The former head of English National Opera (ENO) has lashed out at the deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab, for describing Angela Rayner as a “champagne socialist” for attending an opera during the rail strikes.
John Berry told the Observer that he was “shocked” that Labour’s deputy leader had been mocked for attending a performance of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro at Glyndebourne near Lewes. “It’s incredibly sad and embarrassing. Coming under attack for going to an opera is ridiculous,” he said.
Standing in for Boris Johnson at PMQs last week, Raab had poked fun at Rayner’s absence from the RMT picket line: “She was at the Glyndebourne music festival sipping champagne, listening to opera. Champagne socialism is back in the Labour party.”
Afterwards, Rayner hit back: “My advice to the deputy prime minister is to cut out the snobbery and brush up on his opera. The Marriage of Figaro is the story of a working-class woman who gets the better of a privileged but dim-witted villain.”
Berry was artistic director of ENO from 2005 to 2015, staging award-winning productions including Anthony Minghella’s Madam Butterfly and Mike Leigh’s The Pirates of Penzance. He is now working on a production about Luciano Pavarotti through his new company, Scenario Two.
He spoke of his frustration that elitist attacks on the arts had been revived when opera houses are doing their utmost to reach out to new and diverse audiences: “We produce high-quality, world-beating work in this country and we shouldn’t be embarrassed about it and politicians shouldn’t take cheap shots at it,” he said.
“I feel embarrassed that Ms Rayner should be criticised for going to see an opera by one of the greatest composers, staged by fabulous performers. Without relying on public subsidy, the Glyndebourne festival opera provides work for hundreds of freelance artists and has an outstanding outreach programme. It’s incredibly unfortunate that the word elitism starts to creep back into the arts in this way.
“We don’t have this reaction when an MP goes to Wimbledon or to a pop event. Why would we have this when a minister goes to an arts event?”
He drew comparisons with European countries, where “it’s a badge of honour to hold an important cultural post within the government”. “Politicians in Europe want to be seen at cultural events,” he said.
“When European colleagues observe the conversations in the UK about elitism in the arts, they are shocked.”