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Exclusion by design

8 Nov

barbican head pic

Was looking at the future programming of the Barbican Art Gallery this morning and was amazed to find out that their Box Office has gone cashless on the 1st of November. I find it extraordinary for a major venue subsidised both by the Arts Council and The City of London to instigate this measure under the guise of speed of transactions and/or safety. Surely in the middle class bubble the management of the Barbican operates in, nobody is without a bank account…but looking further afield and it was reported in 2017 by charity Toynbee Hall that 1.7 million people don’t have a bank account and crucially:

  • 94% of people without a bank account have a personal income of below £17,500 per annum, and 91% live in households where the total income is £17,500 per annum.
  • 55% are in council housing, while 24% are in the private rental sector
  • 31% are between the ages of 20-29 and 26% between the ages of 40-49.
  • 70% are recorded as having nothing in savings, while 20.5% have between £1-100.
  • 73% primarily use another financial product, such as a Post Office Current Account or credit union, while 27% are cash-only.
  • 5% are recorded as saying they get to the end of every month without any money while 35.5% are recorded as doing so fairly regularly.
  • 42% currently use, or have previously used, debt advice services.
  • 53% are either “very confident” or “fairly confident” using email and social media websites, and leaving feedback on shopping websites.
  • 44% use a smartphone

It’s clear the demographic the Barbican is excluding is near the poverty line and their life must be hard enough to not be allowed to use any pocket money they have to buy a cinema ticket, theatre or concert ticket at the Barbican. Why this form of social apartheid is allowed to go on unquestioned is stunning to me. If the small cushion of public funding is meant to encourage venues to be as open as possible to all, that surely means people without a bank account should have a way to access their services too.

Please consider writing to the Barbican to voice your opposition to this blatantly exclusionary policy. Their contact address is and ask them to forward your message to Sandeep Dwesar their Chief Operating & Financial Officer.

cashless barbican

The notice on the Barbican website explaining the change of policy

A bass with no balls

9 Nov

This morning was a strange one, watching the smug permatanned face of Donald Trump pretend to be presidential for five minutes before returning into the usual idiotic drivel in his acceptance speech. As I drunk my cup of coffee and ate the sad remains of a slice of carrot cake I thought I’d catch up with Instagram.

One of the first posts to see was by Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov. A triumphant photo he took with Trump, congratulating him, with prerequisite misplaced Americanism, for his election. After over 100 likes, the comments from disaffected fans mentioning Trump’s record on LGBT issues started coming in, the post was unceremoniously deleted. Isn’t it wonderful when anyone thinks that in this day and age simply deleting a post on social media will make it go away.

Sorry Ildar in order for you to have that post ready to go the moment Trump won, you are indeed a big fan of his. Which in itself is fine. But at least have the balls to back up your belief in him when the going gets hard. Deleting it was really stupid. You are a good singer but proved to be a spineless human being in this instance.

2015, my operatic year

31 Dec

2015 reviewDear readers…I have been a bad boy this year and my blogging was rather infrequent. Mind you, if you follow me on any social media you probably have heard more from me than you’d like to…but thanks for persevering.

2015 has been an unremarkable year for opera in Britain, mainly due to companies feeling the squeeze on budgets which for most meant a retreat to standard rep and taking few chances. The much derided Royal Opera diet of Traviatas, Bohèmes and Toscas has become a joke that keeps on giving over the last three seasons. Thankfully smaller companies have emerged as the places to find more challenging material and more imaginative interpretations. The largest cloud cast has been again the pitiful state of Scottish Opera and the continuing upheaval at English National Opera. The year’s major highlights were provided by Glyndebourne, Opera Holland Park and Welsh National Opera.

The ups

Glyndebourne + On Tour / Saul
Barry Kosky’s exuberant production displayed a sure hand in blending the drama of Handel’s music a bleak dark grey stage and mountains of props. Never wavering from the emotional heart of the piece he put unremitting focus on the acting and how the high emotions were projected to the auditorium. It was impressive to listen, a sleek spectacle and an imaginative retelling that left no doubt in my head that he just gets it. A great moment for Glyndebourne and a production to be remembered for a very long time.

OHP / Flight
Holland Park did Jonathan Dove proud for staging his cheeky little opera in a straight but not boring way. It was not the hottest ticket of their season, but the young cast brought tones of brio to this tightly woven tale of human relationships.

SO / Inés de Castro
Scottish Opera brought out the baroque aesthetic of the work in a very simple staging by Olivia Fuchs that afforded ample opportunities to show off the singers. Stephanie Corley was a force to be reckoned with as Inés. Just wish SO spent more time sorting its administrative and financial side and championing more Scottish composers and their output. This was a gory triumph.

ENO / The Indian Queen
Peter Sellars is the proverbial mad man of the operatic village. This production of this work by Purcell was exhausting to watch but the sheer maximalism of the additions to the score and text made it one of those memorable failures that one tries to unpick in their memory months later. It was baffling and extraordinary, sublime and odd. Lucy Crowe in glowing voice under the baton of Laurence Cummings was superb. And was allowed mercifully the stage to herself to show everyone how it is possible to fill the expanse of the Coliseum with her voice that fills one’s heart with content.

Birmingham Opera / The Ice Break
My third opera excursion to Birmingham and another unqualified success. Tippett is criminally neglected these days and this production set in an airport resonated with the migrant crisis unfolding across Europe and has worsened since this productions saw the light of day. It crackled with energy and presented opera making as collaborative activity. Requiring active involvement by the cast, community chorus and all of us watching.

ENO / Queen of Spades
David Alden’s production had a lot of holes in the narrative continuity but it was worth the price of admission for the extraordinary conducting by Ed Gardner and the magisterial, otherworldly Countess  of Felicity Palmer. Who still has incredible reserves of voice and a stage presence to obliterate anyone else. Pure magic at work. 

OHP / Il Trittico
Holland Park was very ambitious to present Puccini’s triptych and it was a spectacular success. Most memorable the shattering interpretation of Suor Angelica by Anne Sophie Duprels who distilled the dramatic potential to unbearable intensity. Incredible to think this was her debut of the role…hope she gets to sing it many more times.

Glyndebourne / Poliuto
The return of Michael Fabiano to Glyndebourne with this infrequently performed tenor vehicle. He was eminently watchable and sang with great clarity and passion. The conducting of Enrique Mazzola brought restless energy to Donizetti’s score and softened the blow of a rather pedestrian production by Mariame Clément. 

Blackheath Opera / Idomeneo
A bracing community opera that brought the work to its basics. It had all the fizz the recent Covent Garden outing lacked. Kirstin Sharpin was spectacular in her description of the turmoil of Elettra, white hot intensity at its very best. 

SWP / Arcangelo: Lacrimae with Anna Prohaska
Not strictly an opera performance but worth mentioning for the sheer delicacy and charisma of Prohaska. Myriads of colours engulfed us. Her Purcell arias were particularly impressive each one a small acted drama. She is definitely one of the most compelling musicians working today. 

Wigmore Hall / Anna Caterina Antonacci + Donald Sulzen / La voix humaine
A sublime afternoon and if strictly speaking it was a concert. Antonacci is a dab hand in breathing life into the damaged woman of Poulenc’s work. Every word mattered, every gesture, every look. We have to be thankful that Radio 3 relayed it live so we have for posterity a document of this great artist at work. 

WNO / I Puritani
Welsh National Opera has been a great company to follow for all lovers of bel canto. After presenting Donizetti’s three queens last year they offered a rather beautifully stark production by Annilese Miskimmon of Bellini’s masterpiece. Carlo Rizzi conducted with true flair and Rosa Feola’s Elvira was a stunning stage creation. Balancing this figment of the gothic imagination perfectly. She displayed great taste and all the coloratura became a descriptive part of the heroine’s disturbed mind and mood changes. Bringing to Bellini’s score the depth of insight it deserves. Not a performance for the canary fanciers of old, but a romantic personage of true richness. 

ENO / The Force of Destiny
The production by  Calixto Bieito was probably too subdued for some, but made excellent use of the limited stage resources of ENO and endowed us with a stunning debut of the year, Tamara Wilson. Her opulent Leonora was stunning. A big voice with a warm enveloping sound and enough agility to overcome Verdi’s many hurdles. 

ROH / Andrea Chénier 
Was disappointing in the production value stakes. A dull “period” production by McVicar was cumbersome but at least it didn’t ruffle many feathers. But it remains memorable for the truly brilliant singing of Jonas Kaufmann this was probably the first time I enjoyed his singing so much. Up to now I was one of the doubters finding his sound not Italianate enough but he was exceptional as Chenier and was ably supported by Željko Lučić and Eva-Maria Westbroek. Tony Pappano’s conducting was too episodic and frankly lumpy to make sense of the whole instead giving us disconnected arias making the evening feel unusually long.  

ROH / The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny
That was one production that was roundly unloved by the press but was definitely sleek and particularly its integration of projections was very accomplished. And let’s be frank any production that gives me the chance to see Anne Sofie von Otter on stage is worth seeing no matter what. Above all Weill is worth a resurgence Mahagonny is so much more than just the famous tunes. 

ROH / Madama Butterfly
Everyone was predicting doom (aka a cancellation by our diva), as I was scheduled to attend the final performance of the run with Kristīne Opolais. This was the performance that totally changed my mind about her. She sang with such great warmth and attention never wavering on her interpretation of Cio Cio San portraying her naivety in a subtle way that we could all empathise. This was the opposite of the maudlin mess that this opera can be, it was a glorious evocation of a broken life. Simply superb. 

ROH / Król Roger
And when we thought we’d never see a good production by Kasper Holten at Covent Garden, this production happened. Very rarely has set gigantism been deployed to such remarkably subtle effect. The spectacular performance by Mariusz Kwiecień was the corner stone of this sophisticated production. 

ROH / La Bohème
My main reason for bothering to book for that rusty old Copley production was Anna Netrebko and Jennifer Rowley. Thank heavens they were both superb the former a surprisingly subtle Mimi and the latter an all out sass pot as Musetta. The same can’t be said for our Rodolfo who bleated his way through the part in his usual unattractive manner.   

The downs

ENO / Pirates of Penzance
It was rather stodgy for my taste even if it was not short on spectacle. The humour somehow didn’t work for me. A shame as it was my first G&S work. 

SWP / Farinelli and the King
This amalgam of stage play and recital wrapped up in one was unsatisfying in both counts. Iestyn Davies was wonderful as usual filling the Wannamaker Playhouse with his lustrous voice. The play itself was totally innocuous. At no point cared very much for the King and his mental instability. 

ENO / Between Worlds
A confusing mangle of many good ideas topped with a counter tenor shaman figure presiding. Making an opera about the attack on the Twin Towers was always going to be a polarising enterprise and the resulting piece was sensitive and at times touching. If it had stayed naturalistic it could have been an altogether more welcome addition to 2015. But it felt overworked and overstretched, no amounts of commitment by its music staff could redeem it into a satisfying well balanced piece. 



Just don’t mention Rieu

30 Jul

Not fucking Rieu

Another week another fawning article about André Rieu and what we can learn from him to spice up our boring conventional concert experience. His form of entertainment is a very old type of  frothy intellectually disengaged affair. It is a sort of idolatry, a cult of forced entertainment. Somehow the only way to enjoy it seems to be by suspending critical faculties and giving in to the kitsch.

I rather like Viennese polkas and waltzes as background music, but with the visual arts background I have, I cannot possibly ignore the awful presentation of his orchestra. His female players enrobed in acres of cheap looking taffeta in colours that would make Walt Disney go blind. Whipped up in a meringue consistency its stiffness would make Yotam Ottolenghi scream with joy. The whole spectacle, a tasteless, sexless environment for him to preside over , curiously dressed in fitted black tails. I find the whole aesthetic repulsive, and I would really love to read an article with a feminist angle on the outfitting of his orchestra and making adult musicians look like followers of the cult of My Little Pony.

So please stop patronising us that Rieu’s way is the only way to populist relevance. As most orchestras have great community and outreach programmes and diversify in more imaginative ways already. The main difference being that the programming by professional orchestras has an intellectual and aesthetic motivation, it doesn’t just operate on the currency of popular fads and easy listening radio station playlists.

Rieu’s anti-intellectual mush programming of popular tunes and advert-worthy bleeding operatic chunks indulges the lowest common denominator of performance as empty spectacle. That he is phenomenally successful at selling his brand doesn’t automatically make him the shining light everyone should emulate. His abysmal, retrograde presentation is decades behind current norms but rides on that saccharine nostalgia vehicle his public personal depends on to sell tickets in droves.

So give me a world class orchestra dressed in black, making the music they perform the main reason to be there. Instead of the sweet shop horror of Rieu’s crew, resembling a megalomaniac’s idea of a golden past that never existed.

My radio début…

15 Jul


Worth warning you that tomorrow afternoon I will be a guest on The Opera Hour hosted by Richard Scott.

In a previous life I had appeared as a TV interviewee but never on radio. So tomorrow will be at my best behaviour chatting all things opera and playing some favourite arias…no panic it’s just live radio! Hopefully I will make some sort of sense…but certainly fun will be had.

So tune in online on Resonance FM at 16.30 BST or if in London on your FM radio. The programme is also repeated on Monday at 10.00 or listen on demand right here.

The usual disappointment

9 Jun

star facePoliticians…they are all too quick to jump in with leaks and playing to the populist newsmedia gallery.
This morning Harriet Harman was scheduled to give a speech on education and the arts at The Roundhouse. This morning her office, presumably fed soundbites to The Guardian with veiled accusations of inaccessibility directed at the Proms and the Royal Opera House.
You can read the piece here:

It is desperately depressing that politicians once more prioritise their own promotion and offering click bait to a newspaper site that reflects inaccurately the actual content of their speech. 

The complete transcript can be read here:

Slinging mud at premier artistic institutions is never a good tactic when you hope to become the next culture secretary. I would also like to know how she can tell by looking around her while in the audience of the ROH if any working class people where in the audience (I have asked her on Twitter, we may get an insight at the special skills required for such audience segmentation readings…see below). With ticket prices starting at £8 and many free events and exhibitions the ROH is trying to open up further. They run a busy programme of insight talks for both ballet and opera which are open to all.  The Proms, for all their overdrawn programming and unsuitable main venue still allow for day tickets at the princely cost of £5. And broadcast every single concert for free on Radio 3.

Blaming them for the lack of access is the most counter-productive move possible. The subsidy for the arts in the UK and in comparison to most of continental Europe is very small and most of the institutions give excellent value for money. What they need from politicians in return is a stable funding basis so they continue to develop and not having to dread more cuts. The NHS is seen as the sacred cow that no government want to be seen to be tampering with but they have no issues with cutting most national art institutions nearly 20% of their funding. All under the logic that the arts are some luxury we can’t afford in recessionary times.

As the speech itself points out the issue lies with access to arts education and not allowing those disciplines to be the great unknown to the school children of the post-Gove era. The posh and the good of Britain always have had plentiful access to ballet, opera and classical music. The only way for the wider populace to come into contact with the arts is via the media and education. Why can’t simply Labour promise to fund adequately the important artistic institutions of the country and to also reverse the cuts to educational resources and funds for training. If the arts are

fundamental to what it is to be human

then Harriet don’t waste time attacking the very flagship institutions that create the art forms that we aspire to partake in. Spread the love not the negativity.

When the parasite keeps sucking blood

26 Apr

ParasiteWaking up to a most rude tweet happens quite frequently and sometimes they happen to be sent by yours truly (which is even worse).

Coming across this:

by someone who should know better, did infuriate me.

Let’s face it music critics and -ahem- bloggers are parasites to the body of opera singers and directors. As such, too much unnecessarily blood-letting is ill advised, like the old leech based treatments it may endanger the patient. Ben Heppner was valiant in his retirement announcement to make such reductive, nearly offensive, throwaway remarks seems petty and uncouth. Rupert makes his living on the back of the hard work of others and affording them a modicum of respect is the least he can do. Sure, music criticism has to be harsh at times but it can be practiced with more panache and humour. I wonder if RC gave up reviewing today how many rude tweets he would get from all the artists he has offended over the years? I’m guessing none at all.

If you follow me on Twitter you know how downhearted I get every time I spot Christiansen in the audience with his gruff, miserable face looking on, waiting for something he can suck blood out of. Unfortunately he fails to engage in any discourse on social media, maybe he doesn’t have notifications turned on, on his phone…or he simply doesn’t give a shit what the little people think.

I do avoid reading his reviews as they usually are more about him than the production he is meant to critique. His air of earned authority is not quite my idea of what a critic should be about. The lack of humour and sheer pettiness is probably good for the Telegraph’s dwindling online audience and to keeping him employed for a few more years. But does he really inspire anyone to go and see a production? A critic has a life of privileged access to the art form with complimentary tickets showered on them from all directions, the least they can do is encourage an audience to the shows they attend, not become a pantomime dame full of preening self-regard and scaring people off.

Ben Heppner has left already a great legacy and his very upfront and elegant retirement announcement

is a great example of how to make such decisions known. Good luck for his retirement and whatever he will apply himself to, including his fun live tweeting during the Met Opera broadcasts for Canadian Radio. He has always been a class act, unlike many of the parasites that feasted on his off-form nights and claimed prizes for unkind reviews just to contribute to the nasty blood sport that opera reviewing can be. 

No apologies

6 Apr

No apologiesIt is a subject I have been thinking about for a while. How the average opera fan and many people in management positions in the companies around the country have one common characteristic…being nearly apologetic every time they talk to the media and the people around them about the art form.

We seem at times embarrassed or unsure to tell the world that we love opera for all it’s faults and bastard hybridity. For years I was also one of those people when asked by colleagues about opera to throw in a joke and not challenge the stereotypes they had in their heads. Becoming essentially part of the joke perpetuated the popular view that opera is a non worthwhile pursuit and that it had nothing to offer to today’s audiences. By implication agreeing the acting was bad and that the singers resembled white whales. I would frequently catch myself lowering the volume of the car sound system when had to talk to a parking attendant or the such. You see, playing the current top 10 hits  carries very little embarrassment  but playing Cherubini’s Medea may somehow disturb the outside world…what a load of nonsense!

In today’s Observer, Kasper Holten, the Director of Opera at the Royal Opera House sent a letter that resonated with me with its totally unapologetic tone. A voice I only found in the last year or so. I stopped going along with and tolerating the unfounded derision that many hold for the field. As this blog largely encourages, I want them to give it a chance and trying to see it as a living art form that can be pure escapism but also has something to say about the complexity of living in 2014 and being able to transform ideas into something tangible.

Enough with the apologies and being always on the defensive we should instead be ready to fight preconceptions and be the face of the world of opera as the people who support it with our frequent attendance and also be the ones that make others realise that it may be a night out they may enjoy. Have given out recordings and videos to many friends and colleagues to gauge reactions and to see what they thought. Have convinced some to come to recitals and their sheer astonishment at the unamplified voice is always worth the effort. They may not be at the right time in their lives to have the time to spend attending frequently but at least we owe it to all the artists and everyone behind the scenes making our favourite pursuit happen, to smash media constructs that have them believe it is a world alien to them, an exclusive milieu they can never fit in.

Look around on Twitter and all around you before a performance, for every oleaginous, thick-skinned plutocrat there are four times more people from much more unexceptional backgrounds, students, pensioners, office workers, teachers, tourists. We are a diverse, passionate crowd and we are also the ultimate weapon against preconceptions of elitism. We can combat the popular beliefs by speaking from experience and extending a friendly hand to those who may want to join us. No more apologies and self-defeatism.

Radio broadcast promotion on a different level

8 Mar

wig-red.pngThis morning on Twitter was notable for the tragicomic tweets of Iestyn Davies, trying to bring to his followers’ attention that tonight’s performance of Rodelinda is live on Radio 3.

Clearly informed by all the reviews and a few sour blogs written about the production he probably made a much better promotional effort than any official opera house twitter account could have ever hope to.

As a tribute to the hilarity and oddball passion here are some of those tweets 😉

I saw the production last Sunday and has been swirling around my head ever since. My thoughts will settle in the form of a blog post…soon. In the meantime listen to the radio this evening, it was musically very rewarding.

While ENO’s promo was a bit more…sedate

Valentine’s Day tat, for every price point

10 Feb

It’s the biggest selling opportunity for retailers after Christmas. A chance to sell us crappy pink and red things as a signifier for a society that has been brainwashed with the bleach of consumerism. I despair at the thought that one’s love for a partner is measured with a bouquet of semi-wilted red roses, a box of chocolates or a stupid teddy bear. The lack of imagination and the numbing sense of conformity are the real killers of our day-to-day existence and love lives.  But yet many will go and buy those items designed by committee and targeted to our inner emotional fuckwit.

Thankfully being a gay man makes things a little bit easier, as retailers haven’t totally got round into creating non gender specific gifts for this “occasion”. Everything is geared towards the bad karma of a straight relationship and trying to wipe off months of spousal neglect with a diamond or some flowers. With lovers and boyfriends I’ve never had many rules, bar from DO NOT BUY ME ANYTHING FOR VALENTINES OR YOU ARE OUT OF THE DOOR rule.

So let’s have a giggle at the kind of crud retailers want us to buy in the belief that somehow our other half will fall in love with us even more and will never leave us.

Oh look…socks, chocolate, champagne, flowers, underwear and perfume oh and a moustache grooming certificate? It seems like they had some stock left from Christmas and thought they’d give it a February twist.

Having a look at the different websites one gender stereotype is the most troubling. That of a passive girlfriend that waits to open her presents in her new “sexy” lingerie (top marks M&S and John Lewis). So do people still respond positively to this old-fashioned stereotyping?

Here’s a random but representative selection:


The Valentine s Day Gift Finder    LibertyLoveBoat

Yes, Liberty the love boat…groan

Marks and Spencer

Valentines Day Gifts    Marks   Spencer

Oh of course pink underwear…what else.


Valentines   Clintons

All a bit desperate at Clintons towers…animals begging.


Valentine s Day   Friday 14th February 2014

When you fuse St Sebastian’s arrows with Valentine’s Day you’re on a winner…bravo Tesco.


Valentine s Day Flowers  Recipes  Gifts  Lingerie and Cards   Asda

ASDA designed their page for the 5 year old market…sage choice

Jo Malone

Luxury Fragrances  Candles  Bath   Body products   Jo Malone

Jo Malone goes for the uber predictable red rose look

John Lewis

Shop for Valentine s Day   John Lewis

John Lewis goes for the patronising model in silky underwear about to open presents look…


Valentine s Day   Valentine s Gifts   Selfridges   Shop Online

Selfridges goes for a rather low key and high price take

House of Fraser

House of Fraser™   Clothes  Fashion  Beauty  Furniture   Electronics

A bit boring by HoF but the photography is good

Fortnum and Mason

Valentine s Day Gifts   Fortnum   Mason

Chocolate presents are apparently original for Fortnum’s customers…


The usual insipid Apple

The usual, insipid Apple

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