To tackle a diva

Opera and sport are two of a kind, or so says rugby's Jeremy Guscott. James Rampton met him
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The Independent Culture
You would have thought that after facing the awesome All Blacks winger Jonah Lomu on the rugby field, nothing would seem frightening. You'd be wrong. England rugby international, Jeremy Guscott, reveals that he felt just as nervous presenting Top Score, a new children's introduction to opera, as he does taking to the field against pizza-guzzling, perambulating Mount Cooks like Lomu.

"Opera is an area unknown to me," Guscott tells me, before he goes to prepare for tomorrow's match against Wales. "Going into the unknown, you're bound to be nervous. If you weren't, there'd be something wrong." But there is absolutely nothing wrong with the way Guscott conducts Top Score. He is personable, the camera loves him and he displays the same ease in the studio as he does when shimmying past an on-rushing flank-forward. As the sporting cliche has it, he seems to have more time than the rest of us. His coolness is no doubt helped by the fact that the programme uses the Grandstand set and format in an attempt to make opera more accessible.

Guscott calls the Royal Opera House, where the series is following the preparations for a production of La Boheme, "the Twickenham, the Wimbledon, the Wembley of opera". During a scene-change in a rehearsal, he takes a live feed from stage manager Jonathan Waterfield. With a chunky mike in his hand and his finger in his ear, Waterfield looks for all the world like John Motson reporting back to Steve Rider in the studio on the state of the pitch. All he lacks is the sheepskin coat.

Later on, a panel of children - just like football pundits Jimmy Hill and Alan Hansen - sits in the royal box and gives a scene from the opera marks out of 10, while Guscott gives this summary of Act II: "Musetta is in love with Marcello, but he is sick as a parrot because today she's turned up with an older man."

Guscott thinks the parallel between opera and sport is sound. "The arts are not different from sport," he asserts, "in as much as you have to be extremely talented to succeed. Watching La Boheme, even if you're not a music-lover, you can appreciate the talent. And from listening to Pavarotti [who is interviewed in the programme], I learnt that to be able to perform, you have to train extremely hard. The performance - like our rugby game - is probably only five per cent of the whole thing. You practise it so often that you could do it in your sleep."

Mel Romano, the producer, got the idea for the series when "Nessun Dorma" became so popular during the 1990 World Cup. "After that, Benedict Mason wrote an opera about football," she says, "and I thought, 'You don't want to do an opera about football, you want to do opera like football'." She tackled Guscott after a tip from a BBC sports producer. Since Will Carling got one 18 months ago, Guscott was at first convinced that the offer to front Top Score was a Gotcha. "After half an hour in the studio," Romano recalls, "he said, 'OK, come on, where's Noel Edmonds?'. I chose him because I wanted someone who wasn't an opera pundit. When we had got the Grandstand set, I thought: 'Let's go the whole hog and get a sportsman.' Jeremy's lack of knowledge about opera was an advantage. I'm of the opinion that you include everybody and exclude nobody. I did not want the type who betters himself with exquisite phrases on Radio 3. The motif is to give kids who don't know anything about opera the chance to meet it in a way that's more approachable than sticking a whole opera on for an evening. People are either going to love it or loathe it, but I hope it gives them a different in-road."

The man himself admits that "I can't sing - I'm hopeless. I always sing when we play the National Anthem before a match, but it should never be recorded, because windows would break and glasses would smash."

All the same, he has managed to find time to watch BBC2's The House, the other headline-grabbing programme about opera. "I've found it informative," Guscott says. "It makes the world of rugby look very simple in comparison." He has been particularly intrigued by the ructions caught on camera. "Mind you, if they put a fly-on-the-wall crew in the England dressing-room at Twickenham, I'd be interested to see that."

'Top Score', Sun 11.30am BBC2

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