, at the National Gallery, was a centenary show for a refugee artist, Lucian Freud. He was born in 1922 in Berlin and emigrated with his family to London in 1933, the year that Hitler came to power in Germany. His father, Ernst, was the son of Sigmund Freud, who also came to England in 1938, leaving Vienna with his own family as Nazism came to Austria. Lucian became naturalized in 1939, the same year that his grandfather Sigmund died in England, and one of the earliest paintings in the show at the National Gallery was a group portrait, The Refugees, painted 1940–41 (that is, before the artist turned twenty), in which faces stare intensely out at the viewer, the mismatched proportions and unexpected colors suggesting the German and Austrian early Expressionist painters.
Freud died in 2011, and the exhibition celebrated his long and close involvement with the National Gallery; the first room greeted viewers with the large-sized pull quote, “I go to the National Gallery rather like going to a doctor for help.” In Painter Working, Reflection, from 1993, the aging artist stands alone in his studio, naked, except for a rather foolish floppy pair of bedroom slippers. He holds a palette and a palette knife and gazes out from what almost looks like a gargoyle head, his face and hair in shadow compared to the paler flesh of his thorax, the swirls of his kneecaps.
There was also a small—and controversial—portrait of Queen Elizabeth, lent by the Queen herself when the exhibition was being assembled. Her face crowds the small rectangle, the wings of her white hair touching the frame on either side, the top of her crown actually cut off. Her chin is shadowed, and she is not smiling. When it was painted, in 2001, the Guardian headline was, “Beneath the skin of a painted lady: the best royal portrait for 150 years,” with art critic Adrian Searle writing: “Freud has got beneath the powder, and that itself is no mean feat. It is a picture of a painted face, gluey with make-up, faithful to the lipstick sneer. Both sitter and painter have seen too much, are easily, stoically bored. They know the shape they’re in. This is a painting of experience.” Meanwhile, the Sun headline said, “It’s a Travesty Your Majesty,” and quoted the editor of the British Art Journal, who said it made the Queen look “like one of her corgis who has suffered a stroke.” The Queen herself, when Freud presented her with the portrait, said, “Very nice of you to do this. I’ve very much enjoyed watching you mix your colours.”
The most spectacular colors in London in December, however, were on display at the London Fashion and Textile Museum, in the exhibit “Kaffe Fassett: The Power of Pattern.” Perri first came to know Fassett through his brilliant imaginative work as a knitter, buying his breakthrough book, Glorious Knits, when it first came out in the 1980s. In that book Fassett, who grew up in California and settled in London in the 1960s, described the life-changing experience of visiting a wool mill in Scotland, where he drew inspiration from the colors of the yarns, bought twenty balls, and then learned to knit from a fellow passenger on the train back to London. His rule-breaking designs, impossibly beautiful and exceptionally intricate, sometimes using dozens of colors, became for many knitters a kind of aspirational vision of what knitting could be. Perri attended one of his knitting workshops in 1992 at the aquarium in Monterey, California, not far from Big Sur, where Fassett grew up. He still gives lectures on color and inspiration, still does knitting design, but since the 1980s, together with his partner, Brandon Mably, he has expanded his work into needlepoint, mosaic, fabric design, and most especially quilting and patchwork. All the work reflects joyous and sometimes revolutionary explorations of color and more color, pattern and more pattern, and a profound appreciation for the art in craft and the craft in art.
The 2022–23 show, at the Fashion and Textile Museum, focused on quilts and on the work that patchwork quilters around the world have done using the fabrics designed at the Kaffe Fassett Studio by Fassett, Mably, and Philip Jacobs. In putting together the exhibit, Fassett told Perri, the joy was finding quilters all over the world who had used these fabrics, often in unexpected ways. “I love jigsaw puzzles, I love word puzzles, to me every single knitting project, every quilt, is a puzzle to solve, to bring a kind of order and joy,” Fassett said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s needlepoint, knitting, patchwork, it’s all just arranging and playing with elements in order to make something sexy and delicious.” Many of his books mention his love for the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the joy of transmuting brilliant designs from one of the decorative arts to another, adapting, for example, kilim rug patterns or ceramic pottery forms into knitting or needlepoint or patchwork. In 1988 Fassett had a solo show at the Victoria and Albert, the first living textile artist to do so, and reportedly drew such crowds that museum attendance doubled.
Among the quilts in 2022 was Tickled Pink, in which Susan Carlson had used every possible pink fabric to create a giant version of Albrecht Dürer’s well-known woodblock of a rhinoceros, glowing resplendently against a pieced green background. There was China Shop, with vases—all patched from different fabrics—sitting on shelves, the quilt designed by Fassett for an Australian magazine and made in 2011 by the women who work in a Sydney shop, Material Obsession. Look closely, and you can see that the fabrics used to make the vases include a variety of designs based on flowers, on Venetian millefiori beads, on ancient Roman glass. “I love anything that’s made out of anything else,” Fassett told Perri; “if someone makes a carpet out of old shoes, it’s funny and it’s clever and it’s beautiful.”
There was tremendous interest in patchwork during the pandemic, Fassett told Perri, and the workshops continued on Zoom on a large scale, though as someone who uses neither a cell phone nor a computer, he said, it took “a great effort of will to believe there was anybody out there listening.” When Perri first interviewed Fassett back in 1992, he told what was then a recent story: he had been asked to a dinner in London being given by the American ambassador, to present twenty very distinguished Americans to Queen Elizabeth. When the Queen asked Fassett what he did, and he told her, she responded, “Oh, knitting; even I can do that!” In 2022, following her death, his studio posted a 2021 photograph of Queen Elizabeth wearing a dress made from Fassett’s Dianthus fabric, in the blue colorway, big white flowers with green and blue and purple centers, scattered on a blue background patterned with snail-like curlicues.
Living in Britain, Fassett told Perri, had been very important to his success. “I always say to people, I think if I had stayed in America and tried to make waves, I would have been too self-conscious.” But in England, he felt much freer: “Being a foreigner, I became a sort of exotic.” Queen Elizabeth, who presided over decades of decolonization, the end of the British Empire in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean, was anything but exotic herself. She was unmoved by Modernist opera like Gloriana, untroubled by Postmodernist painting, even of herself by Lucian Freud, uninhibited about dressing in Fassett’s fabric or the Ukrainian national colors, as she helped define Englishness across seven decades.
Perhaps the most fitting exhibit in London at the moment of her death was the Beatrix Potter show at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The children’s author and illustrator, observer of nature and creator of jacketed Peter Rabbit, bonneted Jemima Puddle-Duck, and aproned hedgehog Mrs. Tiggy-winkle, is casually eccentric and reassuringly cozy at the same time. Potter died in 1943, when Queen Elizabeth was still a teenage wartime princess. You couldn’t help thinking about the Queen’s generation as you contemplated Watch on the Rhine; you couldn’t help remembering that again, generationally, she was one of the elderly people whose last years were shadowed by the dangers and restrictions of the pandemic.
Britten composed Gloriana to honor the young Queen Elizabeth by confronting her with her iconic namesake and predecessor, but the 2022 performance of Gloriana honored the late queen as an iconic figure in her own right. Gloriana, whether she had loved the piece or not in 1953, was intended as a salute in 2022, but there were many other echoes in London in December that felt at least a little like salutes, that evoked a sense of generational respect, an acknowledgment of common memories and complicated histories, and stirred an uneasy feeling of loss.
Perri Klass and Larry Wolff