We are on a Mozart opera binge. We have tickets for three successive weeks at Covent Garden for the Da Ponte operas (Cosi Fan Tutte, The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni) and this week it’s Figaro. You need military skills to book in time and the expense is daunting but I rarely come back from Covent Garden feeling the pain. When I first went 30 years ago there were no surtitles and I had to swot hard before each outing to ensure the plots did not entirely defeat me. Puritans might approve of the need for opera pleasure to be earned, but surtitles are a great advance for ordinary mortals who somehow never get around to mugging up on the libretto beforehand.
More important – the standard of acting at Covent Garden, patchy in the 1980s, has shot forward. Something may have been lost, though. It is rare that a plain or significantly overweight singer with a majestic voice can command the stage. In the interests of dramatic plausibility they don’t get the big roles any more.
But even more rewarding, and a lot cheaper (£5 a ticket), was my college’s production of Figaro in a packed chapel a few days earlier. The cast and orchestra, almost all under 25, performed the whole caboodle with astonishing verve. After half a dozen bars of the overture I knew it was going to be fine. They had been rehearsing all term, and having bits and pieces of Figaro float around the quad added to the quality of my life. The only blip was the Count getting lost in the interval. It was so cold I assume he had gone to the boiler room. Many of those involved are academically good, too. This generation of students is better than mine was at juggling time.
A sign that I am becoming more of an Oxonian: I have just changed gyms. My London gym is peppering me with emails to get me to reconsider. I was a dream member, going so rarely that I calculate I was paying £5 for every calorie expended. Oxford, however, is a striving place and I feel obliged to do better. But my gym deportment is still decidedly graceless and I am thus thankful that the subscription is far too much for almost any undergraduate to afford. I do not wish to writhe and sweat in too public a glare.
I have never gone to a gym with anyone else but it is interesting to watch the way the male packs behave. Oxford now is almost as international as London and the changing rooms are filled with Chinese, Poles, Russians, Italians – and French. The French have decided that nobody can understand what they are saying and talk with unbecoming explicitness about the physical attributes of their love interests and conquests.
We host Sunday brunches (tapas style) for students – 20 or so at a time – lubricated by a little Cava. Many of them, particularly the Americans, can’t face alcohol that early in the day, though this might be because some students are worried that I am keeping a register of alcoholic intake. We show them the modern art that we have managed to get on loan from the Arts Council – including pieces from Gillian Ayres, Antony Gormley, Ben Nicholson and Patricia Clough. They come with museum-style labels that are conscientiously read. It is a pleasure to see the interest and enjoyment the art generates. Many of the students, even in the era of Tate Modern, have not confronted much non-figurative art before and they are largely approving.
The college has been offered a loan in perpetuity of a Sol LeWitt – the American minimalist whose work is on display at MoMA, the Pompidou Centre and Tate Modern. It is a large wall painting (“Wall Drawing 794” to be precise) that will need to be specially installed. It is rather startling – consisting of four-inch bands of black and white horizontal stripes set at angles. I am hoping people from all over Oxford, and beyond, will come and see it at St Peter’s. We are trying to work out, together with the generous donor and the LeWitt estate (he died in 2007), where it might go. I have taken to initiating debates at lunchtime about the matter. Everyone is keen to have the painting but the conversations can get engagingly heated.
The heads of Oxford colleges (almost 40 of us) meet formally twice a term to discuss everything from the level of student fees to library charges for e-journals to the funding mechanism for the Students’ Union. The meetings take place in what must be the most spectacularly uncomfortable lecture theatre in Oxford – with ugly, fixed chairs that swivel alarmingly when any part of the human anatomy settles on them. I once landed in a heap on the lap of the head of the medical division – who was about to give us a presentation. He must have thought this was an initiation rite.
It is interesting to contrast the way the conversation flows at these gatherings compared to the BBC (where I was controller of Radio 4 until 2010). In truth, despite the large number of people present, it works surprisingly well. Some colleges are rich and some poor, some college heads have been around for a long time and some of us are neophytes (Merton was founded in 1264, St Peter’s became a full college in 1961) but there is a democratic air to proceedings and the quality of debate is high. I wonder whether, in part, it is because most people who end up as head of a college are not doing it as a stepping stone to anything else. Rather the Oxford job comes after a career as a distinguished scientist, diplomat, civil servant, lawyer or whatever. The BBC is not a nest of vipers – but the politics of ambition is more apparent.
I am a football fanatic and have wasted large chunks of time fretting about Tottenham Hotspur. I have enjoyed the pain of their perpetual under-achievement. Now I find myself congratulated by friends and colleagues on the team’s new-found brilliance and am at a loss. I feel as if I should go to the AGM (I have a few shares) to protest against this reversal of nature. I should at least be consoled by the pundits who think it’s all down to cheery Harry Redknapp – the Tottenham manager almost certainly about to get the England job. Once he goes, normal lack of service will be resumed. But I am not so sure about Redknapp’s genius. The key players – the Welshman Gareth Bale and the Croat Luka Modric – were signed by others who have long since been sacked. This salient fact is never mentioned. Why does so much football analysis live in the dark ages? But this is not, I fear, an Oxford essay question
Mark Damazer is Master of St Peter’s College, Oxford