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Thangam Debbonaire is definitely playing the right tune

Matthew Parris

Tuesday May 21 2024, 9.00pm, The Times

 

Here’s my pick for a bright spark in any incoming Labour cabinet. She’s Thangam Debbonaire. What a star! Last Tuesday I was at a fundraising dinner for the International Opera Awards, an organisation dedicated to raising the profile of opera, sponsoring bursaries for young musicians and recognising operatic achievement.

Debbonaire, who is shadow secretary of state for culture, media and sport, was a guest of honour. She’s a former classical cellist and I’ve met her once before on an Any Questions panel, where I was struck by her liveliness and openness: there was nothing of the stale party politician about her.

She spoke before Tuesday’s dinner. Gently, she chided parliamentary colleagues who make a show of their (often faked) enthusiasm for football. “I’m never going to be a secretary of state who pretends he [sic] was at the football when they [sic] were at the opera,” she said. People concerned about elitism in the arts should (she implied) consider that “when you reduce funding for the arts, you make them more elitist”.

• Goodbye ENO, hello £300 opera tickets — is this what anyone wants?

Then she took aim (without naming her target) at an appalling report commissioned recently by Arts Council England. It suggests (and I quote) that “terms like ‘excellence’ … are indicative of the way in which opera and music theatre still retains unhelpful hierarchies about what kinds of work are valued”.

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Debbonaire was having none of this. “Excellence,” she snorted, “is not something to be ashamed of.” During the dinner, singers who had started their careers with bursaries from the Opera Awards sang wonderfully for us. After keynote speeches at dinners, politicians often slip away. Debbonaire, however, stayed for the whole evening.

 

Credits and disclaimer: This article originally written by Matthew Parris appeared in The Times on Tuesday May 21 2024

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