UK: Masterclass - A strong voice in the audience.

UK: Masterclass - A strong voice in the audience. - Sir Stanley Kalms, chairman of Dixons, spends a night at the opera with Andrew Porter, music critic for Opera magazine and correspondent for the Times Literary Supplement.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Sir Stanley Kalms, chairman of Dixons, spends a night at the opera with Andrew Porter, music critic for Opera magazine and correspondent for the Times Literary Supplement.

Opera's a strange confection. Since its invention 400 years ago, it has meant different things to different people. The first opera Euridice, in 1600, was created by a group of Florentine intellectuals as a grand entertainment for the wedding of Maria de' Medici to King Henri IV of France. Ever since, opera has been the highest (and most costly) of all art forms, stirring earnest composers to their utmost endeavours. And throughout its history, there have been tensions between opera as an endorsement of an existing political and moral order and the work of the great free-thinking composers - Beethoven, Mozart, Berlioz, Verdi and Britten - who questioned that order even while working within it.

Hence it was not surprising that it was from different operatic starts that Sir Stanley Kalms and I attended a Royal Opera revival of Katya Kabanova at Covent Garden, an opera written in 1921 by the Czech composer Leos Janacek. It's a drama of 19th-century adultery, passion and compassion, set in a small Russian town, with a heroine driven finally to suicide.

I think of it as one the great operas of our century. Sir Stanley is less enthusiastic.

A comparative newcomer to opera, he is nevertheless an important member of the 'new audience' determined to keep Covent Garden going - even while some voices are raised against it. His passion for opera is wholehearted and in keeping with a businessman renowned for his energy and enthusiasm in commercial life. Sir Stanley honed his entrepreneurial skills by learning from his father's small-time business. Kalms senior ran his own advertising agency, Rego Advertising, which sold space on the London Underground, before picking up a photographic shop in Southend as part of a bad debt, buying the name Dixons off-the-shelf. With the war over, he bought another shop in Edgware. Young Stanley took an interest and an empire was born.

Sir Stanley encountered opera for the first time some 10 years ago. As a recipient of corporate hospitality, he was invited to Tosca at the Royal Opera House. He liked what he saw and heard, and kept going back for more.

He and Lady Kalms now go to the Royal Opera 20 times or more a season and they also go (though less often) to the English National Opera and to Glyndebourne. He has become a valued supporter of the Royal Opera's £214-million redevelopment plans (£78 million of 'people's money' in the form of a National Lottery grant, with the remainder to be raised from the likes of Sir Stanley).

Our Covent Garden Katya was sung in Czech. The piece was new to Sir Stanley, and he thought it an unmelodious, 'improbable' carry-on about adultery, although Lady Kalms got more out of it. I've loved Katya ever since Sadler's Wells, in 1951, introduced to England a composer who turned cries from the heart into magical music. At the end of the first scene, the Sadler's Wells Barbara sang in a marvellous melody about Katya. 'How can anyone not love her?' The Covent Garden's Barbara sang 'Proc bych ji nemela mit rada?' which was less intelligible - and certainly less affecting.

Sir Stanley's favourite operas are by Puccini, Verdi, Donizetti and Mozart.

Those names also figure high on my list. But when he cites Harrison Birtwhistle's Gawain - the Royal Opera's high, colourful adventure through England's counties, peak of its achievement in recent years - as the Covent Garden production he's least liked, I find myself less able to agree. I first encountered opera as a schoolboy and like Sir Stanley, I was instantly hooked, but by opera rather different from his high-spectacle, big name Tosca - more by Gluck's Iphigenia and Mozart's Idomeneo in campus productions, and by a modest, 'provincial' Tosca.

Sir Stanley is untroubled by these differences of opinion. 'I don't go to the opera for challenge or criticism,' he says. But when we talk about Billy Budd, at the English National Opera, I am reassured that he feels so passionately about such a serious work. I hope that in the Royal Opera House that he is helping to rebuild, there may be room for both Gawain and Tosca. And I hope he gives Katya another chance. How can anyone not love her?

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