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20 May 2002

Lisa Allardice on the fuss about the opera babes

In an aesthetic landscape of dirty knickers, outraged stuffiness creates the greatest stir

By Lisa Allardice

The Mediaeval Baebes, Bond and Charlotte Church are creating most of the noise in classical music at the moment. With the exception of Miss Church, of whom we’ve all heard quite enough, these might be unfamiliar names to many. Transparently alluded to as “the wet T-shirt quartets”, these scantily clad girls who dare to call themselves classical musicians were the target of an impassioned speech given by Sir Thomas Allen at the Royal Philharmonic Society awards this month. According to Sir Thomas, these mellifluous lovelies are pulling all the wrong strings and propelling us into giddy cultural decline.

This seems rather a heavy charge for simply spicing up the realm of Elgar and Vivaldi. Since 80 per cent of classical CDs are bought by men, you might think that they should bear some responsibility – but no the girls get all the blame.

Sir Thomas is not alone in his agitation about artistic “integrity”. Alongside the hysteria surrounding Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow, the latest Hollywood imports to hit the London stage, we have predictable sniffiness about celebrity impostors. An editorial in the Guardian (where else?) suggested that many of those who have secured tickets for these “star-mobiles” might not know the names of the playwrights. Perish the thought. But is it not also true that some flock to Shakespeare, to the exclusion of lesser-known writers, simply because they have heard of him?

The implication is that we may be dismayed to find that Madonna is no Maggie Smith, or that we would buy Bond expecting Borodin standards. Or, worse still, that we would be unable to tell the difference. Yet contemporary fiction has chick-lit and survives.

In an aesthetic landscape of dirty knickers and naked Mrs Robinsons, the greatest stir is created by outraged stuffiness. As Sir Thomas conceded, at no point in his 30-year career has he received the attention provoked by this “affray”. Is this lack of interest an indictment of us, or of the presentation of the arts today? These are the questions we should ask, rather than getting steamed up about a few babes, innocent or not.

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After all the recent excitement, Sir Thomas might take a trip to the Tate Modern, where Picasso and Matisse are also battling it out for the nation’s hearts. Here he will find lots of under-dressed young ladies who can safely be described as Art.

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