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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Poison in the Garden -
The declining importance of the arts in the political agenda.

by Norman Lebrecht / July 19, 2000

AS you sit down to read this, I shall be sitting with one of our more rapacious media moguls discussing the ever-widening gap between illusion and cultural reality.

We have a government that tells us that it is pumping unprecedented amounts into the arts, yet around the country the arts are in greater distress than ever. Welsh National Opera has announced that it is cancelling its annual visit to Plymouth and halving its fortnight in Liverpool because constraints on state funding no longer permit taking live art to the people.

WNO, the best ensemble outside London, is being pushed behind the border. London companies are unable to play beyond the M25. The boundaries of art in Britain are narrowing day by day.

The Arts Council insists that it has spent every penny of Lottery money on more art for more people. Yet an independent watchdog reckons that some £275 million of Lottery yield has yet to be "drawn down".

Where Lottery money has gone, in dribs of up to a million, is to consultants who advise how to improve access, minority rights and other worthy political objectives. Meanwhile, Lottery profits have declined for the third year running. Tony Blair no longer lists culture as a priority and Gordon Brown reportedly pushed the Culture Secretary Chris Smith to the back of the queue in yesterday's spending plans .

Smith declared on these pages on Saturday that "for the first time, at least 20 per cent of tickets to all performances at the Royal Opera House go on sale to the general public." New Labour, he added, is "serious about access and serious about excellence."

Heaven help us should they ever get flippant, for, even through the lie-detector on which most official pronouncements must now pass, Smith's words sound strenuously spun. He did force the ROH to withhold one ticket in five from priority booking, a privilege granted to Friends of Covent Garden, who pay £55 for that purpose. But the Friends, 21,000 in number, are none other than members of the "general public" who are prepared to pay a regular sub for a better chance to see the best shows.

By restricting their access, Smith has not only infringed public rights. He has exposed the lawful act of buying a theatre ticket to political pressure. As for access and excellence, the ROH has improved little in either department.

Over the past month, Covent Garden has been heaving with mixed relief and embarrassment at the phenomenal season of Kirov opera and ballet. The relief was that the jinxed stage machinery worked so smoothly that even Joe Volpe, the abrasive Metropolitan Opera boss who flew over mob-handed to view the War and Peace that he will import to New York, was volubly impressed.

The embarrassment was at the immensity of the gulf in technical standards between the Kirov dancers, singers and orchestra and Covent Garden's finest. The Russians were simply streets ahead on every front. An independent report, out this week, confirmed that Britain is lagging dangerously in training singers and dancers because the Government refuses to invest in arts education.

There were other reasons to blush. The ROH had, I gather, nearly cancelled the Kirov and substituted the Bolshoi during its manifold confusions of recent years. Only a chance phone call from a Bolshoi ballerina allerted Kirov backers to the cut-price plot.

Every time the curtain has fallen in the past month there has been a moment to squirm, when a semi-trained ROH employee in a grey skirt or slacks shuffled forward with a bouquet - one measly bouquet. The timing of the presentation was invariably fluffed, the gracelessness was excruciating, and the prima ballerina or soprano who received the bunch barely had time to curtsy before the delivery person slouched off into the wings.

Before New Labour, Covent Garden employed flunkeys in red coats and powdered wigs. Under our radical modernisers, such trappings became inappropriate and the dear old retainers were unsentimentally sacked. Theatre, however, is a ceremonial rite, and Covent Garden has failed to train its new staff to act with dignity.

Notwithstanding recent reports of sweetness and light, poisonous vapours are seeping through the ROH. The marketing director, Richard Shaw, is about to go - the fourth in as many years - and the board, according to one of its members, is "in absolute chaos".

Left to its own devices, Covent Garden might muddle through, but the intrusion of political agendas has turned the place into an abattoir. My media mogul, who happens also to be chairman of the Arts Council, knows the difference between hard facts and airy chimeras. Perhaps that's why he has decided not to seek a second term.

18 July 2000: [UK News] Brown to announce big rise in spending
27 February 2000: [UK News] Camelot to halve its lottery winnings


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999