'As if music and poetry were only play'

Last weekend, after performing in the Royal Albert Hall’s ‘Classical Spectacular’ sporting an EU-themed dress, British Soprano Anna Patalong was told by the show’s producer not to wear something so ‘open to misrepresentation’ for the following night’s performance. Raymond Gubbay Ltd told the BBC they had received a complaint from a member of the public, but stressed the main reason for their decision was in fact because they preferred the red gown Patalong had worn the previous two evenings. This, they said, was more appropriate attire for a classical concert. 

Aside from their obvious squeamishness, this cheap excuse from Raymond Gubbay Ltd betrays a dismissive attitude towards pro-EU sentiment – but not one we haven’t seen before. Cast your mind back to 2017's Last Night of the Proms, when the organiser of the Flags at the Proms campaign Clive Lewis was ejected three times for handing out EU flags to audience members. When Patalong’s husband, baritone Benedict Nelson, took to Twitter this week to vent his incredulity at her treatment, he cited the recent case of a man who had been rejected from the Royal Opera House for wearing a pro-EU t-shirt. In response, his friend Robin Phillips revealed that he too had been refused entry for brandishing an EU flag, this time from the National Gallery’s café. 

What’s different here however, is that the restriction was placed not on an audience member but on a performer – authorised in spite of the myriad precedents for on-stage activism at the Royal Albert Hall. In 1968, as Russian tanks rolled into Prague, Rostropovich famously held the score to Dvorak’s Cello Concerto aloft in solidarity with the Czech people. Pianist Igor Levit performed Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ on the opening night of the 2017 Proms wearing an EU badge, then a month later Daniel Barenboim ended his performance with the Orchestra Staatskapelle Berlin by giving a speech that called for European unity and warned against the dangers of ‘isolationist tendencies’. Why Patalong should be censored when Messrs Rostropovich and Barenboim remained unchallenged is a disturbing quandary indeed.

One might, of course, suggest that patrons of venues like the Royal Albert Hall are there to appreciate the art, not the activism, and producers consequently feel it their duty to protect such aesthetes from unwanted sectarianism. But this argument fails to recognise art’s role as a reflection of the society in which it was created, and the perennial – if subtle – presence of dissent in so many of its manifestations. ‘As if music and poetry were only play and no harm at all’, said Socrates. Indeed, opera fans hoping to have a politically vacuous experience at the Royal Opera House’s upcoming production of The Marriage of Figaro may be disappointed to find out Mozart’s masterpiece is based on a play once banned for its subversive subtext. Similarly, anybody who’s been to the National Gallery’s excellent exhibition of Louis-Léopold Boilly paintings may note how the ‘meticulously executed, detail-rich paintings and drawings’ show Boilly’s ‘daring responses to the changing political environment’.

To deny a musician a platform from which to protest Brexit feels all the more cruel when you consider how heavily they rely on freedom of movement, and the direct impact that leaving the EU will have on their livelihood. I spoke recently to baritone and cellist Simon Wallfisch, who has been protesting outside the houses of parliament every month for the last two years, and who helped organise the Concert for Europe, which took place at St John’s Smith Square last week. He told me that 60% of his work is in Europe, and that by performing ‘Ode to Joy’ – on which the EU’s anthem is based – in as many public spaces as possible, he hopes to raise awareness of the predicament that he and other professional musicians face. Surely it is Patalong’s right to do the same?

This point highlights the final, crushing irony of this whole drama: that by censoring Patalong – who has built a career upon the experiences and expertise gained performing in multiple EU-member states – Raymond Gubbay Ltd unwittingly expedite the inevitable reduction in opportunities given to burgeoning UK musicians, thus draining the well of homegrown talent from which they can draw. Soon they too will begin to feel the pinch. But the real tragedy here is that the next generation of Patalongs will have to fight even harder to earn a spot on that hallowed stage.