The Welsh love it, they just can't do it

Click to follow
There was a well-orchestrated groan of protest in Wales when Virginia Bottomley and her merry heritage henchmen said they weren't giving any money for a new opera house in Cardiff. We cannot live without a national opera house, said the Welsh, or some of them. No, no, what we desperately need is a new national rugby stadium, said other Welsh voices.

It is very odd to find the Welsh living up to their own stereotype of rugby-playing and singing obsessives. The image of the Welsh has changed over the years, of course. In the old days it would involve a dash of religion, an inability to speak English and an ability to teach and to deliver dairy products. I don't know why it was true, historically, that most of the dairying in London was done by people called Jones and Davies, Williams and Price, but so it was. And back in George Borrow's days, in the last century, you could walk for hours in wild Wales and not meet anyone who spoke English. What would he find today? A nation unable to decide whether it should have a rugby stadium or an opera house, and discussing it heatedly in English in every public bar?

Rugby and opera. Opera and rugby. A strange pair for a nation to be associated with. The strange thing is that despite the stereotypes, the Welsh aren't very good at either. Not at the moment, anyway. There have been long stretches when they were good at rugby, but younger people will not remember those times. They only just managed to beat Italy the other day, 31-26. At rugby! Nor are the Welsh very good at opera. Well, they are quite good at putting on opera, witness the Welsh National Opera, and they turn out some good singers from time to time, but they don't write any good opera, at least not good enough to get in the standard repertoire, and they don't have anyone good enough to put his arms round Pavarotti and get a shot at singing at the World Cup Final, because opera is an Italian game, and the Welsh can't get within 31-26 of the Italians at opera.

There is a school of thought that would advise the Welsh not even to try to be any good at opera. I think David Hare would be among them. The eminent playwright was asked on Radio 3, this last weekend, what he thought of opera. The interviewer no doubt assumed that Hare, like all cultured people, supported opera automatically. In fact, he said so. Presumably, said his interviewer, as a theatre person Hare was all for opera.

"Well, I used to dislike opera," said David Hare, choosing his words carefully, "but that was always from a position of considerable ignorance. Now that I know rather more about opera, I have come to hate it."

Oh, dear. What had Hare got against opera? Everything, said Hare. It is abominably slow and keeps grinding to a halt. The unfolding of the drama is terribly artificial and it is very difficult to make out the words, and the singers cannot act (the myth that modern opera singers have learnt to act is just that, said Hare, a myth - singing and acting are two very different techniques, which is also why so few actors can sing) and he didn't even like the noise it made very much, and he hated all the intervals and queueing at bars and such-like.

It was only when I heard Hare saying all this that I made the connection. Opera is not the only thing like that. There is something else. International rugby! Opera and rugby are virtually the same sport! In both of them, a lot of massed singing goes on in the background while very little happens in the foreground. Rugby, just like opera, is abominably slow and keeps stopping, and it's hard to make out what is happening, and most modern rugby players find it hard to master two different techniques such as running and catching a ball at the same time, and just when you think things are beginning to happen, a figure of authority (conductor or referee) brings things to a halt.

I believe that people also have to queue a lot at big rugby games to get a drink. I also hear on the grapevine that Jeremy Isaacs is being approached to take over Welsh rugby.