Gaetano Donizetti opera lost for 200 years set for London premiere

Eight years of detective work will culminate in July’s first performance of ‘amazing’ tragedy by great Italian composer

Lucia Di Lammermoor

Diana Damrau and Charles Castronovo in Royal Opera’s 2016 production of Lucia Di Lammermoor, Donizetti’s best-known work.
Photograph: Tristram Kenton

A lost opera by one of the great Italian composers is to have its world premiere in London almost 180 years after it was written.

Gaetano Donizetti was a leading figure in 19th-century Italian music, along with Giuseppe Verdi and Vincenzo Bellini. His most famous work, Lucia di Lammermoor, written in 1835, is seen as one of the great European operas. But L’Ange de Nisida (The Angel of Nisida) – composed in the late 1830s after he moved to work in Paris – never saw the light of day. It was written for the city’s Théâtre de la Renaissance, but the company went bankrupt before it was premiered.

The opera was thought to have been lost until musicologist Candida Mantica, a PhD student at Southampton University, painstakingly located and deciphered the score’s fragments over eight years.

Mantica said she found some pages in Paris’s Bibliothèque Nationale, but they were scattered among 18 folders and in no specific order. The reconstruction involved archive research across Europe and the US. “I was able to identify about 470 pages of autograph music [in the composer’s hand] thanks to a draft copy of the libretto, which allowed me to establish their original order,” she added.

The work will be premiered on 18 July at Covent Garden by London-based Opera Rara, which performs and records rare and forgotten 19th-century operas, in partnership with the Royal Opera House.

L’Ange de Nisida is a romance, telling the story of a soldier, Leone, who is in love with his king’s mistress.

Gaetano Donizetti

Gaetano Donizetti in a portrait by Gennaro Ruo. Photograph: Getty

Sir Mark Elder, artistic director of Opera Rara and music director of the Hallé Orchestra, will conduct the performance. He told the Observer: “It’s a work of top quality. Very beautiful.” Donizetti used some of this music in later works, including 1840’s La Favorite, but Elder said: “Over half of [L’Ange] has never ever been heard, which is terribly exciting.”

He said it had some “very powerful scenes” and noted that, because it was designed for a smaller theatre, “there is a delicacy and intimacy about the writing that is gorgeous”.

Donizetti died in 1848, aged just 50, and his masterpieces also include the 1832 comedy L’Elisir d’Amore (The Elixir of Love).

Roger Parker, repertoire consultant to Opera Rara and music professor at King’s College, London, said: “For L’Ange to get as popular as Lucia di Lammermoor or L’Elisir d’Amore, that would be ambitious. Who knows what’s going to happen? But the musical quality is as good as anything he did. That’s the surprising thing about it. When operas are discovered, quite often you find they were undiscovered for good reason. But this one really is amazing music. It’s some of the best music that you’ll hear from Donizetti.”

He added: “All his other operas have been premiered now. This is the last one, and it’s one of the best.”

Donizetti’s letters of the period reflect his annoyance over his cancelled opera, and despair over the commissioning theatre company. In one he complains that: “The management were real donkeys.”

Parker believes that L’Ange de Nisida will “rewrite how we think about [Donizetti] as a composer, in particular about the breadth of his musical inspiration. It’s a curious mixture of the comic and the serious.”

Donizetti scholars knew of this opera, he said. “But they had no idea what it was like … So there was no discussion of it in any of the literature.”

He praised Mantica’s “astonishing” detective work: “Candida just went to Paris and kept finding another few bars. I think we’ve got more or less everything he wrote now.”

The opera is likely to last about two-and-a-half hours, excluding the interval. The soloists will include soprano Joyce El-Khoury as Sylvia. A live recording will be made for release next year. The premiere will be a concert performance rather than a full staging. Covent Garden is “a wonderful platform for bringing this unknown piece to people’s attention”, according to Elder. “I can imagine it being staged, absolutely.”

Girls and Boys review – gut-wrenching Carey Mulligan charts a marriage’s end

Royal Court, London
Mulligan is a joy to watch as she brings her expressive powers to bear in Dennis Kelly’s flawed but compelling one-hander

Carey Mulligan in Girls and Boys

Consummate skill … Carey Mulligan in Girls and Boys.
Photograph: Marc Brenner

Carey Mulligan has had quite a week. First she shone as the warily intelligent cop in David Hare’s compelling TV drama, Collateral. Now she occupies the stage alone for 90 minutes in Dennis Kelly’s new play and charts with consummate skill the disintegration of a relationship. She is a joy to watch; only later did I find myself asking serious questions of the play itself.

Mulligan plays an unnamed woman (can characters please have monikers?) who begins by describing her first sight of her future husband in an easyJet queue at Naples airport. An amused smile plays about Mulligan’s lips, and her eyes sparkle as the woman recalls her hitherto rackety life and the delight with which she saw her spouse-to-be put a couple of queue-jumping models in their place. We are instantly intrigued, as we are by the next scene, which shows the woman as a harassed young mum coping with two unseen children who have the luck to be named as Leanne and Danny.

This alternation of confessional chat and pressurised domesticity continues throughout the piece. Mulligan is brilliant at engaging with the audience and charting the gradations of the relationship with the husband. He runs a thriving business importing antique wardrobes; she cons her way into a job as a development executive in TV documentaries. The sex, we’re told, is terrific, and the couple have two lively, imaginative kids. But halfway through we get intimations of disaster, and a play that starts as comedy ends as tragedy.

Girls and Boys

Intimations of disaster … Girls and Boys. Photograph: Marc Brenner

Mulligan, whose expressive features gradually acquire the stark lineaments of pain, couldn’t be this good if the writing weren’t strong. Kelly, lately associated with family shows such as Matilda and Pinocchio, returns to a theme that haunted much of his earlier work: the nature of violence. Here he is particularly concerned with whether it is built into the male gender’s DNA. It is striking that, in the children’s fantasy games, Danny is destructive and Leanne constructive. Mulligan’s character finds herself working on a putative TV doc that seeks to statistically record testosterised aggression and devise a system that would make it harder for men to gain power. It is quite a leap, however, from this to the play’s shattering conclusion.

The form also pre-empts doubt or debate. Describing the unravelling marriage, Mulligan says at one point: “I am, of course, just giving you one side … But that’s what happens when you have just one person talking.” This may be Kelly’s attempt to disarm criticism, but it also reminds us of the limited perspective of the solo piece.

The night before I happened to have seen a play, Peter Gill’s The York Realist, in which you sympathised equally with two lovers sundered by class and circumstance. Drama can do that, whereas, in the one-person play, you are forced to rely on the testimony of the speaker. Here you have only the woman’s word for it that the catastrophe is motivated by professional jealousy. This doesn’t gainsay the immense subtlety of Mulligan’s performance or the clarity of Lyndsey Turner’s direction and Es Devlin’s design, which moves rapidly from a box-like space to a blanched sitting-room that seems to exist in the speaker’s memory.

It’s a gut-wrenching piece, but if you are going to invoke Euripides, as Kelly does, I’d suggest you need to present both sides of the story.

David Milne review – One of Canada’s greatest painters? Come off it!

Dulwich Picture Gallery, London
From the glitz of New York’s gilded age to the horror of the trenches, Milne had plenty to work with. So why does our critic prefer his photos?

‘Tediously genteel’ … Billboards, c.1912, by David Milne.

‘Tediously genteel’ … Billboards, c.1912, by David Milne.
Photograph: © The Estate of David Milne

This exhibition of a supposedly “great” Canadian artist who was unsuccessful in his own lifetime and is little-known outside his own country today is called David Milne: Modern Painting. I don’t know what definition of modern painting they used, but it isn’t in any of my books. Milne’s paintings are only modern if by that you mean a wishy-washy vagueness, depressed colours and complete lack of shock. This is the cough of the new, modern art with a yawn.

There is very little sign of development in Milne’s art, and as you navigate his backwoods the monotony of his subdued palette of russets, pale greens, blacks and muddy browns becomes embarrassingly repetitive.

Manhattan via Bloomsbury … Columbus Monument, 1912, by David Milne.

Manhattan via Bloomsbury … Columbus Monument, 1912. Photograph: © The Estate of David Milne

Milne, born in Ontario in 1882, started his career in gilded age New York – already the art capital of the Americas by the 1900s. He painted softly toned scenes of city life that make Manhattan look like a corner of Edwardian Bloomsbury. His dappled studies of women in big hats, people milling about in the Public Library, a couple of cars and some sedate hoardings are timid imitations of the likes of Matisse and Bonnard. Compared with the paintings of George Bellows or photographs of Alfred Stieglitz from the same era, with their powerful sense of a great urban society, Milne’s perceptions of New York are tediously genteel.

He obviously did not feel at home in the metropolis and in 1916 – suffering from what he described as a “nervous heart” – moved to the first of a series of hideaways in the mountains of New York State, before eventually returning to Canada in 1929. From 1916 onwards, the exhibition is dominated by woodland landscapes. In his 1916 watercolour Bishop’s Pond (Reflections), he finds a mirror of his melancholy in the glassy surface of a woodland pool. White, snowy trees become blurred forms of reflected sadness. Yet the exhibition’s attempt to compare his love of reflections with Monet’s waterlilies reveals a loss of perspective. One of Milne’s landscapes might be touching; together, they pall. He seems unable to take his imagination outside a very limited repertoire. In 1929, for instance, he is still brooding miserably on woodland water in the appropriately titled Gray Pool.

Pink Reflections, Bishop’s Pond, 1920, by David Milne.

Reflected sadness … Pink Reflections, Bishop’s Pond, 1920. Photograph: © The Estate of David Milne

When Milne visited the western front in 1919 as an official Canadian artist, the first world war was over and its eerie potholes and trenches gave him plenty of mud and rainwater to brood on. He himself said he was merely a “tourist” among these haunted landscapes. His war art is not especially powerful. Milne was a misery before he visited the trenches and a misery afterwards. Obviously any image of those landscapes of horror is distressing. Yet it is hard to see what Milne’s dappled renditions add to the photographs of the same scenes that are displayed for comparison. The photographs are brutally real, the paintings almost decorative.

That same contrast between the raw reality of the camera and the gentle artifice of Milne’s brush recurs when the woodland photographs he took as part of his research are shown beside his pastoral scenes. I prefer the photos. I have never thought that about a painter before.

This venerable gallery – with its wonderful architecture by John Soane and collection of masterpieces by the likes of Rembrandt and Poussin – is a beautiful place, yet its exhibition programme is turning into an orgy of the second rate. It’s time Dulwich celebrated what it is, an art-historical treasure house, instead of trying to be “modern” and getting lost in some very dreary woods.

Poison pass: the man who became immune to snake venom

Rock singer Steve Ludwin has been injecting himself with snake venom for 30 years. In a strange twist, his bizarre habit could now save thousands of lives. His former partner Britt Collins tells his outlandish story

Steve Ludwin with a snake round his head

What a charmer: Steve Ludwin with a friendly Honduran milk snake.
Photograph: Pal Hansen for the Observer

Sometime in 2006, when my ex-boyfriend failed to show up for dinner, I assumed something was wrong or perhaps he’d forgotten. About a week later, calling to apologise, he told me he’d had an overdose, accidentally injecting a lethal cocktail of venom from three snakes. A lot has been written about Steve Ludwin, widely known as the man who injects snake venom, and lately his life has turned into a non-stop frenzy of international journalists and film crews revelling in the seeming sheer insanity of it.

Steve was once my great love; an animal lover, vegan and musician who wrote songs for Placebo and Ash, and played the Reading festival with Nirvana. In between tours and recordings he dabbled with snake venom. In his latest incarnation as a self-taught snake expert, moulding himself into the role of a lifetime, he appears as a kind of living specimen and star in a short film at the Natural History Museum’s new exhibition, Venom: Killer and Cure.

“How cool is that? You normally have to be dead or a fossil to be in a museum,” says Steve, now 51, as we sit in his in Kennington, with its roof terrace offering glimmers of the London Eye and Parliament. He lives there with his Australian banker girlfriend Suzy, Russian blue cat Pushkin, a rare iguana and several snakes.

He’s been shooting, swallowing and scratching venom into his skin from some of the world’s deadliest snakes for 30 years. “Snakes are fucking everywhere. The symbol for medicine is two snakes. They’re ingrained in our brain and DNA,” he tells me, proudly insisting that he hasn’t been ill for decades and has developed “a superhuman immune system”. And it’s tempting to believe him. He does look undeniably fit.

The first time he did it was in October 1988 and he showed me his swollen wrist. I refused to indulge him and thought he was stoned. Today, Steve laughs at the memory. “Not really… well maybe,” he says. “But you know I’ve always loved snakes. I had no idea what it would do to me, but I knew it’d been done before and was curious to see if it was possible to become immune to snake venom.”

‘You know I’ve always loved snakes’: Steve Ludwin holding an iguana with Britt Collins, shot at Steve’s home in London

‘You know I’ve always loved snakes’: Steve Ludwin holding an iguana with Britt Collins, shot at Steve’s home in London Photograph: Pal Hansen for the Observer

Now, ironically, Steve is on the cusp of something monumental, the development of a human-derived anti-venom that could potentially save many thousands of human and animal lives.

“When I was 17,” he says, “I knew I was going to inject snake venom in the future. I felt like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, when he had that feeling ‘this means something’. It took many years and accidents of messing around with it to finally make sense.” He looks down at his arms, showing the maze of track marks. “I look like a junkie. You can see all the incisions.”

After university, Steve and I lived in Islington with our cream-tabby cat Tad and a couple of friends. Our house was a zoo, with our potbellied pig Lou who loved the Velvet Underground, a ginger-and-white rat Moo-Moo whom I saved from the fangs of a copperhead, a pair of rescued iguanas, a vicious baby caiman crocodile and a terrifying assortment of snakes and scorpions. But for us, to live among wild animals was all we ever wanted. While pursing his music career, Steve had his dream day job, handling reptiles at the Vivarium in Walthamstow. The pet shop had a back room with venomous snakes. And it wasn’t long before he began bringing home rattlesnakes, copperheads and vipers with enough venom to kill our entire street.

I started an indie-music glossy called Lime Lizard and everyone and their mates showed up at our Victorian terrace, turning it into a den for drugs, debauched rockers and deadly snakes. Inevitably there were accidents: a fugitive snake that reappeared through the floorboards eight months later; diamondback rattlers left carelessly beneath a baseball cap on our bed that our flatmate nearly sat on. I got bitten by a tarantula that left me swollen, bruised and hallucinating for days, and almost crushed by a boa constrictor after Steve draped it around me for a photo.

Steve and I met in February 1986 at Eckerd College, a small liberal-arts school on a sun-struck sliver of Florida coast. I was there as a transfer student from UC Berkeley for my one and only semester. I lived in the same co-ed dorm as Steve. One evening, walking back from dinner, I heard New Order’s Temptation blaring from his room and started dancing outside his window. We took one look at each other and that was it. He looked like the all-American boy – tall, lithe, chiselled, with a floppy fringe and faint dusting of freckles – except he was anything but. Steve was born on an air force base in Los Angeles. His father, Ray, was a pilot for Pan Am, who met his beautiful Canadian mother, Jacqueline, when she was a stewardess. Growing up with two sisters in New Milford, a sleepy Connecticut town, he lived next door to Eartha Kitt, the original Catwoman in the 60s Batman TV show. I knew Steve was a stoner, but he was funny and engaging, had a cool New-Romantics haircut and great taste in music. I remember being struck by his handsome face, his quirkiness and intensity: he believed in aliens, the deep state and punk as a philosophy. That night we went to a smoky indie club, dancing to the Violent Femmes and Psychedelic Furs until 4am and skipping morning classes. That was the start of our love affair and deep and enduring friendship. Neither of us realised it then, but it was a really romantic time.

On our second date, sitting on his bed, I felt something brush against my ankle and thought: “Perfect, he has a cat.” Glancing down, an 8ft boa, thick as a motorbike tire, slithered from under the bed. I screamed and shot out of his room.

When Steve calmed me down, taking my hand like a small child and showing me the satiny-softness of the boa, I lost my fear of an animal that had previously terrified me, and eventually fell in love with lizards, too, even naming my magazine after them. At the end of term, Steve was keen to show me Costa Rica, where he’d lived as a student. Soon enough, we found ourselves alone among iguanas, parrots and howler-monkeys on the deserted beaches of Manuel Antonio, traipsing bare-legged through remote rainforests filled with ultra-territorial predators like jaguars and pumas, and the baddest killers on earth: toxic frogs, spiders and snakes like the deadly bushmaster, which I nearly tread on, and crossing into Nicaragua to see the sea turtles in Tortuguero during the Sandinista-Contra conflict that was terrifying to everyone but us. Before we even got on the dodgy fisherman’s boat from Limón, we could hear gunfire and mortars exploding in the distance. Steve, unfazed, said, “Fuck it, we have to die sometime,” and I went along for the adventure. Steve bought a T-shirt off the back of a Sandinista rebel for $50. Like many college kids steeped in left-wing politics in Regan’s America, we were rebelling against the pervasive conservatism and generation that ran our lives, searching for something authentic.

‘On our second date I felt something brush against my ankle and thought, perfect, he has a cat. An 8ft boa slithered from under the bed’: when Britt met Steve, back in the 80s

‘On our second date I felt something brush against my ankle and thought, perfect, he has a cat. An 8ft boa slithered from under the bed’:
when Britt met Steve, back in the 80s

Our arrival in London happened to coincide with the late-80s underground scene exploding with bands like the Stone Roses, which for our generation felt like the 60s. Steve and I stayed together for seven mostly happy years and I remember it vividly – the gigs, stage-diving to Mudhoney and the Pixies and dancing at the Syndrome, an after-hours club on Oxford Street, hanging out with bands like Ride and Blur.

When Steve was “unsure what to do with the rest of his life” at 20, I encouraged him to pick up a guitar and write music. Months later, he auditioned for My Bloody Valentine. Inspired by the Beatles, REM and Black Flag, he started several semi-successful indie groups before landing a million-pound deal with Island Records with his band Carrie.

When an unscrupulous music-industry figure stole my magazine Lime Lizard, I was so crushed I couldn’t get out of bed for a month. Steve, in his laid-back way, said: “You have three choices: either you rot in bed like Brian Wilson; we can pay Bradley [one of his rough East End gangster mates] to break his legs; or you forget about it and create something else. Why don’t you write a book about your favourite band Nirvana, you know they’ll be huge?” I knocked out a proposal and asked my best friend Victoria Clarke, who was a little lost at the time, to write it with me. We instantly found an agent and a big publishing deal in 1991, before Nevermind was released.

As Steve and I were finding our way into adulthood – between the daily grind, drugs and groupies (he had crazed Japanese fans showing up on our doorstep at all hours, leaving love notes and giant teddy bears that terrified our cat) – our relationship ran its course. But we remained friends long after breaking up.

Steve was always insanely restless and curious and, in some ways, wilfully destructive. So I was hardly surprised when he had his venom overdose. He initially refused to go to hospital, fearing his snakes would be taken away. Instead, he sat down to watch David Attenborough’s series Life in Cold Blood about reptiles, over a Chinese takeaway, while his hand blew up into the size of baseball mitt. “I started thinking: ‘Wow, this is crazy. I could easily die here,’” he says, remembering feeling a pain with the intensity of “being stung by a thousand bees”.

Lethal shot: Steve milking venom from a pope’s pit viper.

Lethal shot: Steve milking venom from a pope’s pit viper. Photograph: Pal Hansen for the Observer

“But I was happy and didn’t care,” he adds. “I’d had such a great life. When they say your life flashes by, I saw all the good bits and felt them, all the rock’n’roll moments, every great gig I went to or played. This is what intrigues me about snake venom, that scientists say there are compounds in certain venoms that help its victims accept and relax into death. I felt that first-hand.”

The next morning the swelling had worsened. “My arm was all red and doughy with a sack of liquid hanging from it and I could see the blood vessels appear. It was like something out of Evil Dead. It’s evolution telling you to stay away. Why do you think monkeys, dogs and everyone is instinctively scared of snakes?”

When he finally went to hospital, the NHS doctors had never treated a snakebite victim, let alone someone with the venom of three different snakes coursing through their bloodstream. “They didn’t know what to do,” Steve says, when he had to tell the stunned A&E nurses he deliberately injected himself. The doctors put him on the phone to a renowned snake expert, who Steve recalls telling: “‘I used a Northern Pacific rattlesnake, an eyelash viper and a green tree viper from Asia.’ And he just said: ‘Well, you’re screwed. There isn’t an anti-venom because you used three different species.’ Then he said: ‘You’re probably going to die or, at best, lose your arm.’”

The doctors suggested “cutting his arm wide open in a fasciotomy” to release the pressure. “I said: ‘Fuck that, I’d rather die.’ The snakes that I used had a hemotoxin, which destroys red blood cells, and that’s why people’s legs and limbs fall off in Central America.”

They gave him the anti-venom CroFab to target the rattlesnake venom that most likely caused all the problems. After three days in intensive care with no improvement Steve, pulling out his IV, discharged himself. Contrary to all their dire predictions, his hand, aside from the bruising, was back to normal a week later. “The doctors were shocked when I went back. They’d never seen a recovery like it. I thought: ‘Cool, this shit’s working.’”

‘You could ask me why I’m continuing to inject. But my drive now is to come up with other ideas’: Steve Ludwin.

‘You could ask me why I’m continuing to inject. But my drive now is to come up with other ideas’: Steve Ludwin. Photograph: Pal Hansen for the Observer

Convinced his miraculous recovery was down to his self-immunisation, Steve became more fervent. He cheerfully admits mixing black mamba, cobra and puff-adder venom like the ingredients of an exotic cocktail and then, dizzied on pain and adrenaline, skateboarding through London traffic. “It made me feel invincible,” he says. “I was living like a madman. It got to the point where I was injecting almost daily, my legs, all over my body because you don’t want to do a lot of damage in one area as it could destroy nerves.”

He had literally turned himself into a science experiment, but there was a point to his madness. “For the past four years, I’ve been flying to Copenhagen to give blood and last year I had a bone-marrow operation. They drilled into my lower spine to take out bone marrow. It took me two months to recover.” Researchers at the University of Copenhagen have recently created an artificial library of antibodies, the Ludwin Library, generated by Steve’s immune system in response to the toxic injections, to develop the first human-derived anti-venom.

“What most people don’t realise is that anti-venom has been taken from horses’ blood for more than 100 years and sometimes snakebite victims die anyway, because their bodies reject it. When I walked into one of those blood farms and saw about 60 horses with holes in their necks being injected with venom, and with massive bags draining out blood, I was very emotional, knowing what they were going through.”

The World Health Organization considers venomous snakebites among the most neglected tropical diseases, killing more 125,000 people a year. “Anti-venom is very expensive. Pharmaceutical companies see it as a developing-world problem and have slowed the production, so snake fatalities are rising. These Danish scientists will solve that problem quickly by using technology and having found an idiot like me who spent decades injecting himself.”

His audacity and inventiveness is part of Steve’s appeal. “You could ask me why I’m continuing to inject. But my drive now is to come up with other ideas. People don’t self-experiment enough. Scientists are now saying using toxins, if you get it right, can have beneficial side effects to your body that slow ageing. It’s like a Jane Fonda workout video for my immune system.”

“I’m the happiest I’ve ever been,” he reflects, cranking up Adam Ant’s Puss ’n Boots and grabbing Pushkin, who’s high on catnip. He wanders out on to the terrace, lifting the cat over his head to show him London. “If those scientists win the Nobel Prize for medicine and I get recognition, that would be sweet.”

Venom: Killer and Cure is at the National History Museum until 13 May. See Steve behind the scenes at

Strays: A Homeless Man, a Lost Cat and Their Journey Across America by Britt Collins is being republished by Simon & Schuster

Octavia Spencer: ‘My first kiss was magical’

The actor, 45, reflects on why women of colour are underpaid in Hollywood, being crotchety in public and why she was able to savour finding fame later in life

Octavia Spencer

‘I don’t feel entitled to anything. Hard work is the common denominator’: Octavia Spencer.
Photograph: Randee St Nicholas

My face is still the same, my heart perhaps has changed. It’s more grown up than when I started acting and it doesn’t allow for being put in a box. With time comes experience and you learn that if you don’t break out of those boxes yourself, no one else will allow you to.

I don’t feel entitled to anything. Hard work is the common denominator in every bit of success I’ve had. Growing up, my family wasn’t wealthy, but we had each other and a mother who worked hard to give us the things we needed.

Women of colour have been underpaid in Hollywood for far too long. We are having all of these conversations and marches about equality, but if you’re truly egalitarian, you have to look at everyone. I shared my story about Jessica Chastain [who tied her pay to Spencer’s in an upcoming film] because I felt: “Look. I have all of these things – like awards or whatever – that people deem important, yet you people don’t want to pay me equally.” Jessica’s a friend, but she’d have done it for someone she doesn’t know.

I’m looking forward to the mid-term elections. I want to make it as difficult as possible for that person [Donald Trump] to create policy, so I don’t have to listen to it every day. My job is to be informed and I inform myself, but there’s only so much you can take.

My first kiss was magical. I was seven and at school and there was a boy who I thought was cute. One day the teacher left me in charge and everybody had to have their heads down to be quiet. I just went over and kissed him. He thought it was gross. I thought it was great.

I’m the same person in public and in private. If I’m not feeling well and feeling quite crotchety, I’m going to be that way wherever I am.

Making The Help and getting my first Oscar nomination was wonderful. It felt special to all of us women who worked on it. I was a bit of a film buff and to have Mary Steenburgen, Sissy Spacek and Cicely Tyson in a movie with me was very special.

Finding fame in my 40s allowed me an adult perspective on my career. I truly understood that you have to enjoy it – and appreciate it.

I’m at my happiest when I’m out in nature. When the sun is shining and birds are nearby and I’m sleeping and can appreciate the things around me.

I march to my own drum. I imagine most people like the tune that everyone else is hearing, but for me it’s easier to tune out and change the radio station if I don’t like what’s playing. I guess that’s boring to some and outlandish to others.

From the first time I saw a television I knew I wouldn’t spend the rest of my life in Montgomery, Alabama. I was five or six and wanted to act as soon as I realised people were paid to live fantasy lives.

The Shape of Water is released in the UK on 14 February

Ann Hirsch on the art project that invaded her private life – The Start podcast

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In 2008, online and performance artist Ann Hirsch started to post videos of herself on YouTube under the pseudonym of Caroline, a self-confessed “hipster college freshman”. The 18-month project, dubbed Scandalishious, explored questions of femininity, sexuality and identity at a time when online presence was little understood.

In the third episode of our new culture podcast about artistic beginnings, Hirsch reveals how Scandalishious became an all-encompassing endeavour: infiltrating her private life, putting her safety at risk and eventually resulting in a breakdown.

Plan to save Europe’s synagogues receives high-profile backing

Simon Schama, Howard Jacobson and Natasha Kaplinsky among supporters of campaign to protect Jewish heritage

Slonim synagogue in Belarus

Slonim synagogue in Belarus, where relatives of newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky worshipped before the Holocaust.
Photograph: Handout

Its gothic twin turrets and stained-glass window featuring a six-pointed star look out from a hillside over a town in south Wales. A Welsh dragon decorates the building’s gable. But rooms that once resonated to the murmur of prayers and readings from the Torah are abandoned; windows are broken, plaster is crumbling and the roof is open to the sky.

But now the Old Synagogue in Merthyr Tydfil, built in the 1870s, could be reborn. It is part of an extraordinary scheme – to be launched this week by the historian Simon Schama – to map more than 3,300 historic synagogues across 48 European countries, and restore the most significant sites.

The synagogue in Merthyr Tydfil was the centre of a community of around 400 Jews, many from eastern Europe. Its members ran a button factory, a chocolate business, a betting shop, property companies and other local enterprises. The annual Jewish Ball was attended by many of the town’s citizens, Jews and non-Jews.

But by the 1980s, a minyan – a quorum of 10 men – could no longer be reached, and the synagogue was sold. The grade II-listed building became a Christian centre and later a gym; today it lies empty and vandalised.

Now, however, there is hope that it will be preserved and restored as a Jewish museum, part of the scheme being rolled out this week. The project, commissioned by the Foundation for Jewish Heritage, has identified synagogues built before the second world war, from Cork in Ireland in the west to Vladivostok in Russia in the east. Each has been catalogued with construction dates and materials, the Jewish community it served, its present use and condition, and a “significance rating”.

Simon Schama.

Simon Schama. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

Schama will launch the project in parliament on Wednesday with the backing of more than 40 high-profile supporters including Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, architect Daniel Libeskind, television newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky, artist Anish Kapoor, authors Linda Grant and Howard Jacobson, and former government ministers Malcolm Rifkind and Tristram Hunt.

Before 1939, there were an estimated 17,000 synagogues across Europe, but the majority have been lost. Of the 3,318 surviving buildings, only 718 still function as Jewish places of worship; others are abandoned, in ruins or used for other purposes such as warehousing, factories, restaurants and theatres. One houses a swimming pool; others are funeral homes or fire stations.

The project faced “special challenges around Jewish heritage”, especially in eastern Europe, said foundation member Michael Mail. “The Holocaust was followed by communism. Many buildings were abandoned and essentially lost their communities of users. In preserving these buildings, we also preserve the stories of the communities that for hundreds of years were the heartlands of the Jewish people. These places can serve as profound portals into the worlds that were once there.”

The inventory was undertaken by the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, assisted by heritage experts in individual countries.

“We can’t save them all, so let’s save the best, the most important, the most at risk,” said Mail. “We’ve homed in on 160, and narrowed those down to 19 that we’re particularly looking at, where there’s a good chance of saving and restoring the buildings. Each one of those has a different story. In many cases, these buildings are the last witnesses to a Jewish life that was. This is not just Jewish heritage: it is Europe’s cultural and historical heritage and we’re in a race against time to save it.”

Natasha Kaplinsky.

Natasha Kaplinsky. Photograph: Dave Benett/Getty Images

One of the first buildings in line for restoration is the Great Synagogue in Slonim, Belarus, built in the 1640s. Before the second world war, 17,000 Jews lived in Slonim, more than two-thirds of the local population. An estimated 200 survived.

The synagogue, a baroque building overlooking the marketplace, was used as a warehouse after the war but has been abandoned for 18 years. It has been vandalised and is in danger of collapse, but some of the interior paintings and carvings are intact.

Among those rounded up and killed in Slonim were Kaplinksy’s relatives. The newsreader discovered her Jewish family history when she travelled to the city for the television series Who Do You Think You Are?

“It was devastating to find out that a large number of my family were killed by the Nazis,” she told the Observer. “One key moment [in the Slonim trip] was going to the synagogue where most of my family used to worship before being rounded up and burned alive.”

The synagogue is a “majestic building, absolutely stunning. You can see its history on its walls, but it is falling apart. I was horrified to find swastikas painted on the outside walls.”

After the programme was made, 27 Kaplinsky family members from all over the world met in Belarus to learn more about their history. “We ended up in the synagogue,” Kaplinsky said. “It was hugely symbolic that the building that tore our family apart brought us back together. It was a very special moment.”

There were lessons to be learned from the past, she added. “When you look around the world you can see the devastation caused by prejudice and hatred. We need to educate future generations and remind them of history.”

Discussions are now under way to restore the Slonim synagogue as a Jewish museum, educational and cultural centre, and a place of worship.

In Merthyr Tydfil, the proposal to restore the Old Synagogue as a Jewish museum of Wales and cultural centre is supported by the city council and local politicians.

Gerald Jones, the Labour MP for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, said the restoration plan “would see this building once again playing a part in the life of our community”. The foundation is seeking funding from partners including the Heritage Lottery Fund in the UK. It is also hoping for donations from people with family connections to synagogues.

The Old Synagogue, Merthyr Tydfil.

The Old Synagogue, Merthyr Tydfil. Photograph: Handout