BRIGHT YOUNG SINGS; A Modern-Dress Production of la Traviataprompts Toby Young to Compare Today's Celebrities with the Courtesans of 19th-Century Paris
Byline: TOBY YOUNG
LIKE ALL GREAT works of art, La Traviata has been re-imagined many times. The best known modern interpretation is probably the film Pretty Woman - except, unlike Verdi's original, Pretty Woman has an upbeat, Hollywood ending.
As the political philosopher Alan Bloom pointed out, Americans like their tragedies to end on a happy note.
On the face of it, it seems a little pretentious to set La Traviata among the world of It-girls and all-night parties, as Welsh National Opera has done in its new production. Yet the fashionable salons of 19th-century Paris weren't so different from the clubs and restaurants in London and New York where the beautiful people can be found today.
It doesn't seem too farfetched to see in the story of Violetta Valery's tragic decline a foreshadowing of the way celebrities light up the sky, only to fall from grace what feels like moments later in our media-saturated society.
It's become a cliche to describe celebrities as the aristocrats of our age, but in one crucial respect they're much more like the courtesans of 19thcentury Paris: their membership of the fashionable class is likely to be brief.
Lord Byron is commonly regarded as the first modern celebrity. Byron became famous at the age of 24 with the appearance of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and, for the next three years, every door was open to him. He was a guest at all the great houses of the period.
Then, almost as quickly as he rose to fame, he was brought down. 'In his sudden fall from grace, Byron was a victim of the hysterical opprobrium that often succeeds extreme celebrity, a cycle wearyingly familiar to us now,' writes Fiona MacCarthy in Byron: Life and Legend.
Today, countless celebrities fall victim to the same 'build 'em up and knock 'em down' syndrome as the romantic poet: David Beckham, Angus Deayton, John Leslie, Geri Halliwell, Anthea Turner, Michael Barrymore... Egged on by the media, the public appear to have an insatiable appetite for seeing the famous toppled from their thrones.
Why is this? Clark Gable once remarked to David Niven that, when it came to the contract between a star and his public, the public had read the small print and the star hadn't. All it took was one tiny violation and the adoring crowds turned into a baying mob.
'Contained within fan worship is the potential for hatred and disdain,' says David Gritten, author of Fame: Stripping Celebrity Bare. 'It's binary. The switch can be flipped at any time.' Another theme concerning the cult of celebrity is that it has a strong religious component, but surprisingly little has been written about this. Until recently, the only intellectual associated with this view was French anthropologist Edgar Morin. In 1957 he published a book called Les Stars, in which he argued that celebrity worship has become a new religion, comparable to Christianity. He believed the reason the public had such a thirst for celebrity tittle-tattle was that they wanted to consume their new gods.
According to Morin, information was the first stage of assimilation.
In the past few years, such views have become more respectable in academia.
In 2000, David Giles, a senior lecturer at the University of Coventry, published Illusions of Immortality: A Psychology of Fame and Celebrity, in which he argued that the devout attitudes of fans towards stars is a form of religious worship. …