Opera? Actually, I prefer music

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The Independent Online
The chorus of horror which has greeted the pounds 55m gift from the National Lottery to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden has taken me nostalgically back to the time when I was living in London and quite heavily involved in raising money for the very same opera house.

Almost every weekend I used to appear on a local street corner carrying a tin and a tray, shaking the tin and offering the tray to passers-by so that they could take a flag or a sticker. The tin and the flags were usually marked "British Blindness Week" or "Help The Aged" or "Fight Polio", but whatever was on the tin, the money always went to the opera house.

This was due to an ingenious discovery by the then director of the opera house that people like giving to good medical causes but they don't like giving to the arts.

He had actually experimented with having collectors stand around with tins marked "British Opera Week", "Help the Tone Deaf" and "Fight Philistinism", and had found to his chagrin but not his surprise that nobody gave anything, except to the tin marked "Help the Tone Deaf", which they took to be a sort of medical appeal. So he had decided to hide the collection of funds behind a facade of medical respectability.

"I had no choice, Kington," he once told me. "The British will only give to people they feel sorry for. In the case of disaster funds, they feel sorry for the starving and the homeless. In the case of medical causes, they feel sorry for themselves. Nobody feels sorry for opera. So we have to adopt camouflage."

I must have collected thousands of pounds for the opera in this way, though occasionally I pushed my luck, as when an elderly lady asked me why my tin was marked "National Liver Week" but my flags were marked "Help Kidney Research". I told her that it was all organised by the National Mixed Grill Research Unit, which seemed to satisfy her. Another week, I remember, collectors all over London were sent out flags wrongly marked "Fight the Children Fund", but very few people actually noticed.

"Why do you need to adopt these underhand methods?" I once asked the director of the opera house.

"Well, it's partly because we have little choice, and partly because when you live in the world of opera as much as I do, you become infected with the tawdry and immoral twists and turns in the plots. Most opera is concerned with the triumph of skulduggery over virtue - indeed, if it were not for the invention of the happy ending, it would all be - and this can't help getting to you in the end. Do you like opera, Kington?"

Startled by the unexpected question, I had to admit that what little I had heard of it did not tempt me to repeat the experience, and that I preferred music on the whole.

"Well said!" said the director of the ROH. "Can't stand the stuff myself."

"But surely you ..."

"My dear boy, you must never expect the chap at the top to like what he's in charge of or even have faith in it. Most archbishops don't believe in God. The Prime Minister has no time for democracy, except when he is forced to take notice of it. The head of British Rail doesn't jump on a train at the end of the day. And given the chance, I wouldn't be seen dead at an opera. It's like working in a museum, being in charge of an opera house. All operas are written by dead composers, listened to by dead listeners. It's safe culture, for people who have had a busy day and want to switch off their life contact systems for a while."

"But surely it uplifts and ennobles people?"

The director snorted.

"The people I work with are not ennobled or uplifted. Why, opera singers are a byword for selfishness, arrogance, egoism and unreliability! Look at the average star opera singer. Do you see ennoblement? Or do you perhaps see a well-padded case of human greed?"

He poured the contents of my tins on his desk and started putting aside the 10 per cent cut for which I worked.

"The British taste for opera is all to do with that masochistic streak that makes us prefer French and Italian food to our own, Japanese cars to our own and American films to our own. So we go on pouring millions into the support of dead German and Italian opera composers. Extraordinary. If I weren't the director of the ROH, I'd kick up an almighty fuss. I'd demand that money was poured into the British version of opera, one that we do supremely well and never gets a penny of subsidy."

He leant forward and whispered confidentially:

"Pantomime."

I sometimes think he may have had a point.

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