The admission this week by Australian prime minister John Howard that he attended an opera performance has sent shock waves across this side of the Tasman.
On Monday PM Howard acknowledged that in late 2002 he attended an opera performance in Sydney, and the public outcry which followed has seen him drop an average of 8 percent in recent polls.
Among those surveyed comments included accusations that opera was “elitist”, “un-Australian” and “not for the ordinary bloke”. Commentators have said Howard’s admission showed how out of touch he is with ordinary people.
“The Sydney Opera House is alright as an icon and that,” said Glebe pensioner Clarry McPherson, “but decent sort of blokes don’t go inside the bloody place. That’s more for your womenfolk and Perrier-poofters.”
Australian political commentators have said Howard has misjudged the mood of the electorate and that while people had become increasingly liberal in their views on matters relating to the private lives of elected officials, those going to an opera performance had perhaps pushed public tolerance too far.
“There’s a line that people will not cross and I think Johnny has just tripped on it,” said Queensland rugby league pundit Dave Harkness. “He’s probably a decent enough bloke but this raises the spectre of he and the missus probably playing baccarat or reading books by bloody French women -- and that’s just not on as far as most people are concerned.”
In New Zealand the Australian public’s reaction to Howard’s admission has seen politicians quick to distance themselves from opera for fear of a similar backlash.
National Party leader John Key said yesterday he couldn’t remember whether he had ever been to an opera, then corrected himself when told he was photographed at a performance of Turandot in Wellington five years ago.
“Yes, I remember it now but I have to say it was my wife’s idea we go -- and I didn’t actually enjoy it. Not like going to see a good rugby game,” he said giving a manly thumbs up.
He did however say he fully supported The New Zealand Opera Company.
Of 42 MPs surveyed in a recent poll, only two admitted having been to an opera performance, all others strenuously denied having any interest in opera.
“That’s not the kind of place I would be seen at,“ said Labour backbencher Kyle Chadwick. ”Light opera is fine and I see nothing wrong with a little Gilbert and Sullivan, in moderation of course. But serious opera isn’t for decent, hard-working ordinary Kiwis. Nor are string quartets come to think of it.”
Other MPs considered opera attendance a matter of personal taste and best left to the individual conscience, but many indicated they considered it “un-Kiwi”.
“And it’s not family-friendly” said Peter Dunne of that party whose name most people can‘t remember.
New Zealand First leader Winston Peters said he regarded opera as “largely imported into New Zealand by those attempting to impose their social and cultural values on New Zealand citizens.”
He said he had attended opera on occasions but that he had quite deliberately not enjoyed it, or had fallen asleep.
Prime Minister Helen Clark said however, “whether I go to see Ivan the Terrible, the opening of a film festival, or enjoy that new Brunettes album I am told I should mention, is a matter of personal taste and has no bearing on how I intend to continue to run this country in the foreseeable future”.
Media commentators have said the controversy over opera is a frivolous, manufactured one and of no great importance.
According to the head of Media Studies at Auckland University, Professor Michael Earle, “it simply allows newspapers and television to run gratuitous images of large breasted opera singers in low cut dresses”.
Japanese opera singer Kiri Te Kanawa was unavailable for comment, but singer Hayley Westenra -- whose style has been dubbed "popera" -- said she enjoyed some opera but, “ I much prefer OpShop”.
Only one MP came out in favour of opera, New Zealand First’s Brian Donnelly who is tipped to get the role of New Zealand ambassador to Italy early next year.
“I enjoy opera and always have, and I would hasten to assure the Italian people who also love opera that I see nothing wrong with a grown man going to hear some fat people singing.
“I enjoy many of the opera classics such as Jesus Christ Superstar and that one about the boy with coat of many colours.
"In fact I enjoy all kinds of things Italian and look forward to exchanging my views on those matters with the Italian people I will be wining and dining while living in Rome.
“For example I have always loved pizza -- especially with ham and pineapple topping -- and The Sopranos is my favourite television show.”
PS: There is no opera here either.