David Lister: Covent Garden does the decent thing

Saturday 27 February 2010 01:00

It was the one cast change that the Royal Opera didn't want to happen.

The tenor who was to star next week in Handel's Tamerlano was taken ill with abdominal pain, and will have to have surgery. When that tenor is Placido Domingo, it's bad news not just for him but for the thousands of ticket buyers who had queued, and besieged the box office by phone, for a chance to see the world's most famous living opera singer in action.

These things happen; in fact they happen quite a lot at Covent Garden, where singers seem to drop out quite regularly. But in this case, something highly unusual also happened. Announcing that leading American tenor Kurt Streit will step into Domingo's shoes, the ROH said in a statement: "Although it is not customary Royal Opera House policy, in recognition of the withdrawal of such an exceptional artist in a rarely performed opera, we will be contacting all ticket holders with details of a 20 per cent credit note."

It certainly is not customary. The response of opera houses and theatres to disgruntled audiences deprived of seeing their favourite star is that accidents happen, understudies and replacements are carefully selected and they are "a company". One books, apparently, to see a company, never an individual star.

But as the Royal Opera House rightly admits, the reality is that sometimes one does book to see a star, and with many stars, Domingo for example, no replacement can be in quite the same league or have quite the same cachet.

So, one must applaud the Royal Opera House for doing the right thing, or at least 20 per cent of the right thing. Having acknowledged that a refund is due to people who booked for Domingo, it seems odd and illogical that it should be for only a fifth of the ticket price. Audiences should surely be offered a complete refund as they are not getting what they booked for.

But that aside, I'm more interested in the breaking of custom and offering any sort of refund. For, while Domingo is a megastar, he is not unique in that regard. Over at Kingston upon Thames, Dame Judi Dench is starring in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and let's be honest, for all that it is a first-class production by Sir Peter Hall with a fine cast, Dame Judi is the chief attraction. If she were to fall ill, would audiences be offered their money back?

The same goes for Mark Rylance in Jerusalem. What understudy could compare with one of the greatest actors of his generation? Even Keira Knightley in The Misanthrope will have brought in a new, young audience to the West End, who would be peeved to find she was ill and they were getting no refund.

I suspect that producers of these and other shows won't be best pleased with the Royal Opera House for breaking with precedent and acknowledging that many people book for big names as much as for the works they are in. They book for Domingo rather than a rarely performed Handel.

The Royal Opera House has done audiences everywhere a favour in acknowledging this fact, or giving it a 20 per cent acknowledgement. But where does that leave the rest of the performing arts? Next time I find a star is "off" I will plead the Domingo ruling and ask for my money back. The precedent has been set. And it's a fair and correct one for audiences.

Nice ride, shame about the gig

The "Houston, we have a problem" headlines were out in force this week, when Whitney Houston, above, gave a dire performance in Australia. People walked out and demanded refunds as the singer reportedly appeared breathless and exhausted, and is said to have looked disoriented. But if her own performance was lacking, one must applaud the creativity of her tour's promoter, Andrew McManus. He said: "I am personally amazed at the few who are trying to derail the project... if they expected to hear Whitney of 20 years ago, go buy a CD, but if they wanted to see a true professional artist give 100 per cent and have a red-hot go at songs that make the greatest vocalists shrink, well come along and enjoy the ride of an amazing talent, on stage, letting her heart and soul out for us all to enjoy."

So, there you have it. If you want to hear the songs done properly, listen to the CD. If you want to enjoy the ride of a performer having a red-hot go, see the live performance. It's a novel approach to defending an off-form artist and avoiding refunds, but full marks for originality.

Alice and the misleading movie title

When it comes to a film, what's in a title? The new Alice in Wonderland, which had its world premiere in London on Thursday, is another tour de force by director Tim Burton, with a great performance from Mrs Burton, Helena Bonham Carter, below, as the Red Queen. With Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter and 3D glasses for cinema-goers, the film has a lot going for it. But what it most definitely is not is Alice in Wonderland.

The plot is about a grown-up Alice returning to Wonderland and encountering some of the characters from the original story. So why did Burton not call it Alice's Return to Wonderland? Could it be that such a title might have attracted slightly fewer viewers?

The film's the thing, but I still feel it slightly disingenuous to bring in family audiences expecting to see a much-loved story on screen, only to find that they will be seeing something altogether different.

What's in a title? Quite a lot.

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