Why on earth shouldn’t Angela Rayner go to the opera? | Martin Kettle

Dominic Raab’s attack on the Labour frontbencher’s attendance at Glyndebourne says more about our class-ridden approach to culture than it does about her

It wouldn’t happen in Germany, and certainly not in Italy. It wouldn’t cause as much as a raised eyebrow in the US or even in Russia. Only in Britain would a political leader going to the opera stir a controversy.

The fact that the opera was at a country house in the Sussex countryside, with a black-tie dress code is part of the story, of course. That the politician in question is a Labour figure, a woman and working class probably even more so.

But the really pathetic thing about the whole confected row this week over Angela Rayner’s visit to Glyndebourne is what it says about us British – and our still class-ridden society and approach to culture – not about her. None of it is good.

It is beyond dispute that opera houses have always been favoured playgrounds of the powerful and the rich. They still are. But none of that means that those who are not powerful and not rich should not go to the opera either. The arts ought to be for everyone. Many musicians and politicians made enormous efforts in the 20th century to make opera more open to all.

The decline of state funding for the arts has put that in peril, especially in the UK (things are very different in Germany, for example). Yet what is particularly ironic about the Rayner visit to Glyndebourne is not that she had to pay a lot. Actually she didn’t. Her ticket cost her £62, which is less than the price of entry to many Premier League games and a West End theatre show, never mind the £280 price tag of a Glastonbury festival ticket this year.

Radical: Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) at Glyndebourne festival.
Radical: Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) at Glyndebourne festival. Photograph: Alastair Muir

Nor is it the fact that the opera she attended, The Marriage of Figaro, is a musical masterpiece for the ages – although it unquestionably is. It is that Mozart’s opera glories in the complete and repeated humbling of an aristocrat by his servants, and in particular by the maid Susanna, one of the most compelling female roles ever written. Politically it is a truly radical piece.

It ought to be entirely up to Rayner to decide to go to the opera, whether at Glyndebourne or anywhere else. Unfortunately, that is not the case in this country. That’s partly because the slashing of music teaching in schools and colleges, and the marginalisation of classical music on TV have prevented lots of people from discovering opera’s powers and pleasures.

But it is also because modern politicians, brought up to be terrified about the tabloid press, mostly steer well clear of the arts in general – for fear of being dubbed “elitist” – and of opera houses in particular. The contrast with Germany, where I have several times seen politicians from Angela Merkel down, is again huge and entirely to our loss.

I write about politics a lot. I also go to the opera a lot. I pay for my tickets except when I am there as a journalist, reviewing. But in all my trips to the opera, I have rarely encountered any British politicians. There are a few exceptions, and they may not thank me for mentioning their attendance – people such as Michael Gove, George Osborne and David Young among Conservatives, Tessa Jowell, Harriet Harman and Nick Brown from Labour, as well as David Trimble the former Ulster Unionist leader (who is particularly keen on the operas of Richard Strauss). I even interviewed Margaret Thatcher once about Handel operas – bizarrely it was in Kyiv.

Dominic Raab’s cheap sneer at Rayner in the Commons yesterday is a reminder that Tories probably feel more entitled and relaxed at the opera than Labour politicians. But there are more trained musicians on the Labour benches than you might think. David Lammy was a chorister in his youth. Thangam Debbonaire is a cellist.

Perhaps British politics – and the British press – will one day lose their stupid, hostile hang-ups about the arts. On that, Rayner deserves the last word. Her tweet this week about going to Glyndebourne at the invitation of an old friend in the orchestra ended with “Never let anyone tell you you’re not good enough. [Violin emoji]”. Not just the last word, but also the best.

Angela Rayner at Glyndebourne

Contributor

Martin Kettle

The GuardianTramp

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