David Lister: The Week in Arts

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And now a few words from Bryn Terfel. Or not

I spent the bank holiday weekend at what must be the most eclectic music festival in Britain. The Faenol festival in north Wales, now in its eighth year, is run by local boy (and also world-famous opera singer) Bryn Terfel. The splendid Faenol estate in Caernarfon, on which it takes place, was once owned by Wales's foremost slave trader, though shortage of space prevents the programme from mentioning this fact.

The festival is, as I say, eclectic. A night of opera from Terfel and illustrious operatic friends follows a night of pop from Girls Aloud, Shayne Ward and Jamelia, and precedes a night of songs from the musicals from Michael Ball, Connie Fisher and others. For those who don't consider that little lot eclectic enough, there is a fourth night – of Welsh-language rock music.

Glastonbury may or may not decide to eat its heart out. But certainly a few things struck me at this most unusual of festivals. First, the evening ends with 10,000 Welsh men and women lustily singing their national anthem, which one cannot quite imagine at one of England's summer festivals. Second, the road signs direct one with the words Bryn Terfel, making him, I am sure, the only opera singer to be honoured with his own AA sign. There is no other festival in Britain so indelibly associated with one individual.

But, most of all, I was struck on an otherwise glorious opera night by a curious characteristic of all such evenings across Britain and probably across the world, and one that has to change. Be it Bryn Terfel and friends, or the Three Tenors, or whoever, these recitals of arias follow a similar pattern. The singer comes on, sings, and sometimes acknowledges the applause with a thank-you. There is never any chat to the audience; never is a song verbally introduced, never an anecdote, never a bit of history about the aria in question, never, in fact, a word.

It was the same when I saw José Carreras at Hampton Court Palace earlier this summer. The singing was divine, but his adoring fans were not acknowledged. At Faenol, where there were several departures from the published programme, I'm quite sure that there were occasions when few people even knew what was being sung.

The singing is all-important. That is what the audience comes for. But that truism should not disguise two facts. A little "conversation" with the audience can turn a good atmosphere into a great one. And, more important, at a recital of operatic arias it can dispel any notion of exclusivity. I bridle when I hear classical music described as elitist. It isn't. But it doesn't help to dispel that erroneous belief when an audience is assumed to know what is being sung, however obscure.

Terfel, Carreras, Pavarotti, Domingo, Angela Gheorghiu – these people have so much to say about their work, so many stories to tell. And even if they had little to say, just a few words from them would give devoted fans a memory that they would treasure. Opera produces aficionados every bit as fanatical as the most ardent rock-music followers. At Faenol last weekend, there were people in that field in north Wales who had come from Kuala Lumpur and Australia. And I'm guessing they hadn't travelled that distance for Girls Aloud.

Classical music is not elitist, but in its presentation it could benefit from a touch of informality that would bring performers and audience closer. Occasionally, even our greatest tenors, baritones and sopranos should chat. They might just enjoy it.

Hail, Caesar! Hail, Bryson!

I also paid a visit to Bath this week and toured the Roman baths there. I was interested to see that, in addition to the normal commentary on the audio guide, there is a new one from my former Independent colleague and now celebrated author Bill Bryson. From travel books to audio guides is quite a canny progression for him, and a boon for tourists.

In his guide to the ancient baths, Bill gives a typically idiosyncratic and informal view of Roman life. Commenting on a statue of the goddess Minerva, he says that he has never got to grips with Roman women. Apparently, they have always struck him as rather cold and aloof. Minerva, he says, looks "silent and unapproachable". whereas Roman men always seem to him the sort of people he would like "to have a pint with".

That's my sort of commentary, though I think a pint with the goddess of wisdom, war, creativity, medicine, the arts, dyeing, science and trade might have had its moments.

* The maestro's maestro Claudio Abbado has had an Indian summer at the age of 74, conducting to huge acclaim both at the Proms and at the Lucerne Festival. On both occasions he was at the helm of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra.

I would salute not only his musicianship, but also his commendable approach to programme notes. The programme for the Lucerne Festival includes an interview by the music critic Peter Hagmann with the director of the festival, Michael Haefliger. Mr Hagmann clearly does not believe in obsequiousness when it comes to conducting an interview. He asks Mr Haefliger: "Will there be a tomorrow for the Lucerne Festival Orchestra? Claudio Abbado has been seriously ill and is advanced in years. Presumably, your tenure will not last for ever either."

That should cheer everyone up, not least Maestro Abbado. It makes the sycophantic notes in British concert programmes look very lame.

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