David Lister: The Week in Arts

The opera is no place for a bust of the boss
Click to follow

I say "almost" on a par, as Mr Ellis's likeness is not quite as visible as Sir Colin's. To see Mr Ellis's bust you have to go into one of the ENO's committee rooms, whereas Sir Colin can be viewed in the ROH's foyer. Viewers are reminded that the portrait is a "gift" from Sir Colin, an exemplary piece of generosity. One will search in that prime location for likenesses of Maria Callas or Pavarotti or Nureyev or others who have stunned audiences at the home of the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet; but Sir Colin is there. Likewise, at the Coliseum, the stars of the English National Opera past and present receive no visual tributes.

Singers have their uses in putting on opera; but they are not chairmen and should not aspire to having busts or portraits. Rolf Harris has not yet been called in to paint the chairmen of our national arts companies; but it can only be a matter of time.

To be a chairman of a national arts company is an enormous privilege, so I don't quite see why they should also be accorded the additional honour of having their likeness in the building. Certainly, they work hard, and in some cases, donate money. The recently departed chairman of the ENO, the banker Martin Smith, gave £1m. He was a very hands-on chairman, and perhaps the knowledge that he had given money from his own pocket contributed to that. His successor, Vernon Ellis, the chairman of management consultants Accenture, has, I understand, donated an even larger sum.

It is a commendable gesture; but I'm afraid I'm not wholly comfortable with a generous donor occupying the post of chairman. I have, by some oversight, not yet been invited on to the board of the English National Opera. But, if I were a member, I would be a little queasy about arguing with a chairman who had put in several million pounds, when I had put in nothing. The board is fortunate to have among its number one of the country's greatest experts on music, Nicholas Kenyon, the director of the Proms. But I do wonder if the estimable Mr Kenyon, with his bohemian holes in his baggy jumpers, is able to shout the odds against wealthy donor chairmen.

One New Year's resolution for the arts, or more particularly for the Arts Council which funds the ENO with taxpayers' money, should be to have a clearer policy about the role and powers of chairmen in arts companies. The furore over Martin Smith's high-handedness at ENO in ignoring Arts Council policy and filling top posts without advertising them, showed that there is a lack of clarity and a lack of power or will in the Arts Council to enforce its policies.

These great companies are not personal fiefdoms and should not be run as such. But there seem to be no guidelines, no rules, to stop wealthy and powerful personalities from treating them as such. Mr Ellis might prove a great acting chairman of ENO and perhaps later a great chairman. But I do wonder if his financial generosity might compromise board discussions. And I do wish that busts and portraits in our opera houses were confined to the people who get out on stage and perform.

Don't try this at home

Revellers tonight have been warned to beware of "Glam Rock Shoulder." No less an authority than the British Medical Association said this week that the condition is caused by middle-aged partygoers punching an arm in the air in time to their favourite old songs. One of the most common causes is apparently Jeff Beck's "Hi Ho Silver Lining". Far be it from me to argue about medical conditions with the BMA, but "Hi Ho Silver Lining" was released in 1967, a good three years before glam rock; so the condition is really "Over-excited Hippie Shoulder."

New Year's Eve can also see an outbreak of other syndromes for partygoers and stay-at-homes. There's the painful condition, Air Guitar Broken Nose, suffered by those whose aim goes a bit awry after a few drinks. And there's Kate Bush revolving head which can afflict unhappy women, home alone, who take the advice of the singer in her latest album to watch the clothes going round in the washing machine.

* Arts administrators can come across as a dryish sort of mob; but no such accusation can be levelled at Graham Sheffield, artistic director of the Barbican Centre in London. Mr Sheffield has a hinterland. The Barbican's arts supremo is a wine buff, and has been invited to become a Chevalier du Tastevin to Bourgogne, a gathering of wine lovers that is adorned with red and white robes when it meets.

Mr Sheffield describes his passion in an article in Arts and Industry magazine. With barely contained excitement, he says: "The thought of going to Beaune, having a massive piss-up and getting dressed up to look like a cross between Harry Potter and Cardinal Richelieu fills me with great joy."

He should have brought the Royal Shakespeare Company back to the Barbican. What he describes sounds like a normal night in the green room under the RSC.