Virginia Bottomley was right to refuse a new Cardiff Opera House. Money, says Edward Pearce, should go to performers not buildingsby Edward Pearce / February 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in February 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
Will I be struck by lightening, my name erased from the public record and my soul committed to Hell for saying that Virginia Bottomley has got something spot on right? Will that happen all over again if I add that Lord Crickhowell, Dame Gwynneth Jones and the “arts community” of Cardiff are behaving like a collective baby denied a second platinum-inlaid rattle? Here are two words to distrust: “arts”-something never to be confused with music, painting and literature-and “community,” which means a clique of official spokesmen touting for an interest group. Howls of rage have gone up from the Cardiff chapter of the “AC” about an act of monstrous philistinism, an affront to the Welsh nation and its civilisation and proof that the Department of National Heritage is a public enemy. Their project, “an exciting and challenging building from one of our leading architects” (further shudders) for a new Cardiff Opera House, had been wickedly denied by shameless home counties Ginny. The lament which followed would have done credit to the chorus of good middle period Verdi-Macbeth or Il Trovatore, say-a witches’ sabbath of the culturally-aware provincial middle class. The fact that Wales, so far from suffering discrimination, had been given double the lottery money indicated by a ratio of national population, didn’t matter. Neither did the fact that Wales’s big grant this time was for a coastal conservation park attractive to perhaps 20 times the opera public. It didn’t matter that Cardiff has a quite decent, if not de luxe, venue for its excellent national opera’s short season, or that anyway we are talking about a part-time opera house. Most of the time, this building would have housed commercial shows which don’t expect subsidy. For the arts community had expected, and had monstrously not been given, ?2.7m to be spent on a highly relevant and significant ugly building. Was the public ever consulted? And did they like the sort of progressive architecture which had been chosen? Stuff the public-the arts community had been actively involved. The message to the minister should be clear. Virginia would have known well the class of people she was dealing with-other politicians, wronged sopranos and the local cultural gentry. This group was captured by Kingsley Amis in his novel That Uncertain Feeling by the Gruffydd-Williamses giving valued patronage to a tosh-mediaeval verse play written in posturing Dylanese. How could she have defied this elite? Anyway, three cheers and a sip of Heidsieck to her; also two simple questions. Why, if we are in favour of opera, are we also required to be in favour of opera houses? Why, if Jeremy Isaacs’s claim for a gross building subsidy is foolishly accepted, must the department then submit to equivalent demands across Britain or be charged with ethnic prejudice against the regions? (In a preview of the much-trailed BBC2 television series House we watch a Royal Opera House henchman, blessed with all that money, getting rid of a decent employee as gaily as a utilities chairman. We will undoubtedly be hearing more about that.) But then arts communities from Covent Garden to Lerwick are pharaonic. They seek immortality in steel, glass, and superfluous-to-needs monumentality. Future archaeologists will one day excavate dressing rooms, re-gildings and “facilities.” No community can be without facilities. Official persons, strap-hanging on composers who wanted only to be heard, must build tombs in some valley of the Facilities. And the bishop-affronting lottery must pay. It has, after all, aroused disgusting avarice in the sort of people who would never be allowed into an arts community. In one detail, the lottery crowd and Virginia Bottomley are at fault. Present rules abet the marmoreal itch by restricting grants to things rather than money. I know people running brilliant touring theatre who don’t have things to spend a grant on (apart from maybe a new van). What they want is a small fraction of the Cardiff opera-gorge to guarantee the next tour against weather and the spasmodic theatre-going in Billingham. Under the rules, they can’t have a cent, but if they wanted to erect a furnished silo, they would be laughing. But beyond that correctable flaw in the rules, what we are up against is the tiger instinct of the middle class in pursuit of a hand-out. There is also a line of blackmail which says that not flinging up concrete buildings is rampant philistinism and so clearly the opponents hate the music played inside such buildings too. Perhaps so. But if we truly loved Mozart we wouldn’t let official spokesmen or aggrandising architects clutter a melodic line which can be enjoyed in a Mechanics’ Institute or on green grass.