How war was waged on a whim

Covent Garden, The Untold Story
August 10, 2001

Against a blood-red sky, the noble profile of the Royal Opera House catches the last rays of a setting sun on the jacket of this book. This, we are dramatically forewarned, is to be the tale of a latter-day Valhalla: of greed and complacency, corruption and fallen idols. But as the subtitle advises us, it is not all to be grand operatic stuff: for these are also "Dispatches from the English Culture War, 1945-2000", gritty reportage from a journalist who has been at the frontline of classical music for some years. Donning the garb of both Cassandra and Kate Adie, the author takes the recent history of Covent Garden as a case study in how "Englishness" has blighted the arts in postwar society. It is a very millennial book, with a very "English" Valhalla: not so much twilight of the gods as the end of the affair.

In the past, Norman Lebrecht has courted controversy and this book is no exception. The author subscribes to something like the cock-up theory of history: institutional policies made and broken by personal whims and frailties. From David Webster's self-interested manoeuvrings for a musical director in 1945 through to easy reliance on government contacts and the redevelopment fiasco, this makes for dispiriting reading. It is all the sadder for such abundant evidence of talent, reason and goodwill among so many of the administrators and artists who have haunted the corridors of Covent Garden.

Lebrecht has researched widely and bravely to bring us an absorbing study of how incompetence, government collusion and lack of vision have conspired to bring the beacon of postwar cultural hopes to its knees at the turn of the millennium. On the past decade he is both invigoratingly indiscreet and passionately committed, suggesting that privatisation could put Covent Garden out of the misery of its own "Englishness". Lebrecht calls this the "prudent" rather than the "radical" solution, though whether all readers will agree is another matter. It should stimulate debate among music lovers and cultural commentators, and perhaps even (hope springs eternal) among politicians.

I have, however, a number of reservations about the book. Lebrecht has a penchant for paradox, simile and the neatly balanced antithesis. Often this is highly effective: dealings with the hypersensitive Benjamin Britten over Gloriana are beautifully evoked; Aldeburgh, comments Lebrecht, "recalled the fickleness of the Elizabethan Court, where yesterday's golden knight was tomorrow's grim beheaded". But surely it is a miscalculation to suggest that the audience at Otto Klemperer's 1961 Fidelio was "gripped as if by a John Buchan thriller" (fond as one is of Buchan).

Nor are many of the personal comments about individuals generous or even especially germane. Lebrecht respects few reputations. "Being sweet-talked in public by Gerald Kaufman," he writes gleefully, "was a bit like being nuzzled by a pet jellyfish." More generally, though, one gains the impression that the author believes in an underlying link between art and moral leadership. We may be wary of this, but who could begrudge the admiration with which Lebrecht writes about the doughty Ninette de Valois, or the warmth of his pages on the great Rafael Kubelik?

The broader historical and cultural context also troubles. Some of it is overly schematic, an inserted backdrop rather than a convincing analytical framework. It is too neat to depict Britain as an impoverished, culturally responsive nation in 1945 and a rich, philistine one in 2000. One is sceptical of Lebrecht's assertion that Britain in 1946 "fell back on culture for comfort and joy", especially when he quotes somebody saying:

"You could always get in, even on first nights." Expanding facilities aside, this hardly suggests a rush on seats for the latest Nutcracker or Mastersingers .

Here the problem apparently stems from Lebrecht's insistence on pursuing the quarry of Englishness and an "English culture war". We used to be proud of our nation and its culture, he argues; but across the years we have allowed the less pleasant aspects of Englishness - complacency, atavism, mediocre compromise - to infiltrate the bastions of civilisation. There is probably much in this. But the notion of an "English culture war" is not terribly helpful. The only culture "war" we have ever had is a rather civilised academic debate about the meaning of "culture" itself. Indeed, within two years of Covent Garden being reopened, T. S. Eliot was discussing this very issue in his Notes towards the Definition of Culture . Eliot tended in life towards the Arnoldian line of culture as high art, and that vision is enshrined in Lebrecht's book.

As far as this Arnoldian tradition is concerned, there was a consensus among politicians and intellectuals at least until the 1970s about the role of art in society. From the earliest, though, it was more of a civilising mission than a culture war: barricades were hardly to be stormed to bring culture to the grateful masses, even in 1945. Forty years later, missionary zeal was out; putting a price on art was in. Small wonder, perhaps, that Covent Garden continued to beat a bewildered retreat into a world of its own. The populist overtures were off-key; but even with radical changes, who would have been to Covent Garden what Valery Gergiev has been to the Kirov Opera?

Whether Covent Garden could genuinely have helped to sustain a cultural renaissance in Britain remains a moot point. Many of Lebrecht's criticisms certainly strike home with great force. But as the author himself acknowledges, what has most harmed public responsiveness is consumerism and today's culture ("culture" in that other sense) of artistic relativism - a relativism shabbily upheld by modern politicians. Lebrecht has a pithy line on the current cultural scene: gauging public opinion about opera or ballet, he says, is "rather like asking a butcher to canvass the views of passing vegetarians". Whatever our opinion about the place of Covent Garden in all this, one thing of which we cannot accuse Lebrecht is a pusillanimous attitude to art in society.

John Gardiner is writing a book on the changing reputation of the Victorians.

Covent Garden, The Untold Story: Dispatches from the English Culture War 1945-2000

Author - Norman Lebrecht
ISBN - 0 684 85143 1
Publisher - Simon and Schuster
Price - £25.00
Pages - 580

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