David Lister: The Week in Arts

A shocking approach to marketing opera
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The Independent Online

We shall see. The unusual thing is that there is advance word at all, that tickets are in demand, and that people are talking excitedly about an opera. For, never has it been quite so unfashionable.

I have my own private monitoring system on this point. Each Friday, The Independent publishes a column called Cultural Life. Artists from all disciplines say what books they are reading, CDs they are listening to, what plays, films and operas they are attending. Except, the last named usually draws a blank. I've lost count of the number of people who say: "I never go to the opera." And that includes some of the most eminent people in the arts. Max Stafford Clark, for example, one of the biggest and most exciting theatre directors of the age, breezily confessed he never goes to opera.

And then, yesterday, the highly fashionable novelist Geoff Dyer ran through his cultural pursuits. When it came to opera, he responded: "I hear Puccini's Tosca is a good one." Oh, most amusing. Laugh? I almost did. Let's turn that around. Say that I was answering the questions and when it came to books I responded that I never read them or quipped: "I hear that Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is a good one." I'd probably lose my job.

It is most definitely not OK never to read books. Apparently it is OK, indeed almost cool, never to go to the opera. There is little doubt that opera managements are worried, not least about the lack of young audiences. Glyndebourne has just tried to address this, and must be wishing it hadn't. For the start of its autumn tour, it commissioned a new opera for young people after consulting focus groups. The result was by all accounts something of a mish-mash with sex, violence and drug dealing all crammed in.

The English National Opera's consistent and consistently tired gimmick is to produce posters and advertising material that bear little relation to the actual opera. The posters for its recent opera about lesbianism, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, had two naked women. There were no naked women in the production. Potential audiences, young or old, don't fall for that sort of nonsense.

Why not just put on great productions and market them on what they are? Glyndebourne staged a dark and mesmerising version of Carmen produced by David McVicar. What a wonderful introduction that would have been to opera for new audiences. Extra performances for a young age group with cheap tickets attached would have done more to introduce people to opera than a focus group-inspired piece.

The ENO should put away all its sexy posters (so old hat anyway) and fill the town with posters that tell the truth. "Rigoletto: it will break your heart". "La Traviata: some of the most poignant music you will ever hear".

Young audiences want exactly the same as older audiences - great music, a dramatic and touching story, and an expert staging. And so it's rather pleasing that the ENO's Madam Butterfly is attracting good advance sales on a very traditional recipe: interesting director stages beautiful opera.

Hardman who tamed the shrew

The tale of the EastEnders actor Ross Kemp being allegedly hit by his wife, The Sun editor Rebekah Wade, was covered by media and TV reporters. Perhaps that is why there was no end of allusions to Kemp's role as the hardman Grant Mitchell in the TV soap.

But what a pity no one has looked into Mr Kemp's brief theatrical career. Indeed, probably most London theatre critics know little of it, as the show he was in played the regions but did not get into the capital. But, oh, the joy the headline writers could have had, because Kemp actually starred last year in The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare's play of a husband taming his volatile, fiery-tempered, self-centred, sometimes obnoxious and occasionally violent wife. Kemp's character Petruchio deprives his wife of sleep and food to "curb her mad and headstrong humour".

No resemblance to any characters living or dead, of course. But there was probably a headline in there somewhere. And I'm sure that Mr Kemp must have bridled at having his stage career so roundly overlooked.

* The front page of The Stage this week has a story about a music promoter facing possible legal action from entertainers who allege he owes them money. The entertainers include Wayne Fontana, Reg Presley of the Troggs, Freddie Garrity of Freddie and the Dreamers, Tony Crane of the Merseybeats, Brian Poole, Clodagh Rodgers, Billie Davis and Helen Shapiro.

It's an incredible story. I don't mean the rights and wrongs of the possible legal action. That is not what left me gobsmacked. What stunned me is that these people are still performing.

OK, let's be honest. What really stunned me is that half of them are still alive. I knew there were Sixties revival concerts, of course. But to see all these names and long-forgotten groups gathered together on one front page, still with the energy for a legal tussle - well, it warms the heart. Hold the front page and frame it. It's pure pop history.