The Week in Arts: Here's a novel way of performing an opera

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The Independent Online

The current issue of Classical Music magazine is exercised over the behaviour of musicians in the pit at the English National Opera during performances of The Valkyrie. Indeed, the magazine urges the chief executive of ENO to take action forthwith. I should stress that not a single bum note has been played. It is what the ENO musicians are doing when they're not playing that is causing concern. A clarinettist was engrossed in a paperback during the first half. Two flautists were also absorbed in their books after the interval. Another player was spied perusing the evening paper and (with commendable sense of timing) turning the page only when there was a drum roll.

The current issue of Classical Music magazine is exercised over the behaviour of musicians in the pit at the English National Opera during performances of The Valkyrie. Indeed, the magazine urges the chief executive of ENO to take action forthwith. I should stress that not a single bum note has been played. It is what the ENO musicians are doing when they're not playing that is causing concern. A clarinettist was engrossed in a paperback during the first half. Two flautists were also absorbed in their books after the interval. Another player was spied perusing the evening paper and (with commendable sense of timing) turning the page only when there was a drum roll.

This follows a letter to the New Statesman from an angry opera-goer who complained of the orchestra at the same production. He said: "On the rare occasions when they sat relatively still, the trumpets engaged in animated conversation, reminding me of winos on park bench."

What is the orchestra doing? My hope, of course, is that they have all joined The Independent book group, and are busy reading and discussing the latest recommendation. The ENO musicians are not alone in pursuing hobbies during performances. I overheard a conductor tell another orchestra not to do the crossword on press nights. On other evenings, apparently, it didn't matter.

The trouble with the ENO musicians catching up with their reading is that the company is engaged on quite a marketing operation at the moment. After its triumph at Glastonbury, it would have us believe that there is nothing so exciting and absorbing as opera performed by the ENO. Such a claim falls a little flat when its own players would rather read a book than listen to the music.

What one really longs to do is to stand up in the stalls, interrupt the performance, and bellow down at the musicians in the pit: "You can be seen!" For, bizarrely if not incredibly, these brilliantly talented players have seemingly failed to grasp the fact that most of the audience can observe everything they do. Like little children who believe that if they cover their eyes they cannot themselves be seen, the ENO musicians appears to believe that because they are in the pit below seat level, the occupants of those seats can't see them.

Trouble is, if the musicians look bored to tears with the evening, then the audience might begin to wonder why they've bothered to spend good money on it. I hate to discourage reading. But the musicians are on music duty. The novel ought to wait till they get home. Now I feel like a real party pooper.

With us in spirit, if not actually in person

The new album by The Libertines, out next month, is extremely good. But it might need some lateral thinking by the record company's marketing department. The band's singer-guitarist Pete Doherty, last sighted at a rehab clinic in Thailand, will not be involved in initial touring and promotion. Clare Britt, head of marketing at Rough Trade records, tells Music Week that Doherty's difficulties have complicated the launch. She says: "It can be challenging, but many great artists are unpredictable. That's part of what makes them special."

Promoting an album without the services of one of the band's best-known members has a long tradition. EMI had to promote The Beatles' last album days after Paul McCartney announced he had left the group. The Manic Street Preachers' Richey Edwards famously disappeared before the launch of the group's much lauded Everything Must Go album.

Ms Britt couldn't be more wrong. The absence of an artist is usually intriguing enough to make PR a lot easier. That's what makes them special.

¿ An article in this paper on Thursday had a phrase which surprised me. It quoted Lord Byron calling the poet laureate Robert Southey a "son of a bitch".

I had always imagined that the phrase was born in America in the 20th century and was not common currency among British poets in the 19th. But, sure enough, a letter of Byron's did say of Southey: "The son of a bitch ... said I had 'formed a league of incest'... he lied like a rascal for they were not sisters."

Fascinating stuff. And it is comforting to see that there is a difference between the English and American usage of "son of a bitch". Only in English poetic circles could the phrase "son of a bitch" be trumped by the word "rascal".

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