Curtain raised on 'relevant' art at the Royal Opera House

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The Independent Online

* Stand by for claret spitting in the stalls. The Royal Opera House, the spiritual home of opera and ballet in the UK, is bringing the headline-prone world of Britart to Covent Garden.

* Stand by for claret spitting in the stalls. The Royal Opera House, the spiritual home of opera and ballet in the UK, is bringing the headline-prone world of Britart to Covent Garden.

In a move that may upset traditionalists, the ROH is about to announce plans for a series of "partnerships" with some of our best known sculptors, painters and video artists.

From next month, the directors of at least two productions a year will work with featured artists, while various installations and exhibitions will be on display on walls, ceilings, and even toilet seats at the historic building.

Guinea pigs for the project are Jane and Louise Wilson, above, who were shortlisted for the 1999 Turner Prize for their video installation, Gamma. They are designing the set for Michael Tippett's The Knot Garden, which opens on 30 April. Other high-profile "names", including the likes of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, are being lined up for future projects.

"We're trying to keep opera relevant, so it can engage a population that's very different from that of our grandparents," said the ROH's Deborah Bull. "This isn't about dumbing down: it's about trying to make what we do relevant."

Speaking from the Lisson Gallery yesterday, Louise Wilson said: "They've been financially generous compared with the art world: it's an opportunity to do an 80-minute video, rather than the normal six or 10."

* THE SACKING of Howard Flight highlights Michael Howard's tough line on Tory "dissidents". But how does he treat former party leaders?

There has been confusion over the legal bill incurred by Iain Duncan Smith, pictured with his wife Betsy, during the "Betsygate" affair, when he was (falsely) accused of paying his wife for work she hadn't done.

More than a year after the affair, IDS's law firm Reynolds Porter Chamberlain is still owed a portion of its fee, which is said to run to nearly £300,000.

"Iain quite rightly believed the party should foot the bill," says a Tory source. "But meanie Howard has considered making him pay."

Fortunately, he decided otherwise. "The issue has been settled," says a spokesman for IDS.

"Conservative Central Office has agreed to meet his legal costs. He thinks it's very good of them to agree, and the costs are in the process of being paid. There was never a dispute."

* TONY BLAIR'S election campaign hasn't exactly thrown him into the lion's den. He's happy to take questions from (mostly all-female) audiences, but hasn't yet done a proper "one-on-one" studio interview.

Jeremy Vine is the latest big hitter to miss out. He came within a whisker of booking the PM for his show on 20 March, but was "blown out" - at short notice - by Alastair Campbell's successor, David Hill.

"They blew us out at the last minute," reports a colleague. "We ended up having to make do with Patricia Hewitt."

Since taking office, Blair has appeared in the BBC's Sunday morning slot just once, when it was the home of On the Record . It was the interview after the Ecclestone affair, when he claimed to be "a pretty straight kind of a guy".

* ANOTHER FRONT opens in the war over country sports. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have issued a press release claiming a "new study" links hunting to an intimate medical condition: diminutive male genitalia disorder.

"These findings confirm what we have believed for a long time," it reads. "Hunters just don't measure up. They are compensating for their failure to hit the mark in the bedroom by blowing small animals away in the woods."

It's caused outrage in tweedy circles. "The animal rights lot can have their fun," says Jonathan Young, editor of The Field . "But the traditional hunting phrase 'carrying the horn' still rings true today."

* And finally, a heartfelt "get well soon" to David Blunkett's guide dog, Sadie, who is suffering from a serious bout of diarrhoea.

On Wednesday, the pooch, pictured right with Mr Blunkett, was rushed to a vet in Oxford, causing her owner to arrive 45 minutes late for a public meeting with the local Labour MP, Andrew Smith.

"Sadly, Sadie has had a dicky tummy for 48 hours," said the former home secretary, by way of an apology to his host. "I hope she'll be better now, after a trip to the Cowley vet."

Pandora hopes so, too: Mr Blunkett has spent quite enough time in la merde lately.