Glyndebourne: not just for snobs

Beyond its elite image, country house opera is a source of artistic invention.

Tomorrow evening on BBC2, we will see Gareth Malone - classical music's preppiest and cleanest-shaven champion - face his greatest challenge. He won't be bringing Puccini to Peckham or persuading ASBO teenagers to embrace choral singing, but attempting to convince television viewers that Glyndebourne is not the elitist institution we've been led to believe.

We follow Malone on his latest mission - recruiting and training a chorus of rowdy teenagers for Knight Crew, Glyndebourne's latest educational opera project. The formula is similar to Malone's previous series The Choir, but it's the program's secondary agenda that is most interesting. As Glyndebourne's director, David Pickard, explains:

A lot of people out there know exactly what Glyndebourne is - it does these lovely operas. Everybody has a picnic and they all dress up. Actually it's so much more than that.

In a political environment in which even the Proms face charges of "elitism", country house opera with its black-tie dress code and conspicuous champagne consumption has long been the mad wife in the cultural attic. The glossy image of the big three - Glyndebourne, Garsington and Grange Park - has been both blight and blessing, the cachet ensuring a steady flow of private funding but also allowing these institutions to be dismissed as culturally conservative and nostalgic.

A glance through past seasons' programmes however is revealing: far from sticking to the safe ground of Figaro and La Bohème, the major institutions have deliberately pursued a progressive artistic agenda, "branching out into more esoteric repertoires", as the veteran critic David Nice puts it.

Quietly racking up a disproportionate number of UK premieres and rarely performed productions, these institutions are guaranteed audiences almost regardless of musical content thanks to long-term (and expensive) membership schemes. It allows them an artistic freedom that publicly funded institutions such as the Royal Opera are denied.

Glyndebourne, for example, can choose to champion obscurity or novelty, to program a season such as 2002, which featured Weber's Euryanthe, Gluck's Iphigenie en Aulide and Janacek's Katya Kabanova - a daring (and, as it proved, fairly disastrous) collective line up no government-funded institution would even be able to contemplate. Indeed, one of the first reactions to last year's economic straitening was a Royal Opera House proposal to scrap a new production of Prokofiev rarity The Gambler.

This season alone sees a much-hyped UK premiere of Rossini's Armida at Garsington, and performances of Richard Strauss' Capriccio together with Prokofiev's Love for Three Oranges at Grange Park - two works that have not been staged professionally in England for over ten years.

Yet what of the audience in all of this? Despite extensive outreach programs and reduced-price ticket schemes targeting younger opera-goers, the basic demographic has seen little discernable change. Artistic progressiveness does not, it seems, necessarily promote social mobility. Prohibitive ticket prices - so essential to the survival of these companies - continue to work their narrowing effect

Central to the ethos of country house opera is the idea of opera as a social experience - art embedded into broader human rituals and rhythms. A public genre almost from its inception, it was only in the 20th century that opera became isolated from mainstream culture. Look for an equivalent of Handel's raucous King's Theatre - a place as much for business, socialising and gossip as art - and you'll find its equivalent more readily in the leisured process of Glyndebourne than the efficient formality of the Royal Opera House.

With cuts to public arts funding imminent, and Conservative talk of a move towards a "US-Style culture of philanthropy", it seems a good time to look to at the unique artistic model of country house opera - to try and translate this crucial element of its structure back into the bigger halls and broader audiences of the public sector.

Gareth Malone goes to Glyndebourne is on BBC2, Thursday 17 June, at 9pm

Ellie Foreman-Peck for the New Statesman
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The rise of Raheem Kassam, Nigel Farage’s back-room boy

The former conservative blogger is mounting a bid for the Ukip leadership. But can he do enough to convince the most right-wing of Britain’s leading parties to back him?

It is a mark of how close the UK Independence Party has moved to the heart of the British establishment that one of the three main candidates for its leadership has ascended from the so-called spadocracy.

Nigel Farage used to castigate David Cameron and Ed Miliband for having worked as special advisers and little else, but Raheem Kassam – said to be his preferred choice as his latest successor – was his aide for several years and sometimes styled himself as Farage’s “chief of staff”. His only other substantial jobs have been in the right-wing blogosphere.

Kassam has one big advantage going into the election on 28 November: the support of Ukip’s mega-donor, Arron Banks. He will stand against the party’s former deputy chairwoman Suzanne Evans – who is backed by its only MP, Douglas Carswell – and the former deputy leader Paul Nuttall, who has declared himself the “unity candidate”.

Kassam, 30, was born in Hillingdon, west London,
to Tanzanian parents of Gujarati descent. They are practising Muslims but their son says he has not followed the faith for a decade.

Like Evans, he came into politics through the Conservative Party, and sat on the board of its youth wing. Although his political colours have changed since then, his allegiance has always been to the far right: he once listed Barry Goldwater, the Republican senator who voted against the Civil Rights Act and was defeated by Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 US presidential race, as a hero.

Kassam worked for the Commentator, a right-wing blogging platform, but left on bad terms with Robin Shepherd, the site’s founder and editor. Subsequent articles on the Commentator attest to the acrimony. One brands Kassam “weird”, and the latest mention of him appears under the headline “Ukip leadership contender Raheem Kassam is a criminal, and we can prove it”.

His time there did, however, earn him the approval of the conservative polemicist James Delingpole. In 2014, Delingpole brought Kassam on board as managing editor when he set up the British outpost of Breitbart News, the right-wing website whose US executive chairman Steve Bannon became Donald Trump’s campaign manager in August. Breitbart sees itself as the house journal of the “alt right”, hardline on immigration and invested in denying climate change. Recent articles from its London bureau have carried headlines such as “British peer: polygamy ‘commonplace’ within Muslim communities in Britain” and “Green politico: it’s time to learn Arabic and stop worrying about migration”.

Given his hardline views (he addressed the first UK rally of the far-right group Pegida), it is not surprising that Kassam felt more at home in Farage’s Ukip than David Cameron’s modernising Conservatives. In 2014 he officially switched from blue to purple, joining Farage’s office later that year.

There, he was soon at the centre of the tensions between the Ukip leader and Carswell, who had defected from the Tories to Ukip that year. From the start, Carswell and Farage were at odds over strategy, with the former concerned that his leader’s anti-immigration rhetoric would imperil the EU referendum result.

Carswell tried to oust Farage after the 2015 election, in which Ukip polled 3.9 million votes but won just one Commons seat. Then as now, Carswell’s preferred candidate was Suzanne Evans. She is not only a close ally, but an employee in his parliamentary office.

Such is Evans’s proximity to Carswell that Farage and his allies will do their utmost to prevent her from becoming leader. Although Farage now has his eye on a lucrative new career as a pundit on Donald Trump’s long-rumoured television network, the knowledge that Ukip had fallen into the hands of his old enemy would sour his retirement.

Farage, like Arron Banks, had settled on a preferred replacement: Steven Woolfe, formerly a Ukip MEP and now sitting as an independent. But Woolfe’s candidacy was beset by problems from the outset – culminating in a brawl that ended with him in hospital. On recovering, he announced not only the end of his leadership bid, but also his association with Ukip, which he now regards as “ungovernable”.

That left Kassam as the most plausible anti-Evans candidate. But can he do it? Kassam has two obstacles in his path. The first is his own record of combative public pronouncements – he has asked if Angela Eagle has “special needs”, called for Nicola Sturgeon to have her mouth taped shut so she couldn’t speak, and added “and her legs, so she can’t reproduce”. The second is his name, coupled with his skin colour and Gujarati heritage.

As a conservative blogger, Kassam will be familiar with the rumour, peddled by Breitbart and others on the alt right, that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim. So his campaign website is liberally dotted with photos of him sipping a pint (he lists Whitstable Bay as his preferred poison). Will that be enough to convince the most right-wing of Britain’s leading parties to back him? 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage