Give it up for the Valkyries

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The Independent Online

I'm not sure what it is about "Ride of the Valkyries", but when popular culture meets opera it always seems to be loitering somewhere in the vicinity. Like a huge number of people, I first heard it not in opera house but on television - featuring in that matchless work of classical outreach, Chuck Jones's What's Opera Doc, in which a helmeted Elmer Fudd performs a distilled version of the Ring cycle with Bugs Bunny in the soprano roles. The music was further cemented into my consciousness by its use in Apocalypse Now as a kind of aural infantry barrage, an orchestral version of shock and awe. Indeed, the piece is so familiar that when it first sounds out over the Glastonbury crowd at this year's festival - the first piece of opera ever to feature in the line-up - half the audience will automatically sing along with the words "Kill the Wabbit!" while the other half mutter "I love the smell of napalm in the morning" at each other.

Which makes it slightly odd that most coverage of the decision to squeeze the English National Opera in alongside Oasis and Muse has treated it as a precarious experiment, as if Wagner was a serious consciousness-altering substance that even the hardened hedonists of Glastonbury could not be expected to take in their stride. Certainly Sean Doran, ENO's artistic director, seemed to strike a defensive note in his comments. "In my view it's not a gimmick," he told one newspaper. "I would not support anything for reasons of accessibility alone." One understands his reflexive twitch away from "accessibility", a boilerplate piece of pious jargon, but if you translate the word into what it actually means - finding new audiences for music you passionately believe is worth sharing - you can't help wondering why he wouldn't. Only a nervousness about the reaction of operatic insiders can have prompted him to say it.

Those stories chimed oddly with another report about classical music - this time detailing the anxieties of a pressure group called Friends of Radio 3. Apparently a formal pledge to keep classical music "at the heart of the schedule" has disappeared in favour of a commitment to a "broad spectrum" of music, and the Friends (who aren't always exactly friendly in their demeanour) are worried that this will mean a dilution of Radio 3's classical output. Nobody uses words like "swamped" or "flooded", but it's hard to avoid a sense that what they dislike about the changes at Radio 3 is essentially a question of aesthetic immigration. World music and jazz is creeping in everywhere - and they fret a little that the cultures won't mix. "Why Radio 3 listeners have to broaden their horizons rather than those of Radio 1, I don't know," said Sarah Spilsbury, a spokes- woman for the group. Taken together, both reports seemed to confirm a sense of the classical music community as essentially insular, not keen to have outsiders muddle its identity and still a little sniffy of those who seek converts abroad.

It's not easy, these days, to make a case for narrow-mindedness. But though I'm not a devoted Radio 3 purist, and though I think it's an excellent idea for ENO to try and drive a Wagnerian wedge into the tranced-out sensibilities of Glastonbury fans, I can understand where the Friends are coming from. And this isn't an argument against eclecticism, but about how that eclecticism is best expressed. Radio 3 has programmes, such as Mixing It, that are dedicated to an open-borders principle of music appreciation, and very good they are too. They suit the general cultural consensus these days that demarcations between high art and popular art, or between different kinds of popular art, aren't really useful anymore.

But while an increasing chunk of the audience may be philosophically opposed to musical segregation, in practice, as listeners, we're not opposed to it at all. We resist the idea that we should not turn at will from a Bach Partita to the Scissor Sisters to Salif Keita - but we also understand that these categories are not simply interchangeable. There are times when only bubble-gum pop will do and times when it must be Late Romanticism - and by and large we wouldn't want these categories to become indistinguishable.

The problem with a "broad spectrum" approach to station identity is that it effectively diminishes choice rather than expanding it - and particularly so in the case of classical music. If Radio 3 becomes more of a Pick'n'Mix of musical styles, however excellent those various musics are, then the chances of you being able to find classical music in a traditional sense (dead, white and male though it may be) are diminished. Diversity should be the goal. But in an age when everyone can schedule their own channel just by flicking a preset switch, diversity may be best served by keeping the ghettos in good order.