The Feral Beast: Portillo bows out of opera job

Resolved to be fiercer
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The Independent Online

Michael Portillo has ruled himself out to be the next director of the Royal Opera House. The former Defence Secretary was among those being tipped for the plum job, which has become vacant since Tony Hall stepped down to become the new director-general of the BBC. This column was first to tip Portillo, and speculation in opera circles had been mounting that he was a serious contender. But yesterday he told me categorically that he had not been interviewed, and nor was he interested in applying. "I don't want it," he said. "I don't have to tell you why, but I don't." The news will come as a disappointment to those who saw the ex-Tory MP, 59, as a good choice, given his love of opera and high public profile. In 2002, a year after quitting frontline politics, Portillo applied to be chairman of the Royal Opera House, but was turned down because he remained an MP. The hunt to fill the £400,000 post continues.

Duet is over

As two of opera's biggest stars, they are used to singing about love and loss. But now, Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu have their own romantic sadness to lament, as the superstar couple are finally to divorce. When they married, in 1996, it was the union of two of opera's most glamorous young singers. The Paris-born Alagna, 49, and Romanian Gheorghiu,47, have since enjoyed a stellar, if tempestuous, career, recording several bestselling CDs and appearing in a film adaptation of Tosca together. They separated in 2009, but two years later, were back together again. Now, Gheorghiu has announced that it is finally over, saying they are both ready to start the year with "a new identity". "We have decided together, and in perfect friendship, to get a divorce imminently," she said last week. "Each of us will take our own path, but we don't rule out performing together again."

Arresting play

David Cecil, the theatre producer who was arrested in Uganda for putting on a play about gay people, says he hopes he has inspired other Ugandans to be more adventurous. The case against Cecil was dropped on Friday, following his arrest in September for putting on the play The River and the Mountain, about a gay businessman. Speaking from his home in Kampala, Cecil tells me his four days in prison were actually quite convivial, and that he was always confident the case would be thrown out. "Prison here is much more sociable than European prison, because you're in these giant barns called wards, and there's a very friendly atmosphere. Everyone chatted away and there was no violence." Cecil, 34, has been bemused by the description of him as a gay rights activist, not least as he lives with his Ugandan girlfriend, Florence Kebirungi, and their two children. "It was not our intention to put on a piece of agitprop. It's a comedy drama that happens to have a gay hero. We were mainly aiming to inspire people to move on from the mundane subjects covered by the theatre here." Cecil comes from a literary family and is the nephew of the late Jonathan Cecil, the actor who once played Bertie Wooster. He visited Kampala three years ago on a holiday and has no intention of coming back. "I really enjoy the energy here," he says. "It's very peaceful and reports about it being violent and dangerous are just not true. I plan to stay here as it's my home. I'm becoming African!"

Write on

Julie Bindel has won many fans through her work as a campaigning feminist writer. She is the co-founder of Justice for Women, and regularly speaks out against abuse and exploitation. So there was some raising of eyebrows when she posted an announcement on Twitter, asking if there were any journalism students "looking for a placement/work experience in the new year?". The job would involve "book research and interviewing", but no mention of remuneration was made. Surely Bindel wasn't guilty of taking advantage of the weak jobs market and hoping to find a young graduate for free? Happily not. "I was looking for (and found) journalism students who are required to go on placement as a course requirement," she tells me. "Therefore, it is a part of the course, and not external to it. It is for a non-profit political project." Glad to clear that up.

Little Britten

As the centenary of Benjamin Britten's birth, 2013 seems like a good time to play his music. But only two of the composer's 16 operas are to be performed in Aldeburgh all year, I can reveal. Aldeburgh Music, which runs the annual festival in Britten's home town, has announced its programme for the year, which includes no fewer than 50 commissions of new music. Twenty new commissions will be played during the June festival, in between other works by Britten; but only two operas, Peter Grimes and Death in Venice, will be staged in the town all year. A spokesman admits the emphasis on new works has divided opinion. "The festival was set up by Britten so there is a huge group of people who feel it should be solely about Britten," she says. "But it was never meant to be about him. We are putting on more operas than Aldeburgh normally presents, but if you are a Britten fan, then no, it's not going to be 100 per cent Britten."

No stone unturned

Richard Ottaway MP has welcomed news that 800 police officers are to be interviewed by the investigation into the Andrew Mitchell "plebgate conspiracy". Some people, including Labour MP Steve McCabe, have called the exercise "madness" and a waste of time. Scotland Yard has said it will take statements from every officer in the diplomatic protection unit, to get to the bottom of what happened in the incident that cost the Tory MP his cabinet career. Now Ottaway, a long-standing friend of Mitchell, who is chair of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, says it is a necessary evil. "It may seem laborious," he tells me, "but given that it appears that the email [making the allegations against Mitchell] was a fabrication, if a thorough investigation is to be carried out, then investigators will have to approach everyone to find out if they were approached to send an email similar to the one that was sent." Mitchell admits swearing, but denies calling officers "plebs".

Hopkins home

Sir Anthony Hopkins astonished residents of Port Talbot the other day by dropping by at his old home, saying he'd quite like to buy it back. Chris Trainor, owner of the semi where Hopkins once lived, was amazed to see the Hollywood star roll up in a chauffeur-driven car. Hopkins, 75, and his new Colombian wife, Stella Arroyave, had spent Christmas in Pembrokeshire, and popped in on the way home. "He had a really good look around," said Trainor. "If they make an offer I'll definitely have to consider it."

Au revoir to bedtime stories

Only six months ago, French minister Eric Besson, 54, was the subject of much ooh-la-la-ing, accidentally broadcasting this private message to his 24-year-old wife: "When I get home, I'm going back to bed. With you?" Sent at 11am, it forced him to deny that he was going home to bed in the middle of the day. Now, the passion appears to have cooled, and the couple are to divorce. When Besson left his first wife, Sylvie Brunel, for Yasmine Tordjman, then 22, Bindel took revenge with a book called Guerrilla Warfare: A Guide for Wives. This time, it all seems much more amicable.