I attended the opera on Monday evening. That’s not a locution you often hear from a sales-trader on the desk Tuesday mornings.
During the performance of La Traviata I found myself lamenting that throughout the classical canon, despite its treatment of myriad subjects — courtesans, flutes, barbers, marriages, flying Dutchmen, kings, queens and lovers galore — there has never, to my knowledge, been one whose subject is the noble art of stockbroking.
I set out to address this oversight and so, I present you with the grande premiere mondiale of Il Desperado di Gresham Street, a tragic opera in five acts which deals with the extremes of fortune and the hurricane passions of life in a dealing room set in millennial and Post-Mifidian London.
My work shall observe the Aristotelian unities and the formal traditions of the art form with one exception: typically, the protagonist must be of high station, allowing scope then for his dramatic fall, which gives the plot its momentum. A sales-trader is of such lowly status, though. It will be difficult to manufacture a reduction in circumstances from society’s Atlantic Trench, but this is the challenge of composition.
Act I Scene i
A gloomy and threadbare garret. A few sticks of furniture. The handful of objects scattered around — a mobile phone, calculator, line of coke and garish, wide-boy’s tie tell us the occupant of these dingy quarters is hellbent on a career in finance. A young man, blanket wrapped around his shoulders to ward off the winter chill, gazes up longingly out of a tiny window at the little tent of blue that prisoners call the sky. This is Desperado. He is not as unattractive as he looks. He is the stuff of tragedy. You can tell.
The tenor playing Desperado launches into a powerful aria, Fakkin’ Trader, Me in which he unpacks his heart and his dreams of making it big in the Square Mile, whose cathedrals to money and excess he can see across London’s skyscape.
As his masterful voice booms out and fills the auditorium with testosterone, he does a passable imitation of the Lambeth Walk and wears a pork pie hat at a jaunty angle. Drawing on the Dick Whittington motif, he shall hold a cat up to the bleary light and make it promises that the streets of the financial district are paved with gold and not horse dung and one day they won’t need to share dinner. He is sad in a tragic way. His leitmotif, the short jingle which announces his every return to the action, seems to resemble Laurel and Hardy’s Dance of the Cuckoos and there may be a legal suit about that.
INTERVAL: the audience already requires a stiff drink to calm their emotions at the futility of such lofty ambition.
Act 2 Scene i
It is a dealing room in the City. The recitative here becomes atonal as the music must reflect the chaos of the markets and the rapacity of their participants. A humorous crowd-pleasing ensemble gathers all male vocalists on stage for a raucous number with an oompah band called Bull Market Frenzy.
Barely have the singers caught their breath and cleared their throats and we are into another pulsating canto, reminiscent of the chorus of the galley slaves, with a ringing lyric, Global Financial Crisis. Desperado is often on the periphery of the stage wearing an expression which mingles dismay and tragedy.
Act 3, Scene i
It is a City drinking establishment and the traders are carousing and debauching. The mostly male cast stand on the tables, banging their tankards, blaring out the Latin drinking song, “In taberna quando sumus” and lowering their trousers for “Beer, beer, we want more beer”. This is a very popular scene with the audience and notable for its comedic elements. Desperado joins in and belts out the chorus with gusto but the audience have sensed his fate and so his good humour is tinged with tragedy.
INTERVAL: The audience is shocked by such dissipation, puritanical censors and religious groups are calling for the opera to be banned and everyone will need some booze.
Act 3, Scene ii
The rowdy bunch are transported to an establishment characterised by moral laxity. Scantily-clad, exotic dancers cavort on stage and traditionalists are offended by the throbbing modernism of disco pop “It’s getting hot in here so take off all your clothes” which accompanies their undulations and gyrations.
A mezzo-soprano and a contralto break off from the group to perform a beautiful duet, Sapphic Dalliance while clinging to a chrome pole and disrobing. Subtle lighting bathes the stage in a rufescent glow. Stagehands in the gods shower the scene with high denomination (but counterfeit) bank notes like so much confetti. Desperado is oblivious to the Terpsichorean distractions and fumbling on a leather banquette with a femme horizontale. He looks less tragic for a change.
Act 3, Scene iii
The whole stage is cast in darkness except for a podium on which a megawatt beam of light illuminates the dramatic introduction of the female lead. A voluptuous brunette, her plunging décolletage gives some indication whence she derives her crystal-clear soprano voice. Her solo, “All the nice girls love a trader” has them rapt. Her body is a drawn bow. Champagne flutes shatter in the dress circle. Men throw roses.
The sirenic allure of her fruity vowels and crystal clarity soon persuade Desperado to emerge from the shadows, readjusting his reproductive organs for symmetry and comfort. He joins her centre stage and descants his reply to this dazzling diva, “You make my scrotum tighten and my abdomen tom-tom taut.” His love song praises her gallantly and compares her feminine parts to comestibles. She is not a courtesan, sadly, so Desperado will have to use conventional means, unconventionally, to seduce the object of his intense desires. Beside her shimmering loveliness, the audience notes, not without irony, he appears tragic. The Act ends in their duet, “You are the honey and the salt of my life”, which ripples the heartstrings like an Aeolian harp. They exit stage right in an Uber driven by a nervous sub-continental.
INTERVAL A welcome opportunity for the sexual tension to subside.
Act 4, Scene i
We are back on the trading floor but it is changed utterly. Low-quality badinage falls silent. Holograms on the back wall display the charts of various financial assets. Everything has plummeted. Stock prices make dramatic parabolas. Careers — and people — are ruined. There has been a Global Financial Crisis.
Market players are slumped over their screens. The dealers manage another ensemble, but this is more of a funeral dirge. They must contemplate white collar jobs on average salaries. Rodents are seen scurrying about in between the desks. Real rodents, not just compliance or human resources staff.
Act 4, Scene ii
A tinkle on the ivories from The Dance of The Cuckoos heralds the late arrival of Desperado. He looks dreadful. He explains to colleagues he has lost everything in the crash, that MiFID has ruined his business model, that even Mike Ashley is not interested, and he has a massive Uber receipt to boot.
Romantics, true to their saw, want another panegyric from him on the beauty of his inamorata at close quarters but saucy banter stops when he relates there were two drop-offs. He then croons perhaps the saddest lament in all of opera, The City end of the stick. Rising notes are not reciprocated. There isn’t a dry eye in the house. The tragedy is now inevitable. The librettist has artfully manipulated their emotions.
Act V, Scene i
We are back in the garret. Desperado grinds out a gravelly threnody, Hope is a baby seal, waiting to be clubbed, more depressing than Johnny Cash’s last album, then slumps, recumbent on a chaise longue, in the manner of Henry Wallis’s Death of Chatterton. A monitor behind him flatlines. It could be his live commission aggregator, his heartbeat, his career. Nobody knows.
A television screen is showing Sky Sports and in the featured match Everton appear to be losing 1-0 at home to mediocre opposition. The surtitles confirm: Everton 0 Someone Crap 1. His mates are concerned this will finish him off although the score is predictable rather than tragic. His breath is laboured now. His breast heaves. They try to rally him with one last chorus: “Diva has sent a text!”. “They repealed MiFID!” “Everton equalised!”. “We’re remaining after all!” “You’ve got an order on Fix!” “She wants lunch!”
But it’s too late. No deus ex machina for Desperado.
His last words are, “Turn it off, for God’s sake”. That could be the telly. It could be the life support machine. No difference. He has booked his last bargain. He has going to the great big trading floor in the sky.
The curtain comes down. On us all eventually.