A decade or so ago I used to write the odd column for Private Eye. I wasn’t the only contributor writing about music and opera so don’t go delving into the archives and think that I was behind any and every story that was being published. Chances are it was someone else. And don’t go asking me whether I wrote such-and-such and article about so-and-so because I’m simply not going to tell you.
I used to send in pieces and whether or not they made it in for the next edition came down to a plethora of reasons: space, relevance, whether it was funny or pithy enough, or simply if someone else hadn’t beaten me to the editor’s desk and the music slot was already filled. The first I knew if my piece had made it in or not was when I opened the magazine later in the week, and if the piece had made it in, chances were that a sub-editor had chopped and changed it. A small cheque would arrive a few days later. As often as not, I wrote a piece and it didn’t get used, and so of course then I didn’t get paid. Once, Ian Hislop commissioned a lengthy piece, but that was far from the norm.
I stopped after a couple of years. Journalism isn’t really my thing. I was (you may laugh) tired of being indignant and sceptical.
I have just stumbled on some of the pieces I wrote which didn’t make it and of course they’ll make excellent blog posts, thus saving me the effort and time of writing a whole bunch of new stuff! (A bit like William Walton then.) A few of them I simply cannot post as they’re very hard-hitting and alarmingly prescient. The subjects have mostly got their just desserts; they don’t need me reminding them of their shortcomings. It’s history now. Some people have even changed for the better, no thanks to me.
Also, Private Eye has a thicker skin than I have and it was easier to be brave hiding behind them than it is sticking my own neck out. I’m pretty sure I’ve already successfully pissed off one or two important people; I don’t need any more of them taking up arms against me, thank you. Not until I’ve hung up my tonsils for good.
The piece below was written ten years ago, and it demonstrates that, bar a few name changes, you could write almost exactly the same piece today.
During ENO’s latest run of The Mikado, KoKo’s “little list” included every serious singer’s top candidates for execution, namely Russell Watson and Charlotte Church. But in this elevated cultural age it was no great surprise to learn then that one offended member of the audience wrote to Richard Suart, the KoKo in question, to complain of his “musical snobbery”. This must be the same musical snobbery that has restrained any opera house so far from employing the two light music superstars; for surely it can be no other reason. Or can it? Perhaps if Watson were to attempt to sing an entire role, without a microphone and at the correct pitch, he might be take seriously by the opera establishment. To call Watson (who manages the strange but contemporary feat of being lauded for his lack of training) an opera singer is akin to calling someone who occasionally fills his car with petrol a qualified mechanic.
But Watson may yet make it onstage, if he really wants to slum it for the feeble fees that properly trained singers can collect in Britain. No doubt aware that its cultural slip is showing, Channel 4, in a transparent attempt to fulfil its “serious programming” remit without, heaven forbid, getting too serious, has dreamt up with ENO a sort of Big Brother Goes To The Opera. Called Operatunity (geddit?), it is a competition “open to anyone without professional experience as an opera singer” which will be entirely televised and for which the big prize is a televised performance at ENO. This may make for “good television” but has anyone at ENO stopped to consider if it makes for “good opera”. Can we also expect to see the RSC choosing, say, its next Hamlet in co-operation with a telly docu-soap? How about having our television programmes made by people who’ve never stepped inside a studio? Or is that happening already?
There is another disturbing new phenomenon developing here. Whereas it is quite acceptable to criticise a pop artist’s singing as, well, crap, by the new trick of marketing the same performer as a “classical” singer any criticism is condemned as snobbish. Rather more sinister but totally in keeping with Blair’s Britain, because Watson is marketed as “The People’s Tenor” anyone daring to stick his head above the parapet and shout “Emperor’s new clothes” becomes by definition an Enemy of the People.
And quite what the appeal is of Charlotte Church is anyone’s guess. Anyone with the tiniest knowledge of singing who has heard her struggle recently through such heavy and demanding vocal challenges as, er, Silent Night must be wondering how many weeks it is before her shredded vocal cords pack up for good.
In other news, the Britten-Pears School for advanced musicians in Snape, Aldeburgh, has received its first letter from someone making enquiries about the “Britney Spears School”.