There’s a new “Watergate” scandal playing out in the elegant rarefied surroundings of London’s Coliseum, home of English National Opera. To be more exact, the scandal is happening on the steps of the opera house…. Opera-goers are being asked to empty their unsealed water bottles before entering the venue. This is to comply with a policy introduced by ENO after people smuggled colourless alcoholic spirits into the venue via innocuous-looking water bottles and proceeded to get noisy and rambunctious (or “drunk” in common parlance) during performances of ‘Bat Out of Hell’ earlier in the summer (this was not, I hasten to add, one of ENO’s more outré performances, but a production by another company leasing the Coli).

Judging by the Twitter storm in response to ENOs policy, you’d think they were strip-searching people on arrival. Words like “Nazi” were bandied about to describe the attitude of ENO management, and its staff were accused of being “aggressive” in their requests. The amount of middle-class indignation and virtue-signalling was something to behold, and was used as an excuse for more of that now rather tedious sport of “ENO-bashing”, beloved of some of the reviewing/opera-going fraternity. By Sunday morning, the non-story had reached The Daily Telegraph.

I was at the Coliseum on Friday evening, attending the first night of a new production of Strauss’s Salome (which itself created quite a Twitter storm – my review here). I arrived at 7pm and managed to smuggle my water bottle in, surreptitiously hidden under my dove-grey pashmina….

Actually, I made that last bit up. My water bottle (a refillable sports design) was in my handbag, and my pashmina was swathed around my neck as London was quite nippy that evening. I opened my handbag for the security check at the door and went to collect my ticket from the press desk. I wasn’t aware of any member of ENO staff behaving in an “aggressive” manner towards patrons – in fact, everyone was charming and it was lovely to be greeted so warmly by Teddy on the press desk, who admired my rather appropriate pink-tasselled necklace. The foyer and bars were abuzz with the usual first-night anticipatory conversations. Up in the dress circle bar, on learning that there was no interval, I purchased a glass of white wine, served in a plastic glass so that I could take it into the auditorium (more classical musical venues need to do this, please!). On the bar was a large urn of water, free to anyone who cared to take it – servez-vous!

My friend and blogging colleague Jon Jacob has already written intelligently about “watergate” on his own site (and very kindly quoted me), but I’d just like to add my own thoughts on this issue.

  1. ENO’s policy is clear, clearly advertised and actually fairly standard: most venues and establishments like ENO ask patrons not to consume food and drink which has not been purchased on the premises.
  2. Imagine if some punters had smuggled in vodka or gin in water bottles and then proceeded to get hog-whimperingly drunk during a performance of, say, La Traviata (I can just see those innocent-looking water bottles being lifted to thirsty lips during the Libiamo! chorus). Then imagine if those same people disturbed the sober, well-behaved opera-goers and spoilt it for them….. I can hear the Twitter storm brewing already….
  3. ENO’s policy is not, as some have suggested, a cynical attempt to extract money from punters via the bars inside: sure, you can buy an alcholic drink if you wish (and for Salome, ENO/s bar staff have concocted a special ‘Seven Veils’ gin-based cocktail. Yum!). But you can also obtain water easily, free of charge. So you can fill up your water bottle when you get inside and take it into the auditorium with you.
  4. Venues draw considerable income from F&Bs (Food and Beverage sales). That income goes some way to paying the salaries of bar staff and ushers and others.

Here is the inimitable Larry David, of Curb Your Enthusiasm fame, on the issue of water bottles at theatres and opera houses….. (some viewers may find this offensive).