Night at the opera

OPERA IS FOR THE ELITE or, at least, for those who can afford the often-high seat prices. London’s Covent Garden used to offer some reasonably priced tickets, but these only gave access to seats or standing places far away from the stage, from which one could hear the performance, but one only saw what looked like ants moving around on the stage. Once I had one of these ‘budget’ seats at a performance given by the ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev. I was so far from the stage that, even though my eyesight was excellent at the time, it could have been almost anyone or anything flitting about in time with the music so far away from me. The best I can say is that I have spent time under the same roof as the great dancer even though I could hardly see him.

Floral Hall, Covent Garden, London

In early 1994, my wife, Lopa, became aware that a foundation was offering Covent Garden opera tickets at radically reduced prices to members of south Asian minority communities to introduce them to the joys of western European opera. Lopa decided to investigate this generous offer aimed at what the foundation assumed were ‘culturally deprived people’. She rang the organisation to ask how to become involved in the scheme. An ineffably patronising but kindly lady replied:

“Which community do you come from, by the way?”

“I am Gujarati.”

“All you need is a letter from the association that represents your community.”

“I don’t belong to such an organisation,” Lopa responded.

“Never mind, dear, why don’t you start one, and then contact us again?”

Not once did the lady ask Lopa if she had ever been to the opera. I suppose she assumed that south Asians never watched western European opera.

A short time later, Lopa sent a letter to the foundation on paper she had headed with the words: ‘Gujarati Worker’s Association of Kensington.’ Soon after this, she was accepted on to the scheme, which offered several tickets for each of a selection of top-class opera performances. These tickets were for the best seats and were priced at less than a fifth of their full price, which was still not an inconsiderable amount of money. We attended about six operas, sitting no more than three rows away from the stage. Sitting in these wonderful seats, which in 1994 cost well over £130 each, spoiled me forever. I do not think that I would be happy to attend another performance at Covent Garden unless I sat in seats with as good a view as those subsidised by the foundation.

On one occasion, we invited my father to join us. He was quite familiar the opera house at Covent Garden, having sat in the Royal Box several times with his colleague Lord Robbins, who was Chairman of the Royal Opera House. He accepted our invitation and we sat in wonderful seats watching an opera. I cannot remember which one we saw, but what happened in the interval, has remained in my memory. Dad said that he would treat us to champagne and smoked salmon sandwiches in the so-called ‘Crush Bar’, an exclusive refreshment area in the opera house.

We arrived at the Crush Bar, where a uniformed flunkey stopped all who wished to enter.

“We need a table for three,” my Dad explained.

“I am so very sorry, sir,” replied the flunkey, “all the tables are taken”.

My father reached into his pocket, and withdrew a £10 note before saying:

“Would this help you find a table?”

“Please follow me, sir,” replied the flunkey as he led us to an empty table.

Incidentally, the refreshments my father bought the three of us cost far more than we had spent on the subsidised tickets. 

At each of the subsidised performances we attended, we saw few if any other south Asian or any other people of non-European appearances in the audience. Sadly, the foundation abandoned their scheme about a year after we had joined it. There might have been other schemes that followed it, but we never found out about them.  

Oh, in case you are wondering about the Gujarati Workers Association of Kensington, whose creation was encouraged and suggested by the lady at the foundation, which shall remain unnamed, it still has only one member.

In the club

The Bangalore United Services Club was established in its present pleasant premises in 1868 by members of the British military, the United Services. It was an officers’ club. With a very few exceptions (some members of Indian royal families), the Club only admitted Europeans (i.e. white people).  One of its best-known members was Winston Churchill, who did not like Bangalore and left the city leaving an unpaid bill at the Club. After WW1, some Indian military officers were admitted as members, but other Indians were excluded. After 1946, the Club was renamed “The Bangalore Club”, and civilians, both ‘white’ and Indian could become members. My late father-in-law became one of the first Indian members in the early 1950s.

CLUB 1

Today, the Bangalore Club is regarded as being one of the top (elite) social clubs in India. To become a member, applications must be made, and a hefty amount of money must be deposited with the Club. Then, the prospective member is put on a waiting list. The average waiting time is currently about a quarter of a century. This slow method of entry can be bypassed if you are the child or the spouse of an existing member. It so happens that I married a member of the Club. I was eligible to become a ‘spouse member’.

Simply being married to a member is not enough to get you into the Club. The spouse candidate needs first to apply, and then to find six sponsors, who are already members of the Club, and then to attend an interview. The interviews are only held a few times a year. Missing the interview might wreck the candidate’s chances of ever becoming a member. So, the candidate, who might be living anywhere in the world, must drop everything and attend when he or she is summoned.

I was lucky. My father-in-law (‘Daddy’), a well-respected and much-loved member of the Club, arranged that I would be called for interview on a date, when he was certain that I would be in India. However, he did not tell us about the interview before we left London. Had I known, I would have packed my only smart suit, but I did not. As soon as we arrived in Bangalore, Daddy told us about the interview, and we told him that we had not brought my suit. Undismayed, he rang around his friends in the neighbourhood, and he and I drove from house to house, trying to find a suit for me to borrow. Eventually, some kind person lent me his incredibly smart double-breasted jacket suit, which fitted me well. Unfortunately, I had to return it after the interview.

For a few days before my interview, Daddy and I visited several venerable members of the Club to get their signatures for my sponsorship. At each of their homes, I was received kindly, offered drinks and snacks while my potential sponsors became acquainted with me. At last, I was ready for the interview.

On the day of the interview, I woke up with an attack of influenza. My temperature was high, but the interview could not be missed. I was dosed up with paracetamol. Just before we left the flat, with me in my smart suit, Daddy sprayed me with some Eau de Cologne, saying it was best that I should smell pleasant when I met the interviewing committee.

I arrived with Daddy at the Club, where we joined about ten other candidates. Each candidate was chaperoned by a member, who would introduce him or her to the interviewers. Daddy was my chaperone. The interview procedure involved introducing me to each of several Club Committee members. Each Committee member asked me questions. Daddy was clearly worried about what I might say in response. So, as soon as I was about to answer any of the questioners, Daddy would interrupt me, saying something like:

You remember me. I have been a member since 1954. How is your father? He joined at the same time as me, you know.”

I do not recall having answered any of the questions. Being Daddy’s son-in-law was enough to persuade them that I would be an acceptable member of the Club.

As we walked away from the interviewing room, Daddy congratulated me for becoming a member of the esteemed club. He led me to the Men’s Bar (for men only), where we downed draught Kingfisher beer. Oddly, my influenza symptoms were beginning to subside by then.

CLUB 2

Sadly, Daddy is no longer around. Today, the Men’s Bar is no longer for men alone. Its name changed in about 2017, by which time both men and women were permitted to use its facilities. Daddy would, I believe, have approved of the liberation of the former Men’s Bar.

 

Finally, let me emphasise that I do not agree with Groucho Marx, who said:

Please accept my resignation. I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member