Fly-posting: here one day, gone the next

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The Independent Online

Suddenly opera for the people is gloriously in vogue again. Raymond Gubbay's Savoy Operas may have fallen at the first hurdle, but the Royal Opera and the English National Opera press on undaunted. The Royal Opera will be relaying a performance to CenterParcs. The ENO will stage the third act of The Valkyrie at Glastonbury. That will go down a treat because great music will reach a new and enthusiastic audience in a memorable setting. Forget about the tortuous reason in the ENO press release, which says that Glastonbury is the perfect setting for Wagner's legends as the English countryside "resounds with the echoes of Britain's comparable legend of King Arthur".

Suddenly opera for the people is gloriously in vogue again. Raymond Gubbay's Savoy Operas may have fallen at the first hurdle, but the Royal Opera and the English National Opera press on undaunted. The Royal Opera will be relaying a performance to CenterParcs. The ENO will stage the third act of The Valkyrie at Glastonbury. That will go down a treat because great music will reach a new and enthusiastic audience in a memorable setting. Forget about the tortuous reason in the ENO press release, which says that Glastonbury is the perfect setting for Wagner's legends as the English countryside "resounds with the echoes of Britain's comparable legend of King Arthur".

But it is another of ENO's opera-for-the-people initiatives that interests me more, and not for wholly positive reasons. In July the company will present a performance of La Bohème in Trafalgar Square in London. The square will be specially turfed over for the evening, allowing 8,000 people to picnic as they watch the show.

The sponsor will be the mobile phone operator O 2, which will enable the audience to vote for the encore, using text messages to pick from four of the arias. So if you want another blast of "Your Tiny Hand Is Frozen", you text the code word Frozen to a given number.

It will be the first time an audience will be able to choose the encore. It will also - though O 2 and ENO make much less of this - be the first time the audience has to pay for an encore. Paul Samuels, head of sponsorship at O 2 UK, says: "Opera is a new and exciting area for us. The partnership with ENO provides an innovative programme of events that raise the profile of opera music to new audiences. The event in Trafalgar Square is going to be a dramatic spectacle and one of the most talked about open-air music events in London this summer. By allowing fans to vote for the final encore of the evening by text message, O 2 is offering a unique interaction with the performance that helps to further bring opera into the mainstream."

I guess it's all pretty harmless fun, yet I worry just a tiny bit. Along with all the other firsts, this will be the first time a sponsor will have such a direct influence on part of a performance at a national arts company. Of course, it's only using text messaging to choose an encore at a one-off event. But those text message possibilities are endless. How long before the sponsor asks the regular audience to text its preferred repertoire for the season? That, it could be argued, would be true people's opera.

Letting the sponsors help literally to call the tune can be a dangerous game.

* I AM happy to be called as a character witness for the record company executives accused this week of illegal fly-posting to advertise concerts. I can confirm that they take posters down as well as put them up.

The unusual sight of senior record company personnel sneaking around London in the small hours ripping down posters occurred when Barbra Streisand last appeared over here back in the Nineties. The record company bigwigs who picked her up at the airport proudly pointed out a poster on their drive into London. "Streisand in Concert: The Event of the Decade," it proclaimed. The diva was appalled. "What! Only the decade!" she is said to have shrieked, without a hint of irony. "Take those posters down," she ordered. The record company bigwigs duly obliged.

They were from Sony Music, one of the record companies which stand accused of fly-posting. I am sure that, with a bit of crafty re-telling, the Streisand episode could be made to look like civic duty.

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