Tom Sutcliffe is laughing all the way to the blank


An article in The Observer on 21 August was headed “Poor Rudolf Bing must be spinning in his grave.” The name leapt out at me because in April 1972, 12 months before I started my 23 years of joy on the The Guardian, I was in New York for the first time – ostensibly trying to find a way of improving American coverage in the magazine Music & Musicians, which I had been editing since my singing career belly-flopped in September 1970. The momentous highlight of my stay was the Rudolf Bing Opera Gala at the Met, marking Bing’s retirement from running New York’s grandest opera sublimely well for 22 years. Before leaving London for Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto on my way to the Big Apple, I had persuaded Michael McNay, then arts editor of The Guardian, to let me write about what proved a totally astonishing event (it is available online if you wish to hear it). The line-up included Nilsson, Vickers, Corelli, Tucker, Domingo, Caballé, Pavarotti, Sutherland, Resnik, Merrill – megastars of twentieth-century opera. The past, operatically speaking, is all too often a better place.

I stayed in a fifth-floor flat in a brownstone on East 83rd Street by Bjarne Buchtrup, a Danish dancer whom I had met and befriended on Victoria Street in August 1968 after singing for Mass at Westminster Cathedral – my main job at the time. I had just returned from a holiday in Germany and Austria, during which I had auditioned for Nikolaus Harnoncourt in Vienna. I looked up his number in the phone directory, told him who I was, and said “Could I come and sing to you?” In those blissful days there was no security, no secretary at long-stop. One just walked in and asked. I was the first countertenor Niki had heard since recording Jacabethan consort songs with Alfred Deller. He liked my voice, and soon I was doing all sorts of solo work in Stockholm, Bremen, Darmstadt and Vienna.

Bjarne had been a dancer with the wonderful Royal Danish Ballet, but had gone to New York to join American Ballet Theatre in the mid-1960s. In early 1972 he was hoofing in California in a nationwide tour of No, No, Nannette and was able to lend me his flat. The bed, I remember, was on top of a substantial sort of clothes closet. I’d never been to New York before, but I soon found my feet – though I was never up to the routine late-afternoon liquor consumption and socialising after which one was supposed to be able to cope with an evening performance and remember something about it. My flight to the US and back was paid for by contra arrangements on advertisements placed by Swissair and PanAm in our Hansom Books Seven Arts magazines – which seemed to cost nobody anything. In those days many aircraft crossed the Atlantic half-empty. (My friend Dale Harris was once the only passenger returning to New York on an Air France jumbo on Christmas Day. The stewards were so bored that they danced attendance on him all the way – which must have been challenging choreography.)

So there I was in New York on the Sunday morning after the Met Gala, for the first time in my life dictating to a Guardian copytaker on a trans-Atlantic telephone call my somewhat wacky hastily composed review of the previous night’s thrills. On that trip I must have done something right; for a year later I was married and working for The Guardian.

But why was Bing spinning in his grave? The Observer piece was by Stewart Lee, a stand-up comic, who was also author of Jerry Springer – The Opera (which I reviewed unenthusiastically in the Church Times). One should not be needlessly unkind about stand-up comics, or about anyone who lightens our darkness. Stand-up fills theatres cheaply without scenery or actors, and since our reality is largely beyond satire it’s hard work being funny. Stand-up’s ancestry is in Variety, from which most of our radio and TV entertainment sprang. I did resent it when, in The Guardian, “Comedy” meant stand-up – a genre in which one (usually male) individual spouted jokes. Real comedy needs actors and is about life, not just funny gags. Equally it depresses me that “Music” in The Guardian now means Pop and Rock – in other words mere songs, seldom sublime. Stuff that really matters – string quartets, symphonies, operas, or pianists and singers giving recitals, or polyphonic choristers – if noticed at all, gets categorised in a ghetto headed “Classical”. London theatres are full of modest musicals or worse. Music is almost untaught in many UK schools.

British festivals used to programme fine music, but are now stuffed with writers being interviewed to promote their books. Great Britain is the most philistine country in Europe. We are told we are world-class – but we have no theatres with ensembles of actors up and down the country, and no opera companies with regular singers, either. We have cut most of the little subsidy we used to give the live performing arts. Being in ensembles is how actors and singers really learn their craft; and running operas and theatres with ensembles is how administrators get as good as Rudolf Bing was when he helped found both Glyndebourne and the Edinburgh Festival before being recruited to lead the Met.

The subtitle under Bing’s name at the top of Stewart Lee’s column asked, “What would have most upset the founder of the Edinburgh Festival – songs about masturbation or Britain’s exit from the EU?” I doubt Bing went around waiting to be upset, and he was well into his Alzheimer’s before the EU existed – though he actually survived until 1997. Lee’s article was promoting Content Provider (Faber, £14.99), a collected bundle of his comic Guardian columns. But he did credit Bing with devotion to “the flowering of the human spirit”, which Edinburgh and even its Fringe are still about – like their forerunners Salzburg, Bayreuth, and (yes) Glyndebourne too. Let’s promote the flowering and the spirit.

Bing was perhaps the most famous of the three incredibly gifted musico-theatrical refugees from Nazism who created Glyndebourne Festival Opera in the 1930s (the others being the maestro Fritz Busch and the extraordinary actor-director Carl Ebert, with his Irish-American mother and Polish Count father, whose landlords brought him up and adopted him). In 1947 Bing brought Glyndebourne to Edinburgh to launch its Festival and, having established both projects magnificently, took over the Met in 1950 when it needed a lot of TLC. Bing had learnt his trade working with Ebert, a protégé of Max Reinhardt. Reinhardt seems to have been behind so much that mattered in twentieth-century theatre.

Comedy that works often reduces me to helpless hysteria. I remember one occasion in my childhood when my family were weeping with laughter at a film called “How to Murder a Rich Uncle” which was not (I think) a masterpiece, but seemed incredibly funny at the time. However, twinning Brexit and masturbation has to be journalism at the end of its tether – the point, perhaps, when stand-up becomes stand-down.