Christie’s Wine Expert Broadbent Becomes Opera Hero: Interview

Michael Broadbent
Michael Broadbent, wine critic and former head of Christie's wine auctions, at a tasting. Broadbent's writings have been turned into an opera, ``The Lovely Ladies" by Peter Cowdrey and Hamish Robinson. Source Christie's via Bloomberg

The connection between champagne, fine wine and opera usually takes place in the bar during intermission. Now a new relationship has blossomed.

At the Christie’s International auction house in Mayfair, London, the life of wine critic and auctioneer Michael Broadbent has become an opera. The wines do the singing.

Composer Peter Cowdrey and librettist Hamish Robinson’s comic divertissement about Broadbent, “The Lovely Ladies,” took place on May 12. I spoke to Broadbent, the former head of Christie’s wine department, about what it felt like to become an operatic hero.

We meet at Christie’s, the day before the opera’s premiere. The 83-year-old Broadbent, dapper in a tailored blue suit, has the cheerful manner of a natural bon vivant.

What’s it like being turned into an opera, I wonder? “It’s the most unlikely thing on earth,” he bursts out with a laugh.

The opera begins with a rumor that Broadbent might be forsaking the world of wine. Various great wines, including Champagne, Bordeaux and Chateau d’Yquem then compete among themselves to lure the great taster back into the fold.

The performance proved the work to be a light, charming 45-minute piece dripping with musical allusions to Handel and Purcell. The singers included top-drawer performers such as countertenor Michael Chance and the baritone Richard Suart.

‘Crazy Idea’

How did it come about? “The head of Christie’s in Scotland, Sebastian Thewes, came up with a crazy idea to base an opera on my wine writings,” Broadbent says. “I thought it sounded far-fetched and forgot about it. He found a composer, and then suddenly I discovered it was being produced.”

The tickets for the gala event cost 185 pounds ($270), with proceeds going to the charity Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres. Clara Weatherall, one of the event’s organizers, told me that the evening was sold out, and raised 50,000 pounds.

At the reception after the piece, I find Broadbent beaming with pleasure, and he declares the opera delightful.

Why is there such a strong connection between opera and wine, I ask. “Opera is civilized, and champagne is civilized,” he says. “I’m all in favor of civilized drinks. As opposed to those great globs of red wine girls drink in wine bars.”

He relates an anecdote about not just the civilizing effects of wine, but its health-giving properties. “I was at the deathbed of the great wine writer Andre Simon,” Broadbent says. “He was 93. He had a good complexion and the most astonishing memory. He put down his longevity to a half bottle of champagne every morning.”

Broadbent, who looks pretty good himself, says that he keeps his own champagne next to the milk in the refrigerator. He tops up his morning orange juice with it. “It gives it a lift,” he says with a smile.

Overblown Market

Has he seen many changes in wine auctions since he began them in 1966? “It’s got overblown. In the early days, a bottle of Chateau Lafite was just four times more expensive than an ordinary Bordeaux rouge. Now it’s unaffordable. The attitude toward speculation has distorted the whole market.”

Isn’t that his fault? He himself began wine auctions, after all. “Good question,” he says. “We started so innocently. At first, the wines were bought by doctors and lawyers and middle-class professionals who wanted to drink them. Now I feel sad if I see a wine coming back on the market to be sold.”

Does he have any tips? Any favorite wines? “I’m a Bordeaux man. And though Lafite has been priced out of the market, there are still plenty of good smaller chateaux.”

Is the rumor in the opera true? Is he retiring? “In the libretto, the wine authority George Saintsbury appears as a deus ex machina from the past to say that I am not retiring, and he reassures the wines,” Broadbent says. “He’s absolutely right. Wine’s in my blood. You won’t be able to get rid of me.”

For information about wine auctions at Christie’s, For details about Maggie’s Centres, a cancer charity that helps sufferers cope with their condition,

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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