ARTS / Cries & Whispers

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The Independent Culture
IT WAS a depressingly classic scene from modern cultural life to eavesdrop on a Spitalfields Festival meeting last week. The Festival directors held a balloon debate (on accountants' orders) to try to lose pounds 22,000 from the costs of their 1994 programme. Sample script: 'Couldn't we get Thomas Randle to reduce his fee?' - 'He's already reduced it' - 'What if we dropped the Gabrieli Consort?' - 'Then we've got no opening concert'. And so on. While HM Government makes encouraging noises about private-sector funding as the corporate world is resurrected from recession, it should know that Spitalfields - one of the more worthwhile and resourceful festivals in Britain - has seen its sponsorship fall this year from pounds 60,000 to pounds 16,000. The message from the Festival Administrator, Judith (sister of Nicholas) Serota? 'Help]'

Meanwhile . . . Britain got a qualified thumbs-up from the conductor Bernard Haitink at his 65th birthday lunch last week. He told guests how touched he was by the fuss made of his birthday in this country as against his own, Holland, where it was pointedly ignored by the Concertgebouw (the orchestra he conducted for 24 years, then left, under something of a cloud). 'The UK has given me a lot of happiness,' said Haitink, who was careful to add, 'though I don't mean the Government and I don't mean the Arts Council'.

SPEAKING of Haitink, I was at Covent Garden on his actual birthday, also the opening night of Katya Kabanova, which he conducted. The director of the show - and I use the word 'show' advisedly - was a newcomer to opera, Trevor Nunn, renowned for his ability to add gloss to the crumbliest old chestnut. My colleague Michael White aptly described the result as an operatic Gone with the Wind, a treatment quite at odds with Janacek's compact and trenchant work. But my own disappointment with Nunn's debut went further. Who better than a director versed in classical theatre to wean opera singers off their appalling acting habits? When one character is telling another something, must the listening one nod and put her head to one side in that perky, pantomimic way? When a woman tells a man she loves him (taking five minutes over it, of course) must she indulge in that yearning semaphore with shoulders and hands? Such are the cliches for which many despise opera. Perhaps Trevor Nunn thinks they are enshrined. He should look at the work of the German director Peter Stein for WNO. Then he'd see that opera need not compromise dramatic standards - it can even set new ones.

FLICKING hastily, as you do, through the Daily Telegraph this week, I came across an ad for Barbra Streisand's forthcoming Wembley Arena concerts. Now, I'm a fan of Ms Streisand, but not of the barn-like Arena, so I was slightly staggered by the ticket prices: pounds 260, pounds 105, pounds 48.50. A bit rich, I thought (a bit rich is what you'd need to be), but then came the punchline, and I realised it was all a joke. 'DO NOT PAY MORE,' it said. As if.