When the fat lady sings

English National Opera

“Just why some people consider that fat men singing as if they have just had their testicles tugged is the height of cultural sophistication is beyond me. If my most common form of recreation, supporting the mighty Wimbledon FC, received the same level of subsidy as opera, I would be able to get a taxi to and from the ground, enjoy a few beers, sit in the directors’ stand and still have money left for a fish and chip supper.

“I urge the government to stand firm and let the market decide the future of the Royal Opera House. If there is a financial crisis let those who enjoy this dubious pleasure bail it out” (letter to The Guardian November 6).

Some socialists and leftwingers might nod their heads in agreement, feeling the class hatred for the toffs who attend operas surging through their macho proletarian veins. Well, they would be extremely foolish to take such an attitude.

The ‘why should we care?’ comments above were in reaction to the events of last week concerning the Royal Opera House. Chris Smith, the government’s culture secretary, proposed on Monday that the Royal Opera (plus the Royal Ballet) should share the same building with the English National Opera. This would involve the ENO moving out of the Coliseum in the West End and moving into the redeveloped Covent Garden Theatre - as it will be known - when it eventually reopens in 1999.

This merger scheme was in itself a response to the growing financial crisis of the ROH. The ROH, the most heavily subsidised arts institution in this country, had run up a deficit of £4.7 million before Covent Garden closed in July - and this was projected to rise by £3 million by the end of the financial year (the ENO also has debts of £2.5 million). The ROH receives £15 million a year subsidy from the Arts Council and was awarded a National Lottery grant of £78.5 million towards the £213 million cost of redeveloping Covent Garden.

But all to no avail - or so it seemed. Luckily for the ROH and its chairman, Lord Chadlington - formerly Peter Gummer, a prominent adviser to the Tory Party during the last election - anonymous donors stumped up £15 million at the last minute and the ROH was saved from insolvency - yet again. These emergency donations ensure that the ROH can continue to perform while its Covent Garden home remains closed.

Looking at the class profile of the individuals concerned, you can understand the sentiments in the Guardian letter. There is a certain gut class contempt for the establishment and their culture - which is inaccessible to the vast majority of workers.

But Marxists unequivocally reject such workerist philistinism. For us to engage in ‘opera bashing’ would be to indulge in the politics of envy. This may satisfy The Sun or Class War but it has nothing to do with the Marxist project of universal human liberation - ie, the struggle for communism. Karl Marx explicitly rejected the politics of envy - his own expression, it is worth noting - precisely because he wanted the working class to become a ruling class that masters every aspects of society - especially the high culture of the bourgeoisie. Marx had no time for those who wanted the working class to remain a ‘prole class’, driven at best by an atavistic desire to take revenge on society by sending it crashing to the ground. Equal - yes. But not equally impoverished.

Of course, a lot of nonsense is talked about subsidies and the opera. Almost every cultural activity in our society is subsidised. Sport, art galleries, films, theatre - you name it. Most could not survive otherwise. The opera is no different. Indeed, compared to most other advanced countries, opera in this country is heavily under-subsidised.

Just take a look at the West End. Andrew Lloyd-Webber musicals like Cats or Starlight Express are good ‘proly’ entertainment and make huge profits. However, these ‘accessible’ shows are booked years in advance and a ticket for a good seat will cost you anything up to £100 or more. More expensive, in fact, than most seats in the ENO - and also totally unchallenging artistically.

As a tradition, opera is very expensive. It does not, cannot, come cheap. Staging an opera requires a vast team of highly skilled and experienced people. ENO has 91 musicians on full salary and pensions, costing £2.7 million per year. ROH has 120. All of them are full members of Equity and the Musicians Union and expect to be paid the going rate. An ‘average’ opera needs something like 10 sopranos, eight mezzo-sopranos, 10 tenors and eight bass. Add the extras and you have a nightly company of around 60. And if you want to do Wagner’s The Ring you need a mini-army to even attempt it. No wonder that Lord Goodman, a former ROH chairman, once vetoed a tour on the grounds that it would be cheaper to pay the audience to come to London.

Then there is the question of the sheer physical/technical prowess of the opera singer. Like the very best actors, footballers or poets it is a very rare talent. It would be nonsense to say there can be any number of Pavarottis or Jessie Normans - if only we had socialism. By definition only a minuscule percentage of people will be able to attain such a level of physical-technical-artistic excellence. Such a demanding ‘trade’ could only have been nurtured and perfected through a system of patronage - whether it be the church, the pope, the king or the state. To argue that opera should sink or swim in the market place - or that operatic ability would not need subsidies under socialism, as it will spontaneously emerge on an ‘equal’ basis - is to argue for its destruction as an art form.

Opera can only be well or properly performed by highly talented artists. A school production of Brecht’s The Caucasian chalk circle may be bearable - even praiseworthy. A ropy version of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, on the other hand, would be sheer hell. As Fiona Maddocks of The Observer wrote: “Any opera lover would rather stand through a good performance of Götterdämmerung than sit in comfort through a bad one” (November 9). Who in their right mind would sit through the Penge Amateur Operatic Society’s version of Mozart’s Don Giovanni when they can see it done properly at the ENO or ROH?

Communists should not fall for the phoney ‘anti-elitism’ being pushed by the likes of Chris Smith - nor, for that matter, Mark Honingbaum of The Guardian. He claimed Chris Smith’s proposals “signalled the end of the gravy train for the Royal Opera House” and even praised the “government’s assault on privilege” (November 8). Such petty bourgeois resentments should have no part to play in the workers’ movement.

It need hardly be said that in their day many operas scandalised the bourgeoisie, who were particularly shocked by their steamy sexual content. Many classic operas contend with deep political and social questions, and the human condition in general. The plot of La Traviata, to name just one, is a radical examination of social divisions and class antagonisms.

Communists aim to raise the horizons of the working class - culturally and politically. Without a genuinely cultured working class it is a cruel illusion to believe that we can build a socialist society, let alone arrive at communism.

Eddie Ford