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My Man's Gone Now - Cynthia Clarey / Nina Simone

In the summer of 1990, my partner Anna and I went to see Swan Lake at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden with tickets given to us by her mother who was a "Friend" of the opera house. In the interval, as was usually the case on the rare occasions we went there, I felt distinctly short and underdressed amongst the taller and wealthier regulars who, it seemed to me, didn't try very hard to disguise their feeling of superiority as they peered over the rims of their fluted schooners of champagne. At the bar, the staff were impatient and tetchy and by the end of the end of the ballet I was glad to be returning to the company of ordinary people. We left the auditorium quickly especially, to be sure of being at the front of the queue to get our coats from the cloakroom as we had a babysitter waiting to be relieved, but when we handed in our ticket, only my partner's coat was returned to us. They attendant said I must have lost the ticket for my coat, but I insisted we were only given one and tried to get him to check the next hook but he, with barely disguised contempt, said I'd have to wait till they'd finished serving everyone else. Meanwhile, the ballet-goers were piling up behind me being and snorting like a caravan of camels and making pointed remarks about my eligibility to be there in the first place so I had to get out of the way and let the coat room team proceed. Rather than endure a succession horsey people taking turns to sneer at me for causing them delay, I nipped back to reception and demanded that the front of house manager met me at the cloakroom. Once the last coat had been collected, I could clearly see my anorak alone on it's peg along with the telltale two cloakroom tickets, one of which the attendant had failed to give us when we arrived. The look in his eyes pleaded with me not to tell the manager and if he hadn't previously treated me so badly I might have responded by covering for him. You reap what you sow.

Two years later, while working as an Arts Officer for Islington Council, we became aware of an offer to London boroughs by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation to subsidise tickets for the Gershwin opera "Porgy and Bess" at Covent Garden for people who normally couldn't afford to go there. The show was the Glyndebourne Production by Trevor Nunn and it featured the first all-black cast ever to perform the piece in the UK and starred world class baritone Willard White as Porgy. We got together with the other three North London Labour councils - Camden, Haringey and Hackney - and agreed to buy up all of the tickets for the final performance, subsidise them further and then make them available to Afro Caribbean community groups in the four boroughs for a fiver each. We all worked very hard and were able to sell the lot. I took advantage of the ticket offer myself, ostensibly to monitor the event, but in reality to see one of the greatest operas in a renowned production that had been running since being premiered at Glyndebourne in August 1987 to great acclaim and had been sold out every performance since.

Until I saw the programme on the night I hadn't realised that this was to be the last public performance of the production anywhere. Anna and I were in the stalls and what struck us both was how markedly different the whole atmosphere of Covent Garden was from the last time we were there. As previously, the audience was dolled up to the nines, but what a contrast - not only the women but also the men were bedecked in the most colourful finery that can ever have been seen within those hallowed portals, dresses from scarlet to Prussian blue, suits and ties from daffodil yellow to shamrock green.

So far as I could see, Anna and I were the only white people there, and the atmosphere radiated a bonhomie and excitement that was totally absent before. The Royal Opera House seemed to have made an effort as well. Draft Guinness had been bought in for the occasion and the bar staff, the programme sellers and the ushers all seemed more friendly, smiling constantly and even laughing with the punters. Extraordinarily, a woman behind us was shelling and eating prawns and no-one gave a damn.

Then the lights went down, there was a hushed silence and the orchestra played the introduction music, the curtain rose and something totally magical happened. Maybe it was due to a lack of communication - perhaps we hadn't told Paul Hamlyn about our targeted audience, maybe they hadn't told the Royal Opera House, but most certainly no-one had told the performers. So when the curtain went up, the black cast, most of whom were onstage for the first scene, looked into the darkness of the auditorium and saw a roomful of expectant black people. On Wednesday November 11th, 1992, for the first time in the five years of performances since the production began, they were playing, not to a white audience, but a black one. The cast froze for a a few seconds that seemed to last a minute while the shock sunk in. The tension in the air at that moment of recognition was palpable. Then they proceeded to give the performance of their lifetimes. There were ovations and demands for encores for just about every number and the standing ovation at the end of the evening lasted for a full fifteen minutes.

After the interval, I noticed the smell of smoke and looked around the stalls but could see no one smoking a cigarette. I then realised, my alarm increasing, that the smoke had the unmistakable aroma of dope. I thought "oh no, that's torn it" and desperately tried to locate the source before I realised that it emanated from the stage, where Damon Evans playing the drug dealer Sporting Life, was, totally in character, pulling on a spliff. If the cast were sharing it backstage, it in no way impaired one of the greatest performances I have ever seen. It probably even enhanced it.

An early stand-out moment was Cynthia Clarey singing "My Man's Gone Now", bringing the house down with her lament for her murdered husband, which is shown on the link above in the film Trevor Nunn made of the production the following year. The difference between "high" and "low" culture is made when comparing her operatic version with Nina Simone's exquisite interpretation of the same song, in that there is no difference in their appeal save in accessibility and cost. And so-called ordinary people, if given the chance, appreciate quality just as much as their more privileged counterparts. And they have more fun too.

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