David Lister: The Week in Arts

If the star goes missing, I'd like my money back
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The Independent Online

The beautiful diva Anna Netrebko won rave reviews for her performance in the Royal Opera's La Traviata at Covent Garden. I use the word performance (singular) advisedly, because since the opening night on 14 January, Miss Netrebko has not performed again. A bronchial infection has laid her low.

Her non-appearances raise again the question of what an arts institution should do when the acknowledged star doesn't appear when scheduled. The Royal Opera will, of course, say that they are a company; and it is the production and the company that people come to see. But is that really the case? Many people will have booked to see Netrebko on the strength of those rave reviews, and the publicity about her before the run of shows started. However good the replacement, some of those people are likely to feel a bit cheated, not least the ones paying £175 for best seats.

If one goes back a few years to the National Theatre's My Fair Lady with (and very often without) Martine McCutcheon, there was another example of audiences feeling disgruntled by the star's frequent absences through illness. I twice saw an understudy in the role; but when I raised this with the National Theatre I was given the usual response that it was a company performance. "Star" is not a word in the theatre's vocabulary. Why then, I wondered, was it Miss McCutcheon whom the theatre had put up for interviews to publicise the show? Why was it Miss Netrebko's face that graced the cover of one Sunday newspaper arts section this month, and a Royal Opera House brochure?

There's undoubtedly an element of arts institutions trying to have it both ways. When they want publicity and when they want to sell tickets, they have stars right enough. But when those stars fail, for whatever reason, to appear, they suddenly metamorphise into ordinary company members.

Of course, I realise why theatres and opera houses run a mile from this debate. Stars, particularly in opera, go absent rather a lot. The Royal Opera House's website makes rather fascinating reading in this respect. There's a list as long as your arm of cast changes in forthcoming productions for both opera and ballet, including one diva who has decided – after signing up for the production, and tickets being sold – that "after careful consideration, she has decided not to add this role to her repertory." What a pity she didn't undertake the careful consideration rather earlier.

But while most theatres and opera houses refuse to admit they have stars when it's a case of those stars not appearing, there are now precedents for showing more consideration to audiences. The West End producer Bill Kenwright did offer audiences refunds when Billie Piper was ill and missed performances of her show. Indeed, those people who decided to see the show anyway, but felt at the end that the understudy wasn't up to it, could have their money back.

Kenwright's gesture was an acknowledgement that audiences do think in terms of stars when booking tickets. And if it applies to Billie Piper, then frankly it also applies to Anna Netrebko.

As audiences, we don't just book to see productions. We also book to see the big names that we have read about in those carefully placed pieces of publicity.

So, what should an arts institution do when the star is off? To me the answer is clear. It should offer ticket-buyers their money back.

Mick's keeping an eye on Marty

Martin Scorsese's last opus about music was his Bob Dylan documentary. The singer left the whole project in the film director's care. Indeed, the two didn't even meet. Scorsese's next music project is the release later this year of a film of a Rolling Stones concert in New York on their last tour. The Stones obliged Scorsese by arranging a gig purely for the film, as all the venues on their tour were too large for the intimate movie Scorsese wanted to make. I understand, though, that Scorsese found the Stones' singer rather more hands on than Dylan. I asked Mick Jagger about the collaboration, and he said ruefully: "The film opens with a scene of Marty and me arguing." Was he tempted, I wondered, to do a Dylan, and not bother to see the film before its release? Jagger looked at me as though I was mad. "You're joking," he said. "I've studied every single frame." Scorsese will know by now, if he didn't know before, that this time around he is dealing with a control freak.

* I see that the estimable Sir John Tusa, the former head of the Barbican Centre, is to give a lecture in March entitled, "Is arts journalism undermining culture?" Sir John will ask: "Are arts journalists supposed to foster great culture or merely be part of hyping the entertainment industry?" It's a legitimate question, and Sir John does seem to have had a bee in his bonnet about the state of arts journalism and criticism for some time. Indeed, he gave a similar speech lamenting the power and thrust of arts journalism a few years ago. He rather lost interest in the argument, though, when it was pointed out that if arts journalists had not indulged in sustained criticism of his Barbican predecessor Baroness Detta O'Cathain, leading to her resignation, Sir John would not have got the job. I hope no one is churlish enough to bring that up when Sir John returns to the fray this time.