Last Thursday, I had a glorious evening out with my mum at the opera. A relatively recent fan, I've come to love opera. My first was a performance of Verdi's 'Nabucco' in the magnificent state opera house of Kosice, Slovakia, reputed to be the finest in Eastern Europe. I sat alone in a box, utterly captivated. The cast wore running shoes and even jeans under their sparse costumes, and the audience was quite obviously not the great and the good of Kosice.
Interestingly, not since 19th-century Italy was opera regarded as entertainment across all classes. I was reminded of this at the opening night of 'Rigoletto', by Scottish Opera in the Theatre Royal, Glasgow. What a marvellous experience it was.
The audience were warned prior to his debut performance with Scottish Opera, that baritone Aris Argiris, playing the deformed, malicious jester in the eponymous role, had a cold. Other than a cough here and there, I wouldn't have guessed, but then I'm an opera fan
, not a connoisseur. It was a masterful debut. Elitism usually associated with opera was absent in the youngish Glaswegian audience, who didn't conform to bourgeois operatic etiquette: they applauded when they're not 'meant' to, and I even heard congratulatory heckling in Italian at one point.
'Rigoletto' is an intriguing, tragic story, and the composer, Verdi, is an interesting character. The cast is overwhelmingly male – for good reason. Verdi portrays what we would now describe as 'toxic masculinity.' According to Robert Thicknesse, the writer and opera critic, Verdi was a great social critic, and an observer of the failures and fractures of his own society, as well as of the great power structures of church and state. Not one of the men portrayed in Rigoletto comes off well, and the hideous, debauched treatment of young women, particularly Gilda, the female lead sung beautifully and tragically by Lina Johnson, could have spawned its very own 'Me Too' movement. For sure, the composer was ahead of his time.
Talking of elitism, a case in point is BBC Scotland's justification to Nicola Sturgeon last week for inviting the widely condemned and former right-hand man to Trump, Steve Bannon, to speak at an Edinburgh conference which it co-hosted. Freedom of speech had nothing to do with it. The first minister (who pulled out of the conference as a result of the invitation to Bannon), said simply: 'I will not be part of any process that risks legitimising far-right, racist views.' Fair enough. Posited, no doubt, on their public duty of balanced state broadcasting, in an email to Sturgeon the BBC claimed that Bannon should be heard, as he is a 'powerful and influential figure…promoting an anti-elite movement.'
There are so many things wrong with this defence, but let's focus on the 'anti-elite' bit. Bannon is nothing of the kind. In the first half of the last century the economist and sociologist Wilfredo Pareto reminded us that democracies, for all their talk about governance of, by, and for, the people, are ruled by elites just as much as under the old aristocratic regimes. What we really get are two sets of competing elites – Machiavelli's 'lions' and 'foxes'. The lions are the elite who happen to be in power, while the foxes are the elite waiting to take power. And the foxes always pose as the champion of the people.
This pattern goes all the way back to the Gracchi, the Roman aristocrats who inspired rebellions against the senate while posing as leaders of the common people. Bannon is not the leader of an anti-elite movement. He is just a 'fox' taking advantage of the current situation to retrieve power lost when the 'lion' (Trump) saw fit to get rid of him. Shame on the BBC for trying this one on. Bannon is as anti-elitist as arch-elitist Plato, but without the brains required to be a 'philosopher-king.'
On Sunday night I travelled to Edinburgh with a group of friends to see the singer and songwriter Jack White, whose song 'Seven Nation Army' provided Momentum with its 'Oh, Jeremy Corbyn' chant. He was really very good – Jack White, that is. The Usher Hall was literally bouncing, or so it felt. I had to wear earplugs.
From the front of the circle, I had a clear view of young fans close to the front and centre of the stage – called a 'mosh pit.' It looks dangerous if you ask me. Moshing is an over-exuberant dance style in which the participants body-slam each other in rhythm to the heavy rock music at a concert. Actually, I was caught up in a 'pit' recently in a club in Glasgow, trying to get to the front to see my daughter play bass in her Glasgow-based grunge band, Crystal. My only route out of the near-death experience was to bounce backwards like a demented Tigger, in the hope that the dancers would take pity on me. Being body-slammed is not pleasant. Anyway, Jack White jumped off the stage with his guitar into the pit, and I did wonder if I'd see him alive again. Thankfully, I did.
One of White's demands is that mobile phones are confiscated at the front door of the venue. Well, not exactly confiscated – we had to put them in pouches that cannot be opened during the performance. I saw a few fans visibly irritated, but I think this is the way forward. There's nothing more irritating than being stuck behind a sea of mobile phones at a concert. I really wish that museums and galleries would adopt a similar practice. Recently, during my first visit to the Louvre, almost every single visitor was looking at the Mona Lisa through their phones or tablets. It was extremely irritating.