David Lister: The Week in Arts

When in doubt, put a naked woman on the CD
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The Independent Online

I mentioned last week how there was a need to attract a new audience to classical music. And this week I encountered two examples of august institutions trying to do that. One of the attempts was exhilarating. The other was pathetic.

I'll save the sublime for later, and start with the ridiculous. EMI, the label of Sir Simon Rattle and Maria Callas, has a new album called Classical: The Greatest Moments Ever. It is the usual collection of famous classical themes. Nothing wrong with that. But the picture on the cover, above the EMI logo, is of a half-naked girl holding a violin with her right hand and tweaking her nipple with her left hand.

Well, that's one way of selling Schubert's "Ave Maria". But I find it a depressing way. I asked EMI why it had to resort to the hackneyed method of using sex to sell classical music, and why it had done so in the crudest and most unsubtle way that I can recall.

A spokeswoman told me that the originator of the cover was an independent label which uses "distinctive imagery", and EMI distributes the album. She added that this "distinctive imagery" is used to " attract fans who might not normally purchase classical music. This is not for the classical music devotee; the target audience is a very different one to the core classical consumer".

I'm not a record company marketing executive. So perhaps I should accept their judgement. They have probably carried out extensive research on the links between nipple-tweaking and classical music purchasing. No doubt focus groups have been set up to deliberate on this causal relationship. But I remain depressed that EMI feels that the way to attract a new audience to classical music is with a naked girl holding a violin. Why has the company lost confidence in selling the music through itself, its composers and its players, accompanied by sophisticated artwork?

Why on earth would this new, non-traditional audience be tempted to fork out money to hear classical music because of a totally unrelated sexual image on the cover? Sure, they might pick up the cover in a CD shop, but when they turn it over and see on the back "Schubert: 'Ave Maria'", what makes them pay their £12 to buy it? That is the sequence that I don't quite follow. It's a piece of research I would genuinely like to see.

Moving from EMI to ENO, there was sex in the air too at the English National Opera's new production of Carmen this week. It was unspoken and unseen, a passion that lurked beneath the surface in a thrilling and sensuous staging of the opera by the film director Sally Potter, who added dance to the opera, tangos to give physical expression to the lurking passions.

Her updating of the piece to the present-day surveillance society, complete with video screens and CCTV cameras breathed fresh life into the work, helped, of course, by stunning performances and a palpable electricity between the two principals. As one of the many critics of the English National Opera in recent times, I am delighted to acknowledge an example of the company once more doing just what it should be doing - attracting a new audience to opera with an imaginative and exciting reinterpretation.

ENO has recognised that, of course, there is sensuality in much classical music and it can be highlighted with subtlety and be mesmerising. EMI seems to be losing any sense of subtlety.

What's colour got to do with it?

I loved the Royal Opera's production of The Valkyrie this week, part of the company's marvellously intense reading of Wagner's Ring Cycle. But I was perplexed during the interval when I looked at an exhibition of photographs in the foyer. It is entitled Black Artists at the Royal Opera House, and, as advertised, showed legends such as Jessye Norman, Grace Bumbry and Leontyne Price in performance, as well as current singers and dancers including Willard White and Carlos Acosta (pictured).

But why? Do we have to think of these stars as black artists rather than simply great artists? Does the Royal Opera House really have to mount an exhibition to boast that it has employed black singers and dancers? I'd like to think we're way beyond even thinking about the colour of who is on stage. When I go to see Carlos Acosta dance, it never occurs to me that I'm watching a black dancer, just a charismatic one. I'd have hoped the Royal Opera House thought the same.

* One of the most compelling television programmes I have seen for some time was this week’s ONE Life documentary looking at that happened to the Islington Green School pupils who sang on Pink Floyd’s 1979 song “Another Brick in the Wall”.

The programme went from a simple story of the making of the record, and the furore it caused for the school, to a tapestry of regrets, lost dreams, changes of direction, new lives, and insights into schooling, teaching, and how a hunger for education can come too late.

I see that the former child singers are now trying to obtain royalties 28 years after the event. At least they and their school were given a credit. Children singing on records have often not even had that. The 1961 song “High Hopes” had the unforgettable credit “By Frank Sinatra and a bunch of kids”. I bet they never got any royalties

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