David Lister: You need a PhD for a night at the opera

Saturday 31 October 2009 01:00

They're expensive and often of little use, yet they are the one part of the cultural experience that rarely provokes comment. Why can't the programmes on sale at concerts, theatres and operas be better?

At rock concerts they are a complete joke. Usually about £12, they are little more than a set of pictures. Avoid at all costs. Classical concerts are little better. When one tries to find out information about a soloist, all one gets is a list of albums he or she has made. Perish the thought we should be able to read some background information, age, maybe, or even nationality. To be fair, though, when I last made this comment a few years ago about programmes at the Barbican Centre in London, the head of arts there, Graham Sheffield, promised change, and the Barbican's programmes now do give plenty of information. It can be done.

Theatres, too, often tell you virtually nothing about the performers you are watching. Even the National Theatre lists a series of plays next to an actor's name without saying which part the actor played in that particular play. The one word "Hamlet" means little, as there is quite a big difference between playing Hamlet and playing the second gravedigger. But the most ridiculous are the programmes at the Royal Opera House. This is the place, you will remember, which has been trumpeting its efforts to get first-time opera-goers into the building. It has given special deals for Sun readers; it has specially sponsored evenings with cheap seats. Yet, to read and understand the £7 programmes you need not just a degree in musicology, but a post-graduate degree.

I have just attended a performance of Tristan and Isolde by the Royal Opera. The programme helpfully had two essays, one on Tristan, one on Isolde. Here is how the one on Tristan begins:

"Love is an act of radical transgression that suspends all sociosymbolic links and, as such, has to culminate in the ecstatic self-obliteration of death. The corollary to this axiom is that love and marriage are incompatible; within the universe of sociosymbolic obligations, true love can occur only in the guise of adultery."

Try that after a glass of the ROH's best champagne. It's a tough gig after a tomato juice. And it doesn't get much easier in the essay on Isolde, which begins: "Isolde like the classic femme fatale beguiles a daring hero and induces him to follow her on a journey through a noir world of forbidden desire. At the end of it lies a fatal sentence. Both belong to the most persistent figurations our cultural image repertory has to offer of what Lacan designates as feminine jouissance. For Lacan, jouissance is first of all that libidinal psychic urge that must be contained by cultural commands and codes, in other words, that impulse that the subject must give up in order to acquire a position within the symbolic order governed by paternal authority."

There's five more pages of that. And, by the way, not everyone has heard of Lacan. Many a Sun reader being wooed by the Royal Opera House must wonder who he plays for.

It's an absurdity for the Royal Opera House to be crowing about its success in bringing in new audiences to the art form and then alienating them before the show has even started. As Lacan might have said.

Amis 0, Jordan 1

Martin Amis took it upon himself this week to give his views on the model Jordan, now possibly better known as the best-selling novelist Katie Price. Amis is no fan of celebrity novelists, and even less of a fan of their enormous sales. Indeed, he has a character in his new novella State of England called Threnody. He won't say that she is based on Jordan, but will say that readers should "bear in mind" the model when they read the book. Speaking of Jordan in his talk at the Hay Festival at Kings Place in London, Amis said: "She has no waist, no arse ... an interesting face ... but all we are really worshipping is two bags of silicone."

It sounds like something out of Austin Powers. Amis is refreshingly unafraid to challenge prevailing orthodoxies. But he can also be a real fool. In turning his critique of celebrity publishing into a personal attack on a woman's physical attributes in language that would have seemed chauvinist 40 years ago, let alone now, he has shown his true colours, won Jordan sympathy and lost the argument on celebrity novels. Nice one, Martin.

A transatlantic trade?

Two voracious art collectors have taken up residence in Britain. They are the American ambassador Louis B Susman and his wife, Margie. The ambassador is on the board of the Art Institute of Chicago, while Mrs Susman is a mover and shaker in the American art world.

I went to a small gathering at the ambassador's splendid residence, Wingfield House, in Regent's Park. The walls are already full of art, with an imposing Gainsborough in the main reception room. But the Susmans have changes in mind. They told me they would be bringing over some of their personal collection, including Rothko and Jasper Johns. They also added, intriguingly, that they wanted to show their art. Does this mean that the glorious house and gardens will be opened to the public? Probably not. But our art galleries, ever hungry for new work, should note that President Obama has sent us two patrons of the arts.

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