David Lister: The Week in Arts

A defence minister defends opera? Surely not
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The Independent Online

Now here's a scene I find hard to imagine happening at Covent Garden. It occurred this week in Oslo at the opening of a splendid new opera house, the national home for Norway's opera and ballet companies. At the opening gala, in front of several of Europe's crowned heads, foreign dignitaries and an invited audience, the final speech from the stage came not from the culture minister, but from the minister for defence. She (I'm not sure we'd see that over here either) proclaimed to a thunderous ovation: "Without culture we have nothing worth defending."

I would challenge anyone to look through Hansard or any archives to find a British defence minister putting the nation's arts at the top of priorities for the defence of the realm. It's rare enough here to find any government minister outside of the Culture Department mentioning the arts. The sight of our Secretary of State for Defence citing opera and ballet as two aspects of British life worth defending is a vision one only has before waking from a particularly surreal dream.

That was not the only thing that struck me as gloriously un-British. Before embarking on the opera house project, the director of the venue held public meetings in every province of the country to convince the people that their taxes would be well spent on an opera house.

And even the architecture made a statement, a rather unusual one, of the relationship between the high arts and the populace. The Oslo architectural firm Snohetter has encircled the building with a 38m-high terrace of 36,000 marble and granite slabs running right down to the fjord. People can picnic, walk, sunbathe, chat, maybe even skate on it.

The architects say with commendable honesty that a lot of people won't automatically want to go to the opera, so they wanted to make the place a socialising centre, a part of town which the people would feel was their own; and then they might, just might, buy tickets to see the shows. Craig Dykers, the architect on the project, explained to me: "I wanted to create a social monument, a place for people to gather, to socialise, do things not connected with purchasing a ticket. If a nation is spending all this money [£250m] on the opera house, it has to give something back to the people. There are so few people that understand classical arts that if you don't allow them to understand and enjoy the building, they won't go in."

It's a mighty interesting philosophy. Get the public to see the place as a social centre, somewhere they have ownership of, and then they might go to the box office and have a look at what goes on inside.

That's the reason why I feel that the opening of Norway's new opera house is the biggest arts event anywhere this week, and one with special relevance to the UK. It defined an attitude to culture, from government, architects and potentially the population at large, that says that high art and their daily life can be inextricably linked.

The one British element in the Oslo opera house project is a key one, the consultancy Theatre Projects which advises about new theatres, opera houses and concert halls across the world. It has spent 10 years on the Oslo brief, advising on everything from sightlines to surtitles. Its managing director, David Staples, told me he that after Oslo he was moving on to two other Norwegian towns. In both cases, he is advising on the building of not one but two new concert halls. They do things differently there.

Kitt's claws come out

The memorably monosyllabic and sometimes silent press conference this week by the Chelsea football club manager, Avram Grant, stirred a painful memory for me of the hardest interview I have ever done. It was with the music diva, Eartha Kitt.

When I entered her dressing room, she was embroidering a giant quilt on the floor and continued to do this for some minutes, not acknowledging me or my questions. She then rather bizarrely, and totally out of the blue, decided to proffer the information that her father had abused her when she was a little girl. As there are many forms of abuse, I asked politely if she could elaborate on what exactly she meant. She stood up, put her eyeballs next to mine and yelled: "I mean he beat the hell outta me!" She then returned to monosyllables and silences.

I see that Ms Kitt is about to embark on a series of concerts in the UK. Journalists planning to interview her might have a better time with Avram Grant.

* The new chief executive of the Arts Council, Alan Davey, is a music fan. When he was at university in Birmingham he would go every week to watch Simon Rattle conduct. When he moved to London to become a civil servant, he retained his passion for music. Indeed, so passionately did he feel that he once wrote a letter to a national newspaper complaining about the quality of the London Symphony Orchestra's programmes. The letter, it emerged this week, was printed under the headline: "Session men on auto pilot."

Of course, Mr Davey did not know then that he would one day become chief executive at the Arts Council, which funds the London Symphony Orchestra, an outfit still containing several of those session men on auto pilot. He will no doubt soon be receiving invitations to their concerts in his new role. The conversation over interval drinks should be worth hearing.