‘In Italy, opera is like the football’ – Bill Bailey on classical music and the arts

5 December 2022, 17:43

‘In Italy, opera is like the football’ – Bill Bailey on classical music and the arts
‘In Italy, opera is like the football’ – Bill Bailey on classical music and the arts. Picture: Alamy
Classic FM

By Classic FM

Bill Bailey joined Moira Stuart on Classic FM to speak about his music and comedy influences, his earliest memories of opera and the future of the arts – while choosing some of his favourite classical music along the way.

Music comedy legend Bill Bailey has spoken out about the hotly debated plans for the English National Opera to move to Manchester, driven by a redistribution Arts Council England funding and labelled last month as “absurd” by the ENO’s chief exec.

In an exclusive interview on Moira Stuart Meets… on Classic FM, the celebrated musician and comedian said he thought the potential relocation was “a shame”.

“You go to the great cities of Europe, and they’ve all got two or three opera houses,” Bailey told Stuart. “And this would leave us with only one, the Royal Opera House. I think a lot of people, rightly or wrongly, sort of associate opera as being quite elitist or sort of highbrow entertainment.”

Bailey went on to stress the importance in the arts of “getting people through the door”.

“We have to be more innovative more and agile about how to get more people to engage with the arts in the way that they do in Europe,” he said. “I mean I’ve been to see opera in Italy, and it’s like the football. People just buy a ticket to go and see the opera like… it’s not seen as any kind of hybrid entertainment, it’s the entertainment of everyone, for everyone.”

Read more: Leading UK opera companies have funding slashed in Arts Council announcement

Bailey reminisced about his first memory of opera: seeing Verdi’s Aida at the Arena di Verona in Italy. “I remember it so vividly,” he said. “I must have been seven or eight years old. We had to rent cushions to sit on the stone steps and you bought a candle and lit the candle and so the whole arena was full of 20,000 people holding a candle.

“It was most extraordinary experience… you know, your first exposure to opera stays with you for the rest of your life.”

In the interview (catch up on Global Player here), Bailey told Stuart about his earliest influences in comedy, crediting the legendary Danish comedian Victor Borge, whose unique marriage of humour and virtuoso pianism delighted generations.

“I would sit around with the family, and we would watch Morecambe and Wise… and Victor Borge was a big favourite. There was something about the way he used music and comedy which made a deep impression on me.”

Bailey also shared his love for Mozart’s Coronation Piano Concerto No.26 – the piece he played in his first public concert “at the encouragement of my music teacher... without whom I would never have had the confidence to do this” – as well as Bach’s seminal Prelude and Fugue No.21.

“What I loved about the 48 Preludes and Fugues was that this was an instruction manual for playing the piano, and yet it’s this beautiful selection… if you can work your way through these, you will understand all manner of performance, about syncopation, about technical ability.

“I love the fact that something so beautiful, something so extraordinarily written and so intuitive and so challenging... was written just to teach people the piano.”

Finally, Bailey touched on a campaign he is fronting this Christmas for the Kennel Club Charitable Trust which aims to feed at least 4,000 rescue dogs, with all donations doubled until midday on Tuesday 6 December, and every £10 donation ensuring they can feed one dog for two weeks.

“Being responsible for an animal is a good thing. They teach you a lot about yourself. They can enrich our lives in many ways,” Bailey said.

Catch up on the episode on Global Player.