Thank you for a feast of opera, Mrs Bottomley

The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold
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MAY I be the first to blow the trumpet for our estimable new Heritage Secretary, Mrs Bottomley. I am referring, of course, to her stout refusal to throw money at problems such as Single Parent Lesbian Drama Workshops, Black Brechtian (dread word!) Mime Co-operatives, Community Theatre "Events" (!) and Inner-City Festivals of Channel 4 Porn. Instead, she has very deftly picked the pockets of all the little people who have been fool enough to fork out for the National Lottery, and she has placed her rich pickings at the disposal of you, me and The Royal Opera House.

I am an unabashed opera aficionado. For me, there is no greater pleasure on earth than to sit in a box in The Royal Opera House with fellow opera buffs such as Lord St John of Fawsley, Lord Wyatt of Weevil, HRH Princess Margaret and the becapped Mr Bernard Levin, merrily chatting away while the orchestra tunes up. The lights dim; the audience hushes; the conductor enters to extravagant applause and takes his bow; the applause dies down; the conductor raises his arms to the sky; out boom the opening bars of the overture; the curtain rises; the opera begins; and at last, out comes the picnic hamper, the knives and forks are passed around, plus chicken- legs, salt, pepper, tomato salad, lightly boiled new potatoes, dressing, salami, pork luncheon meat, French bread, Gentleman's relish, and a choice of soft jellies or a selection of seasonal French cheeses, and a jolly good tuck-in commences.

This is not to say that the opera itself is not of the prime importance - far from it, for I often enjoy a fair bit of the music, and even, on occasion, the singing, if it can be called that. I would merely argue that what one might call the "artistic" side of things should be seen in its proper context, as secondary to the event itself. What could be more sublime, for instance, than the exquisite realisation that the first interval has at last come round, and a uniformed Pamela, Lady Harlech pops her head around the door to one's box, her ice-cream tray ('a vanilla tub and a packet of Maltesers for me please, Miss!') fixed firmly around her neck with a length of the Royal Opera House's finest gold braid. Or, indeed, amidst the hurly-burly of the on-stage shenanigans, the anticipation of the second interval, in which one tends to stretch one's legs amidst the hoi polloi, occasionally nodding one's head in the direction of a colleague or acquaintance who, through force of economic and social circumstances, has had to 'make do' with a markedly less prestigious seat.

Like Mr Bernard Levin, I often journey to the welcoming Bourne of Glynde, where the new opera house, dappled in the evening light, provides the perfect backdrop to a summer evening of inestimable joy. Mozart, Verdi, Offenbach, Puccini, Tchaikovsky, Strauss: one leaves these all well behind one to enjoy a truly delightful picnic in the delightful gardens of the Christies' handsome mansion, champagne all round, and with delicately sliced smoked salmon sandwiches as a starter.

Is opera in some obscure sense 'elitist' as the chip-on-the-shoulder brigade would have us believe? I think not. Unless, of course, one regards it as 'elitist' to enjoy hobnobbing with one's peers in fabulous surroundings thankfully well outside the reach of the average pocket! On my last visit there, The Royal Opera House appeared refreshingly free from any 'underclass". Not a soul present had arrived fresh from the Claimants Counter; no pocket groaned with money filched from others. And now Mrs Bottomley has ensured that such a happy state of affairs will continue with her award of a very handsome sum from the Lottery to our hard-pressed Opera House. Unlike the unemployable, the less well off, those malingering in hospitals, the "disabled" with their wretched parking stickers and sundry others, opera really does need money to survive. It is only right, therefore, that the state should dip its hands into its pockets for such an agreeable cause.

As luck would have it, I am to visit The Royal Opera House this Tuesday as a VIP guest of the Directors of Barings Bank. It is Wagner, so we will be arriving just that little bit too late for the first half, allowing us to take our places in our box in the interval, where champagne and sweetmeats will be served. Then back out again before the commencement of the second and final act, thus allowing plenty of time for dinner in a nearby restaurant. A perfect end to a perfect evening: many thanks, Mrs B.