Why would it be curtains for the Prime Minister to attend the Royal Opera?

Plus: the pop sitar had the Indian sign over me and Miranda spices up the Viva Forever! first night
  • @davidlister1

Some amusement was had in the press over here at the shenanigans surrounding the opening of the season at La Scala opera house in Milan. There was, it seems, outrage among opera lovers that Daniel Barenboim had chosen to open the season by honouring the bicentenary of Wagner rather than Verdi. And some newspapers complained the choice was an insult to national pride. The head of state, President Giorgio Napolitano felt the need to write to assure Barenboim that his unusual absence was because of pressing matters of state, and not a protest. The prime minister, Mario Monti, did however attend.

"How funny these Italians are," seemed to be the subtext of the coverage here. Me, I think it's wonderful that the public can be roused by a Wagner-versus-Verdi debate. It's wonderful that newspapers discuss it. It's wonderful that it is taken as read that both prime minister and president will attend the opening production each year at the country's main opera house, and that the president feels it right to apologise when he does not.

So, could it happen here? Sadly, the evidence isn't promising. Outside of the arts pages of the quality papers, a debate on the contrasting merits of Wagner and Verdi would not take place, and would certainly not be considered news. As for attendance at the season's opening of Covent Garden, there's no sign of the Queen or the Prime Minister. Let's excuse the Queen. But why shouldn't Mr Cameron put these events in his diary?

At a time when the arts world is becoming increasingly and publicly hostile to the Government over cuts, it strikes me that a show of interest at the top would be a timely and well-received gesture. But, my hunch is that it doesn't happen here because Prime Ministers go out of their way not to be publicly associated with the so-called high arts. Apparently, it's not great for the street cred. Indeed, I gather that when Tony Blair and family visited the National Theatre, he asked for no public mention of it. That wasn't the case with film premieres.

Mr Cameron could achieve a lot simply by attending the season opening or a key performance at our leading publicly subsidised institutions, not least the Royal Opera House. He could begin to get the arts world on-side; and show that he shares their passion. He could send a message to the public that these institutions are important, and the work they put on an essential part of our culture. News coverage would follow. In the case of the Royal Opera, there might even be a healthy debate about the repertoire, the music and the composers. The Prime Minister should get out more. We can learn from the Italians.


The pop sitar had the Indian sign over me

When a great artist dies, it feels churlish, certainly in the week they die, to write anything negative about them. I am certainly in no doubt about the technical brilliance of Ravi Shankar, the great sitar player. But alongside all the justified tributes, perhaps we should also admit that there are some of us who don't see him as a total force for good on pop music. The Beatles, particularly George Harrison, fell in love with the sitar, Shankar was Harrison's sitar guru, Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones was also a disciple, and from that moment the sitar and lengthy stretches of sitar were a feature of pop. But I'm not sure that Harrison's sitar-dominated track "Within You Without You" was the best track on the Sergeant Pepper album. In fact, I think it was the worst. I am sure, though, that it was and has remained social death ever to publicly criticise the sitar in pop.

Miranda spices up the interval on first night

In my theatre-going life I have only twice seen a show start more than 20 minutes late – once when a member of the Royal Family was delayed by traffic, and on Tuesday when Victoria Beckham was also delayed by traffic, en route to Viva Forever!, the Spice Girls musical. Perhaps she was sitting in her car wondering how Jennifer Saunders, of all people, came to write such an unoriginal, witless script. I was, afterwards. But the world premiere of the musical had one memorable moment for me. In the interval I wandered into the gents' loo, to find a group of women in there, at the centre of them comedian Miranda Hart. The queues for the ladies' toilets in theatres are always something of an interval talking-point. But this was remedial action of a dramatic nature. Has Miranda started a theatrical revolution?