Captain Moonlight's Notebook: Missing: a packet of throat pastilles, a hairbrush, and 250,000 smackers

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The Independent Online
HAVING picked up the handbag of Victoria de los Angeles backstage at the Wigmore Hall on 1 May while she was rehearsing, the thief headed for the men's lavatory where he pocketed pounds 250,000-worth of jewellery - a gold and diamond bracelet that doubles as a brooch, a three-string pearl necklace with diamond and emerald clasp, three gold rings, one with rubies and diamonds, a second with diamonds only and the third with pearls - and 10 million lire ( pounds 4,500) in 10,000 lire notes and dollars 600 ( pounds 400) in cash and travellers cheques. A Scotland Yard spokesman told me that the robber left Miss de los Angeles' passport and gold Visa card.

Even more startling was the news that this was not the first theft of a soprano's baubles from the Wigmore Hall, a concert venue of such gentility that crime is normally measured in terms of incorrect phrasing. In April, the American soprano, June Anderson, also lost her handbag with jewellery inside worth pounds 20,000.

I'm sure most readers were as amazed as I was by the handbags' contents and I wondered if all sopranos were so heavily laden.

Jewellery, it would seem, or at least big sparklers, has traditionally been associated with grand sopranos. Readers of a certain age will remember Tin Tin's adventure, The Castafiore Emerald, where the Milanese nightingale Bianca Castafiore arrives at Marlinspike Hall, home of Captain Haddock, with her jewels, furs, maid and manservant. A large emerald disappears, though in this case the thief was a magpie.

At Covent Garden I was told that it might have been the fashion once for sopranos to wear lots of jewellery and wrap themselves in fur, but nowadays few bothered about either. 'To a large extent that sort of display has gone out, but it would depend very much on the occasion,' my informant said. 'They are rather like royalty, you know, and are expected to be grand.'

A singer in concert - as opposed to one performing in opera - could make more impact with a judicious display of sparklers. However, my informant went on, jewellery must never distract from the singer. It is an enhancement. A singer in an auditorium has to project not only her voice, but herself. 'In the case of Miss de los Angeles the jewels in her handbag were probably part of her concert gear'.

At that point my informant decided to speculate on the contents of other singers' handbags.

A staple for all would be: throat pastilles (to lubricate the vocal chords); a small bottle of non-sparkling mineral water (more lubrication); there would certainly be no miniature bottles of whisky or brandy (paint stripper to the vocal chords); tissues for the sweat and tears of rehearsal. And then we got into the usual female toilet: make-up for daily use; perfume or spray; hairbrush or comb; keys and notebook.

I asked what luxury an opera singer might have in her handbag. In the case of Joan Sutherland, she said, it would be knitting needles or a tapestry frame. Kiri Te Kanawa, that other great operatic dame, would most likely have golf tees and even a tennis ball. She is a sporting woman and I would advise any thief to keep clear as she is both markswoman and sharp-shooter. Furthermore before every first night she buys a kitchen knife. She bought one once to cut fruit but the buying of a blade has now become something of a talisman.

THE Courtauld Institute gallery is having trouble choosing a successor to replace Dennis Farr, the director, who is retiring early in October. The selection board headed by Sir Nicholas Goodison, head of the TSB, former chairman of the Stock Exchange and well-known collector of clocks, is divided after interviewing six contenders for the post last month. A fresh attempt is being made and my contacts in the art world hope for the sake of the Courtauld's reputation that all uncertainty will be quickly removed.

The shortlist has been cut to four - two women and two men - who were set to be interviewed again on Tuesday. They were telephoned last week and without any explanation Tuesday's appointment was postponed until 20 May.

A new director is urgently needed. The Courtauld is home to the finest collection of French Impressionist paintings in the country. But it has never settled well into its new home, the refurbished north wing of Somerset House on the Strand, London. It moved there in 1990 to find the building highly unsuitable; there was no air conditioning, the rooms were too bright and the walls were a dolly mixture of decorative plaster quite unsuitable for the collection's great paintings. Books and papers began to rot in the art library because the basement had not been damp-proofed.

Those hoping to sort out the mess are the old Etonian and Establishment networker Giles Waterfield, director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery; John Murdoch, like Waterfield a graduate of Magdalen College, Oxford, and assistant director of collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum; Evelyn Silber, assistant director of Birmingham Museum and art galleries and a specialist in Renaissance art; and Celina Fox, curator of special projects at the Museum of London.