Rigoletto and the Automaton
(or Shaking up the NHS)

 I’ve always thought that the music for the opening chorus of Rigoletto foreshadowed the modern party political conference.  It is a piece about court sycophancy and conspiracy which says everything about political intrigue.  

There’s a long tradition of resetting opera to make satirical points.  Ned Sherrin and Alistair Beaton did it in the Kinnock and Thatcher era with the Metropolitan Mikado and the Ratepayer’s Iolanthe.  More recently Music Theatre London set the trend for pithy new translations which led to a resurgence of exciting new small scale opera productions.  But we seem to have lost the politics.

Rigoletto feels as if its authors had anticipated our most recent political incumbents – the powerful, confident stride of Blair the leader, imperiously parting the faithful as he strides with his sycophantic train to the dais.  And in the shadows the poison dwarf, reviled by the rest of the party, who will ultimately aid his leader’s downfall, played by Alistair Campbell.  I often thought there was great scope for a New Labour Rigoletto with that pair and possibly Prescott as a lumbering Sparafucile.  But the opportunity passed by.

However, when Andrew Lansley started putting forward his health reforms, with the Lib-Dems performing U-turns on a daily basis I realised that the music and story fitted the current administration just as well. 

David Cameron is a slightly more human and certainly weaker Count, ruled more by his courtiers than his own belief.  Clegg provides an excellent Rigoletto, always torn between fawning for appreciation and wanting to speak his own mind, but never sure which particular claque he needs to win favour with on the day.  And Lansley can play the role of assassin – happy to perform the unpleasant cuts, but feared by the back benchers because in the land of the spineless, the man who holds to his belief, however mistaken, is king.

I’ve not got the resources to produce an opera, but it struck me that the wooden performances and lack of imagination of this trio could be put to good use as the subject for an automaton.  As well as the three conflicting personalities of the opera, they felt equally appropriate to be depicted as that triumvirate of far from wise monkeys who see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil.  Much cutting, experimenting and building later, I offer you “Shaking up the NHS”.



I can’t deny that it has a political message – it does, although it’s not a party political one.  The NHS needs to change.  The changing demographics in the UK mean we have more elderly people who need health services and fewer in work to pay for that cost.  When the NHS was set up, treatments were generally simple and inexpensive and life expectancy was lower.  Today treatment costs more, more of us need those treatments and a smaller percentage of the population is working and contributing taxes to pay for them. 

The simplistic cries to maintain public services or keep our hands off the NHS don’t add up – that’s trying to rewrite basic mathematics.  We cannot run a health service on credit, which means we need to make very major changes to the way that society keeps itself healthy and pays for the NHS.  Whilst I’m poking fun at our politicians, the answer we need to find will be far more radical than the reforms currently fighting their way through Parliament.  That programme is laughable in its naivety and more likely to cause damage that positive change.  You can read more on that elsewhere in the blog – particularly why I think we should not limit our vision, but consider making the NHS a global brand.

But it’s been nice to channel that into something as fun as this automaton.  I’ve enjoyed making it.  I hope you enjoy watching it.  And if anyone wants some ideas for a new translation of Rigoletto, let me know.

 Watch it again at www.nhsvideo.com