Coronaclassical 15: Counting the Peanuts

Live classical performance is getting back on its feet, slowly. The “New Normal”: smaller audiences, smaller programmes. And entirely unsurprisingly, and in most cases understandably, smaller fees for the performers. Tentative enquiries are trickling in, and most of them involve paying a fraction – by which I mean considerably less than half – of what the going rate was before.

Which is fine. We all want to get this thing back on its feet, and taking a short term financial hit to make that happen is something most singers will be willing to do, especially for employers who have shown them loyalty in the past.

Let’s get some context here. Surely opera singers get paid megabucks, right? So most of them can stand to go without caviar and a new Rolex for six months or so.

For comparison, if you wanted to book a commercial classical “crossover” singer to come and sing for twenty minutes at your product launch or birthday party, you’d have to stump up more money than I’ve ever earned in a year. And you wouldn’t haggle, you’d find the money to pay the going rate or look elsewhere.

Many of these crossover singers are my friends, and I don’t begrudge them a penny of what they earn – they provide a product, they’ve worked hard for it, and they deserve the rewards. The difference is that their employers are willing to find the funding for what they perceive as quality. They are right – whatever your views on their taste when it comes to singing – not least because it means that, if they want to book the same singer next year, that singer will still be in business.

For those of us who are still naïve enough to be committed to singing in actual operas, our fees are much lower than they were for previous generations – and I don’t mean allowing for inflation either, I’m talking about the actual number of pounds and dollars. Audiences often complain that the standard of singing isn’t what it was in the past. Whether that’s true or not, the unarguable fact is that we’re being asked to do the same thing on an annual budget that a singer of another era would have spent on after shave.

So any time anyone tries to claim that singers’ fees are the problem in the opera world’s business model, please feel free to give them a metaphorical slap. Outside a very, very small number of “a-listers” of varying quality, most of us were struggling to get by even before our entire industry shut down overnight – mostly without even considering honouring our existing contracts, or in many cases bothering to inform us that they were being cancelled.

Let’s assume that by “opera singer” we mean someone who is capable of performing roles in operas, and maintaining the highest professional standards of doing that over a period of years and decades. That’s an expensive business, and requires constant financial investment. For quite some time now the industry which depends on those standards being maintained has been increasingly unwilling to fund what that actually costs.

Whatever opera’s problems are, artists’ fees being too high is not one of them.

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Coronaclassical 14: Who cares about composers?

 

Hacker: Let us choose what we subsidise, by the extent of popular demand.

Sir Humphrey: What would happen to the Royal Opera House on such a basis? The very summit of our cultural achievement.

Hacker: And what do they do? Mozart, Wagner, Verdi, Puccini. Germans and Italians! It’s not our culture at all.

Yes Minister, Season 3 Episode 7: “The Middle-Class Rip-Off”

 

The lurching has begun. Yesterday, a couple of UK venues, brave enough to take a step towards re-opening under current government guidance, had to take at least one step back within hours as that guidance changed with minimal notice.

Meanwhile, one of the government’s scientific advisors is today suggesting that pubs may have to close once schools reopen, in order to keep the infection rate under control. Follow the logic of this, if you haven’t already. In terms of the complete certainty of preventing infection, pubs are not safe. Schools are not safe. Planes are not safe. And no, concert halls and theatres are not safe either. None of them are safe, in any country which has neglected to do the hard work of eliminating the virus from circulation entirely.

The judgement the government is currently making is about whose health and lives should be put on the line in return for keeping society functioning. It’s worth bearing this in mind each time we call for our audiences to be allowed to return to their seats. Not to mention the next time we’re in a ballot box: what kind of people do we want making these unenviable decisions on our behalf?

Having said that, politician-bashing is far too much of a comfort zone for artists. Any successful negotiation has to take account of the opposing side’s world-view. It’s something for which we readily criticise our leaders, regarding recent dealings with the EU for example, and yet we’re guilty of the same sin ourselves. If we genuinely want something from our political leaders, we need to make the effort to explain it to them in their terms, not ours.

The fact is that Jim Hacker’s point is a fair one. It’s not a conversation that would need to happen in Germany or Italy, or France or Russia for that matter. The intrinsic importance of their operas to their culture needs no explanation.

But British opera has this problem, and we hardly help ourselves. Sir Humphrey’s beloved ROH staged a work by Benjamin Britten last year for only the second time since 2013, and even then only ventured to schedule five performances of Death in Venice – to rave reviews and packed houses. Hopefully a lesson was learned, because if London’s biggest companies aren’t brave enough to stick their necks out for Britten, then we really are in trouble.

Choose to be bold, and doors might open. German and Italian opera has a problem that we don’t: undeniably, their greatest works are at least a hundred years old. That means that German and Italian opera houses are inevitably museums to some extent. That’s an issue when it comes to presenting opera as a living, breathing art form, reflecting society today and responding to its needs. It’s not an insurmountable problem, but it’s one which we in Britain have chosen to make ours too, by relying so heavily on old, imported material.

Many regular opera-goers will be scratching their heads at the idea that contemporary composers and modern music could be the solution to the challenges we face. Let’s be honest, most of them decided some time ago that they hate all that stuff. Even those that are willing to attend new opera often do so out of a sense of reluctant duty rather than any great thirst for the unfamiliar.

In many cases their lack of enthusiasm might have been justified. And that’s largely our fault. Over the last century or so, the standard process of creating an opera has evolved to a state where you frequently get the distinct impression that we’re more comfortable working with dead composers, since they’re far less trouble.

But dead composers ultimately lead to a dead art form. Mozart, Wagner, Verdi and Puccini were all intimately involved in the creation of their works, not just from conception to written page, but right the way through to opening night and beyond. That way of doing it was clearly established as the best practice, leading to what are still viewed as the best results. But too often since then we’ve taken the soft option of keeping the composer out of the rehearsal room, and we’ve paid the price.

It’s important to note the success stories too. The ROH’s Death in Venice sold out. So did recent productions of John Adams’ Nixon in China and Philip Glass’s Akhnaten at ENO. Admittedly those are works which are now decades old, but the crucial point is that their composers found various ways of engaging with the public response to their music, and what purpose their work might serve, along with the opportunities to allow that input to feed back into their future work. New operas need several outings to hit home – too often they’re discarded almost as soon as they’re written, with no thought as to where they go next.

From my own experience, the creation of new operas is an infinitely more effective, not to mention personally rewarding, process when the composer is as close to the trial-and-error loop as possible, an open, active and equal partner from day one to dress rehearsal. It’s not always easy – the soft option is to keep the number of egos in a rehearsal room to a minimum – but if composers are to have a chance of developing a sense of how to create operas that the public want to hear, it is life-or-death essential.

And it’s something we can start right now, under current conditions. Companies have empty rehearsal facilities. The rest of us have time on our hands. Why not put a composer, a librettist, a pianist and a couple of singers in a room, give them a small budget and see what emerges? This is the sort of thing we should be thinking about when we attempt to address the issues of how the industry distributes its crisis funds to its freelance artists. By the time we’re out the other end, we might have something compelling to show for it.

More than that, we might have stories to tell. A lot of Britain’s current problems stem from difficulties in relating to our own past, our historical and current relationship with our own culture and with other countries and their people. We’re more comfortable with imported art because we shy away from engaging with our own stories. Perhaps it’s time to face up to that. And because it’s not a crowded field in terms of existing repertoire, British opera should be well-placed to play its part, given a brave enough vision on the part of its artistic leaders.

British music, British voices, British stories. There’s your slogan right there. Even a politician could understand it.

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Hire Car Top Trumps: Vauxhall Mokka

A lot has changed since our last instalment (the gap being a result of me owning a car again). The most noteworthy geopolitical event since 2016 has of course been that Vauxhall no longer sponsor the Welsh football team, thereby relinquishing their automatic bonus in the style section, which without being harsh they could hardly afford.

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This is a more or less brand new Vauxhall Mokka X. One of the aspects of the design proliferation available to modern car manufacturers is that they rapidly run out of non-stupid names, hence this model being named after what I think is some sort of chocolate-frappuccino-caramel-cinnamon-fennel-quinoa-smoothie-shake that you get when you should have ordered coffee, which is black, everything else being flavoured milk. The Vauxhall Mokka is a crossover vehicle, which must mean something to someone. Is it like a crossover singer? On first inspection it seems to be shaped like a proper car but smaller, making it of far less practical use and mildly irritating. Perhaps it is like a crossover singer. That style rating is in mortal danger of dropping into the minuses.

Vauxhall’s official website describes the Mokka as a “rugged, dynamic, stylish, full-on SUV”. They’re fooling no-one. On my original booking the vehicle was listed as a Vauxhall Crossland, and I struggled to work out whether or not the Mokka I was presented with consituted an upgrade. Vauxhall’s offical website describes the Crossland as “Muddy rugby boots. Fizzy-drink spills. Scattered popcorn from the cinema. Luckily, the life-ready Crossland X is ready for it all.” Most of those things aren’t even sentences.

In the absence of anything which makes any sense, I think we can infer that the Mokka is intended for everyday practical use by a small family. (I agree, they should get me to write their blurb – it would be rubbish but it would save us all a lot of time.) In the interests of scientific rigour I therefore assembled the quartet known in the Indian restaurants of London SW17 as oh shit not them again or alternatively the Tooting Avengers, the members and their responsibilities being: Fat Thor (age 45; in charge of driving and crap jokes), Wonder Woman (34; navigation, snacks and discipline), Teenage Negasonic Warhead (12; attitude, alternative fashion sense and soundtrack (music)), and Ant-Girl (4; consumption of snacks and soundtrack (whining)).

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The Tooting Avengers

The task facing this plucky band of heroes was a weekend trip along the M4 junctions 1-32 and back. Fat Thor approved of the Mokka’s ease of bluetooth set-up, which under cover of his pseudonym he feels comfortable in admitting he has never successfully completed in any other vehicle. This immediately led to 17 missed calls to Wonder Woman, who it seems never answers her phone, presumably being too busy saving the world from being overrun by rare blood diseases and laundry. Further crucial assessments came from The Warhead, who comprehensively tested the sound system’s capacity for playback of the entire output of My Chemical Romance – comfortably up to the task, much to Wonder Woman’s chagrin – and Ant-Girl, who was disappointed that the colour scheme turned out to be mainly black rather than the predicted “ummm GOLD”, and found fault with the model’s climate control, which apparently was capable of making the rear left corner of the interior simultaneously too hot, too cold, are we there yet and I’m still hungry.

That’s about all we had to say about it, which may not be much but is still far more than it deserves, and makes infinitely more sense than anything the Vauxhall marketing team has to offer.

Rented from: Avis Battersea
Country of origin: UK but not for long
Country of use: England / Wales

Year of manufacture: 2019
Year driven: 2019
Engine capacity: 1600cc
Power: 17/100
Performance: 19/100
Handling: 34/100
Style: 21/100
Comfort: 59/100
Luggage: 61/100 (bonus marks for carrying 2 children + my duvet and three pillows)
Max passengers: 4 + 3 pillows
Drivetrain: FWD
Value for money: 7/10

Written and originally published May 2019

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Coronaclassical 13: The Death of British Opera

Three cheers for Oliver Dowden. He pulled through. Or at the very least, he and our new friend Rishi – still artists’ favourite Tory, for whatever that’s worth – have mimed signing the cheque that should ensure that there’s some sort of UK performing arts industry next year.

Thus a short and rare period of artistic solidarity comes to an end, and rather than unanimously attacking the government for its ineptitude and inaction, we can safely return to the comfortable familiarity of attacking each other, as the winners and losers of the self-styled New Deal emerge.

As the dust begins to settle and the smoke of the valedictory fireworks clears, there already seems to be a little less to celebrate for the artists themselves. When it comes to supplying funds to the army of freelancers who are at the core of how the UK arts actually function, the secondary rumblings from the government are less promising.

In truth, who can blame them? They’ve fulfilled their side of the bargain: a huge cash injection into the top of the machine. If they don’t feel it’s their job to fix the mechanism via which the industry chooses to distribute those funds to the people who actually produce the material which is the entire purpose of the whole endeavour, they may well have a point.

I’ll take opera singers as a case study, since that’s where my own experience lies, but the same arguments apply to many other branches of the UK arts where the artists themselves are almost all employed on a freelance basis.

The hard fact is that not only are we artists not getting any of that funding right now, but most of that money is going to be given to people whose job it is to prevent as much of it getting to us as possible. Because in the modern UK arts industry, artists are not employees: we are the raw material. And part of the job of those selling the product is to keep the cost of the raw material to a minimum.

I don’t blame any individual in any of those jobs. In their shoes I would be doing exactly the same. It’s literally what they’re paid to do, and many of them are far more enlightened and benevolent than they have any need to be. This is a criticism of the system, not of the individuals within it. In many cases, we’re lucky to have them.

And indeed as individual artists, we ourselves have been complicit in our own predicament. In fairness, when choruses and orchestras have been made redundant or had part-time status imposed upon them, action has often been taken, at least making a point and taking a stand of sorts. But a generation ago, solo singers accepted the gradual disbanding of permanent company principal status with barely a murmur, perhaps eyeing the opportunity to steal a march on our closest rivals and move up a rung or two of the pecking order.

Let’s wake up and smell the coffee. The recipients of the government’s unexpected largesse – our prospective employers – are no more likely to find a way to distribute some of their pot of gold to us than Tim Martin is going to offer to pay twice as much for his supply of stale lager. That’s what we are: not equal partners, nor employees, nor the geese that lay the golden eggs, but barrels of Carling Black Label, getting perilously near to our sell-by date.

So, here’s the gruesome triple whammy for British opera singers: a dearth of work and financial support at home, even more so than before this latest shit-show; epidemiological pariah status abroad, with uncertainty over travel bans and two-week quarantines making it harder than ever to find work elsewhere; and a UK passport which is, for the foreseeable future, hardly worth the pretty blue paper it’s printed on.

It’s the perfect storm. And any British opera singer who survives it deserves every reward they get.

An artistic ecosystem where the artists are constantly pushed further and further towards the bottom of the food chain cannot possibly hope to thrive in the long term.

So I hope I’m wrong. I hope those now in a position to help us, those running the organisations which will receive large chunks of the £1.57bn – siphoned from our own past and future taxes – will take a wider view; and despite the narrow constraints of what our self-consuming industry requires of them, start to think of ways in which British opera singers – that huge native natural resource which they only occasionally have the courage, imagination and expertise to tap into – could be saved.

Otherwise this might be the moment that UK opera finally eats itself. Where buildings and offices are maintained while artistic talent is left to wither and die. Where all that remains is the imported husk of an irrelevant foreign museum piece, as our detractors so often sneeringly accuse us of being.

And if that’s all we’re capable of, none should mourn our passing.

 

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Coronaclassical 12: Drilling Holes in the Titanic

It’s surprising what you don’t miss. I was last in a pub on my birthday, and if you’d told me back then that almost four full months later I wouldn’t have been in one since, I’d probably have been quite glum. As it is, I can’t honestly say I’m pining for a pub crawl, although I’d like to spend a few hours with many of the people with whom I used to go for a pint. And come to think of it, I suppose I miss having enough money to go to the pub. But the sight of sweaty crowds on the streets of London, paying £6 a pop to drink beer out of milk cartons and plastic bottles, and then using alleyways as urinals, has brought the point home – was it ever that much fun anyway?

It’s Friday 3rd July and in England, the pubs are reopening tomorrow, while theatres and concert halls are remaining resolutely shut. As with aeroplanes a few weeks ago, many of my exasperated colleagues are asking: if pubs are deemed safe, how can a theatre not be?

My dear friend Brindley Sherratt has pithily suggested that we hire a 747 and perform an opera in the fuselage, highlighting the absurdity of the current situation. Our frustration is understandable, as we read daily reports of theatres closing or laying off staff, and we watch our own resources of finance and enthusiasm dwindle. As individuals and an industry, we can’t take much more of this.

But debating the relative safety of flights, pubs, theatres and various other set-ups is missing the point, and by arguing on that basis we risk spiking our own guns. Back in March, Tomas Pueyo described the strategy for tackling this pandemic as having two stages: the Hammer – where we go into a strict lockdown to bring the infection down to a manageable rate; and the Dance – where we loosen up in various stages in order to keep the much-discussed basic reproduction number, R0, below 1.

He uses the metaphor of a dance, because there is inevitably a degree of slow-slow-quick-quick-slow in all of this. As society opens up, the chaotic nature of how a virus spreads will inevitably lead to further outbreaks which are localised and unpredictable. The measures to counteract that have to be agile. So the bottom line is not whether, for example, pubs or shops or cinemas or theatres are safe. None of them are entirely risk-free under the current circumstances. But how quickly can they be shut back down if necessary with minimal notice?

To some extent it’s also a question of priorities, and there can be no denying that theatre and live music are clearly further down the government’s pecking order than beer and football and Primark. But it’s equally clear that it’s harder when it comes to performing arts venues. We need time to plan, prepare, rehearse and launch – months rather than days or weeks. Smaller-scale operations might be a bit more agile, and generously subsidised ones may have more options on the table. But ultimately they all need time and stability, to a far greater extent than a pub or a cinema.

It’s tempting for us as individual performers to clutch at straws and demand immediate employment at whatever cost. But what the industry needs is long term clarity. A rush to open up, even if theatres could reopen now with a limited number of seats, would in most cases deepen their financial problems rather than solve them. It costs just about as much to put on a show for a 30% capacity crowd as it does for a full house, so in reality we’d merely be drilling a few more holes in the hull of the Titanic. Online performances and recitals to empty halls are far from unhelpful, but they don’t solve the immediate problem that the industry’s ecosystem depends on a full range of viable live performances.

So in fairness to the UK government, their approach to emerging from lockdown isn’t as slap-dashedly inconsistent as it may seem, although they are spectacularly bad at explaining it – their shifty reticence with the data, and the sidelining of their scientific experts, hasn’t helped them at all in that.

To judge from the reactive nature of their approach to the entire crisis, perhaps a few nudges in the right direction might help them nail their colours to the mast, as discussed here earlier this week. But that also begs the question of the risks involved: lurching backwards to another round of shutdown cancellations would be disastrous. A Treasury-backed insurance scheme would be one reasonable way the government could help. At the very least, their “roadmap” needs some dates and numbers on it.

For better or worse, as a society-wide project, post-lockdown opening up has to be government-led, and we’re stuck with this lot, their priorities and their decisions. Politicians in a modern democracy are inevitably obliged to think in simple terms, and so questions need to be put to them in a simple way. Complaining about airlines and pubs and football gets us nowhere.

What we need to know right now is: when can we get back to work? What will the exact restrictions on audience capacity be? What happens if we have to shut back down? And how are we going to survive till then?

 

Update: the government has helpfully provided a case study in its latest U-turn, tonight deciding that village cricket can after all go ahead from next week, having stated it was unsafe earlier today. Has the science changed in the last few hours? It seems unlikely. Rather, in the face of public pressure, they’ve decided that the change of heart is worth the cost of adding another smidgen onto R0 (and also knowing that it won’t be particularly problematic to reverse that decision if necessary later).

 

Featured image by Tomas Pueyo

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Coronaclassical 11: Opera’s Kobayashi Maru Test

“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” – Dr Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park

The Guardian ran a good article last week from the owner of Vanderlyle, a restaurant in Cambridge, explaining why, despite the UK government’s decree that businesses such as his can reopen from July 4th, he’ll be staying shut.

Alex Rushmer: “Here’s why we won’t be opening on 4 July”

He cites three issues: the unpredictability of potential quarantine closures should a staff member or customer test positive; the financial viability of operating with 30-50% capacity because of social distancing; and the essential quality of the whole experience under current conditions.

Back in the opera world, the government’s advice for performing venues is even more vague and perplexing than that for restaurants. Theatres and concert halls can reopen, but not put on live performances. Eh?

Nevertheless, glimmers of bright ideas continue to emerge. English National Opera are at the forefront of the opening-up debate, outlining plans for a socially-distanced opera season in the autumn, with the reduction of the recommended safe separation to 1 metre allowing them to operate at 48% audience capacity, or so they say. This would replace their much-postponed production of Hairspray, and the fact that they seem to have realised, whether by accident or design, the inherent contradiction in an opera company asking for taxpayers’ money in order to stage a commercial musical is to be welcomed. No government, and this one least of all, would require much of a second invitation to pursue that train of thought to its logical conclusion. With any luck, ENO will be employing opera singers later this year, and that has to be a good thing.

If any company is well-placed to strike out into the “New Normal”, it may indeed be ENO. The cavernous Coliseum has always been something of a mixed blessing for the company, but all that space should be a clear advantage when it comes to socially distancing an audience, and 48% capacity is still well over a thousand seats there. A glance at their accounts for recent seasons suggests that the box office has accounted for around 20% of their overall income, so a reduction in ticket sales should prove less of a problem for their business model than for some other companies.

That seems to bode well for addressing two of Alex Rushmer’s restaurant issues at least. If the government and/or sponsors can somehow be persuaded to make up the ticketing shortfall, perhaps there is a non-ruinous or even near-viable financial model here, in the short term at least.

How about the quality of the experience? ENO have mooted chamber-style performances, with limited numbers of performers on stage and in the pit, and a thrifty approach to production costs. This is where the Coliseum’s size may be less of an advantage, but will at least be interesting to watch, especially for those of us who occasionally query the sanity of an industry where often more is spent on the costumes than on the performers wearing them. Is all that really necessary? I guess we’re about to find out.

Furthermore, with British singers sitting at home enviously twiddling our thumbs as we watch our colleagues in other parts of Europe get back to work, they’ll be spoilt for choice as never before when it comes to casting. So there’s every reason to suppose that the quality of the singing will more than make up for any austerity on the visual side of things.

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“Logic? My God, the man’s talking about logic; we’re talking about universal armageddon.” – Dr Leonard McCoy, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

On the general subject of getting showbusiness back on the road, what hasn’t been discussed anywhere near as much as these other two aspects is the third issue in the Guardian piece, which is the potential for disruption from the virus itself. According to the NHS’ Test and Trace guidelines, the approach seems to be that if anyone comes into contact with an infected individual, they are required to quarantine for 14 days. It’s not clear what constitutes “contact” in this context, but one positive case would presumably lay waste to any carefully planned rehearsal schedule. And then throw 1000 members of the public into the mix at a performance… The potential for chaos is immense, and it’s already causing problems in other countries.

One suggestion of a relatively low-cost way in which the government could help get us back on stage is for them to provide regular testing for cast and crew members, as has been happening (presumably at their own expense) with professional football teams. It seems like an alluring solution, but the devil is in the detail: even given high priority, we could expect a 24 hour wait for results. So, for example, we might test everyone on Sunday morning ready to start rehearsals the next day – and then repeat every couple of days, with a day off each time to wait for results. Or perhaps given an even bigger budget, we could have a rolling system of tests every day, although professional singers might soon tire of an invasive naso-pharyngeal swab at the start or finish of every rehearsal.

Bear in mind that the data on the reliability of tests when applied to non-symptomatic patients is still limited – understandably, the focus for most countries has been on testing those with symptoms, and the most severe ones at that. So it’s not at all clear how accurate pre-emptive tests are for those without symptoms are at the moment. It would only take one false negative to really put the cat among the pigeons.

On top of that, the “bubble” demands being made on footballers are strict, essentially taking over every aspect of their lives – would singers be willing or able to put up with that? And if not, or they got it slightly wrong, would a company then risk having to suspend them, as Watford did with three of their players at the weekend? (Worth noting perhaps that, even though footballers are more readily replaceable than singers, Watford still lost their match.)

The closer you look, the deadlier you realise the minefield of even the known-unknowns is. On balance I’m heartily glad that I’m only watching from behind the barbed wire, rather than trying to plot a course through it as our industry leaders are obliged to, even though it means I’m stony broke as a result. It must be tempting, even perhaps the only vaguely sane financial option, to consider the Southbank Centre‘s suggestion of battening down the hatches in the hope of riding out the storm until a full reopening is possible. Could they reopen in a more limited way in the meantime? Maybe. Should they? Probably not.

But it’s a Kobayashi Maru test, and the fact is that we need the more intrepid space cadets to succeed. The current crisis has exposed in most brutal fashion the systemic flaw where classical music relies entirely on live performances to distribute funds to a huge proportion of its most valuable artists. Vanderlyle has a fallback option of operating as a takeaway-only restaurant for the time being. Freelance musicians have no such Plan B. So even those of us who are very rarely on the radar of ENO’s casting department need its approach, and others like it, to pay off.

And I suspect that it has more chance of shaking the government into some sort of action – a concrete proposition would at least force them into a Yes or No answer. It surely beats sitting around waiting for them to reveal their masterfully elaborate rescue plan: as with almost every other aspect of this crisis, it must be pretty clear by now that there isn’t one.

Too little, too late? It would be better than nothing at all.

 

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Coronaclassical 10: Fiddling While Rome Burns

The crisis in the UK theatre industry really began to bite this week, with the continuing lack of clarity from the government having an increasingly tangible impact. In one of the biggest shocks so far, the Theatre Royal Plymouth announced that they were making their entire artistic team redundant with almost immediate effect.

One of that team was Production Assistant Lauren Walsh, who posted a must-read thread on her Twitter account. The whole thread is available here – please do take the time to read through it. I’ve reproduced the first part of Lauren’s thoughts below.

“I’m one of the artistic team. This week I was told I’ll likely be made redundant. I asked what the prospects were for me being rehired in any capacity further down the line. The response was that any new hires would be unlikely, possibly for up to two years. I’m from a working class background. It took me a really, really long time to get my foot in the door of the theatre industry. I worked so hard, and even then it only came together thanks to a bursary placement from Jerwood Arts. I feel bereft. There’s no funding available, so making my own work is nigh on impossible for a while. Most other theatre organisations are in a similar position in terms of redundancies and won’t be hiring either. I have no idea where to go. I can’t see any way of remaining in the industry. I don’t have savings. I don’t have a safety net or a family home I can go back to. And now, thanks to my landlord responding to my message about redundancy by telling me she was increasing my rent, I don’t have a home. I’m not posting for pity. I’m trying to highlight what people mean when they talk about the impact C-19 will have on diversity in theatre. It’s working class people who will have to move on. It’s black people. It’s Asian people. It’s disabled people. It’s LGBTQ+ people. The upper/middle classes who’ve held the positions of power in theatre for so long will continue to do so. And we’ll have to fight our way back in all over again.”

There’s a lot of talk about diversity in the arts. I’ve written before about how a major part of any meaningful campaign to increase diversity has to involve doing the hard, long-term work of increasing access to arts training in state schools. Talk is cheap, and too often politicians and industry leaders pay lip service to an inclusive approach, and yet fail to go beyond a bit of window dressing, neglecting the investment at grass roots level without which the path to a career in the arts will continue to get steeper for those from less privileged backgrounds.

The present danger is that in our eagerness to save theatres and orchestras, buildings and institutions, we lose sight of the individual artists required to make those places mean anything. The charge levelled against funding for the arts – that it’s taxpayers’ money paying for rich people’s pastimes – could be countered in no better way than channeling some of those funds to make sure that working class artists like Lauren aren’t lost to the profession forever. Let’s bear that in mind as we lobby our politicians and public.

In the long term, the low pay and precarious instability of most artistic careers are barriers to inclusivity. There are dangerous rumblings that artists’ fees will have to be cut in order to help theatres stabilise themselves financially. Every time that path is taken – and it’s an easy one since there’s almost always more artists than work – artists are effectively being asked to subsidise their own industry. That’s an option only available to those from wealthy backgrounds, or with other sources of finance. Employers should be in no doubt that every time they take that soft option, they are decreasing diversity, as well as gnawing at the vital organs of their host animal. We’re at a crunch point in the UK where we need to decide whether we’re serious about some of these art forms as professional ventures – or are we really happy to revert to what are essentially am-dram models?

I’ve already written about the need for more long-term stability in my own branch of the business, and there’s no doubt that the lack of paths to a reliable income is another barrier in the way of any artist from a low-income background seeking a career. We need to find ways of moving away from the ultra-Darwinism of an exclusively freelance model, because it leads to survival of the least vulnerable rather than the fittest.

None of this is to undervalue the contribution artists from more privileged backgrounds make to their various crafts. But we would unarguably be far poorer for a lack of working class talent streams. Acting needs its Ray Winstones and Idris Elbas. Opera needs its Tomlinsons and Terfels. Their potential successors are in an incredibly vulnerable position. They need help, and quickly.

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Where are all the time travellers?

In 2009, Stephen Hawking held a party in Cambridge. No one came. After the event, he sent out invitations to time travellers from the future to attend. Since none of them had shown up, he claimed this as experimental evidence that time travel is not possible.

He raises a fair question: if time travel is possible, then where are all the time travellers?

Hawking’s light-hearted experiment is far from conclusive, of course. Here are four possible reasons for the absence of visitors from the future, one or more of which might explain the no-shows.

1) Time travel takes a lot of energy.

Science fiction focuses on the idea of sending actual people, bodies and all, back in time. It’s obviously a great advantage from a storytelling perspective, but viewed scientifically, it makes little sense.

“That meeting could have been an email.” These days we don’t, as a rule, send people halfway around the world on an aeroplane when a video conference works just as well. Why? Energy.

The argument holds up even more strongly with time travel, which we’d have to assume  would be far trickier – and, without entering into the possible mechanics of it, more energetic – than geographical travel.

An extraterrestrial observer of Earth might ask, “If humans have discovered nuclear technology, then where are all the nuclear explosions?” If time travel turns out to be as energetic and potentially dangerous, it’s perfectly conceivable that it will be regulated by the same sort of restrictions we place on nuclear power and weaponry. Hence no trips to Cambridge 2009 for a party, however congenial the host.

2) Time travel kills the time traveller.

Let’s run with this energy idea. We’d rather send an email or text message than a human messenger carrying bits of paper. For similar reasons, it’s not really plausible that we’d send an actual human back in time. Presumably at some point in the process we’d have to disassemble the molecules of the traveller’s body and put them back together. Putting aside the Trigger’s Broom question of whether that would actually be the same person, or just a copy, I struggle to think of a method via which ripping someone’s entire body apart to the level of individual molecules wouldn’t kill them.

Okay you say, but what if we could digitise consciousness, and send that back in time, to be placed in another brain and body, whether that would be artificial or some sort of permanent or temporary donor? In that case, you’d still be left with the original person at the transmitting end of the process – effectively, you’ve produced a clone, rather than an actual time traveller.

So if the process leads to the death, or at least the problematic cloning, of a human being, it’s not something you’d do for frivolous reasons.

In fact, the more you think about it as a serious proposition, the less sense it makes that you’d decide to send an actual human back in time, whether you’re talking about their entire body or just their consciousness. Why not just send a message? What are you trying to achieve?

Which brings us to our third question.

3) What’s the point?

So it’s likely that time travel would be a difficult, costly (in terms of energy and money), and dangerous process. The question would therefore be: what’s the object of the exercise?

Again, with the aim of constructing interesting stories, science fiction tends to concentrate on a “many-worlds” or “multiple timelines” approach, where a time traveller can go back to a point in history and change something, thereby altering the future and perhaps avoiding some global catastrophe.

Our experience of time doesn’t really back that up though. The past has already happened. If time travellers have gone back in time, whatever the consequences of their actions, we’re already living with them. It’s a tricky concept for us to accept on a philosophical level – what becomes of free will for those time travellers, if whatever they do leads to a future which they know is already fixed? But that’s more of a problem for us rather than Physics – from the point of view of the latter, a “fixed single timeline” model makes far more sense. Indeed, quantum physicists are finding and discussing instances of potential “retrocausality” – events in the present being determined by events in the future. Free will may not come into it, on a subatomic level at least.

“One of the major problems encountered in time travel is not that of becoming your own father or mother. There is no problem in becoming your own father or mother that a broad-minded and well-adjusted family can’t cope with. There is no problem with changing the course of history—the course of history does not change because it all fits together like a jigsaw. All the important changes have happened before the things they were supposed to change and it all sorts itself out in the end.” – Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

If that is the case, then you’d have to ask: what exactly would be the point of travelling backwards in time? If history can’t be changed, then what is there to be gained in a perilous and costly trip to visit it?

Any or all of these might well be a factor. But there’s one more point which provides sufficient explanation on its own.

4) Time travel requires a receiver as well as a transmitter.

When Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, he didn’t immediately have the ability to contact anyone in the world remotely. He could only talk to the one man who also had a telephone.  Since that’s a far simpler process than time travel, why wouldn’t the same principle hold?

Again, science fiction is largely fixated on the ability to send people back to any point in space and time. But how would that location be identified and fixed – especially the spatial element? It would clearly require a second set of equipment, which by definition hasn’t been invented yet. Just as Professor Bell couldn’t call anyone who lived beyond the reaches of his nascent telephone network, so time travellers can’t reach any location where time travel hasn’t been invented yet, because there’s no one to pick up the phone.

In other words, time travel into the past is – or should I say, will be – only possible as far as the point in history at which time travel is invented, and not before.

And that’s why no one came to Professor Hawking’s party.

 

 

Further reading / viewing, which deal with plausible models of time travel, or other aspects discussed here :

Books: Altered Carbon (Richard K. Morgan) , Re:Zero (Tappei Nagatsuki), The Order of Time (Carlo Rovelli)

TV: Westworld (HBO, Seasons 1 & 2)

Movies: Bill and Ted (1989/1991), Predestination (2014)

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Coronaclassical 9: Opening Up

Strong reactions emerged over the weekend to leaked reports that the UK is about to allow orchestras and choirs to return to work, with severe conditions of 3-metre distancing and limits on numbers in the same room (eight instrumentalists, or six singers). It’s struck a nerve coming at the same time as flights are resuming and shops are re-opening. If it’s safe to go to Primark, why can’t we be allowed to make music properly?

I fully understand – and share – musicians’ frustrations, especially when so many of us have been left in the financial lurch by the eccentric gaps in the UK government’s support schemes. We need to get back to work. But we also need to take care. For one thing, sitting in the same room with colleagues for several hours at a time is clearly not an equivalent situation to spending twenty minutes whizzing around a large shop. (Although spare a thought for the shop workers on their long shifts.) The time element of viral load continues to be overlooked in favour of distance, but it’s at least as vital.

Evidence continues to emerge that asymptomatic carriers are major spreaders of the virus, and so relying on self-reporting or temperature checks isn’t enough to ensure safety. This isn’t just a case of trusting your colleagues not to turn up and cough all over you.

Furthermore, as the increasing advice to wear masks should tell us, the sense that the spread of the virus takes place in the air at least as much as it does via surfaces is increasing almost daily – although this might be much clearer if our politicians allowed themselves to admit the possibility that they got it wrong at the start. And other signs show us that this may be, above all, an indoor virus.

Perhaps, despite all that, we’re willing to take the risk. That may well be our impulse now, but professional orchestras do tend to be acutely aware of even relatively minor health and safety risks to their members – and quite rightly so. Would hacking away at the safest scientific advice in the interests of an early return to work really stand up to that level of scrutiny?

As I’ve discussed before, a health risk of, say, 1% might seem negligible to us as individuals. But put 1000 people in an auditorium, and that translates to the near-certainty of an event – not necessarily exactly 10 people each time, but even if we’re lucky and it’s only one, try picking out the unfortunate individual whose health or even life you think is worth sacrificing. The Indigo audience survey showed clearly that our supporters have misgivings about the safety of returning to venues too soon. We need to earn their trust, and sending out the message that our livelihoods take priority over their health is not the way to do that.

It will continue to be increasingly frustrating for us to watch colleagues in other countries return to work earlier than us, reaping the rewards of more competent governments, many of which have also been far swifter and more generous in their financial support of the arts.

But we can’t fight facts, and the worst approach to opening back up would be to lurch through a tentative first step and then swiftly have to take two backwards. To get through this, we need to get the virus under control nationally. We need an effective system of rapid testing, so performers and audiences can sit together knowing that they aren’t infecting each other. And in the meantime we need financial support to ensure we’re all still here ready to go when it’s safe to do so.

The remedies are clear, but they’re not easy nor painless to apply. Frantically searching for less gruelling alternative treatments is, I respectfully suggest, a waste of time and energy. Let’s buckle up and take the medicine.

 

Posted in Art, Coronavirus, Music, Opera, Politics, Science, singing, Theatre, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hire Car Top Trumps: Audi A4 Avant

This is an Audi A4 Avant TFSi: “T” because it’s got a turbo, “F” because – you know what, I have no idea. Letters on the back of cars are like the medals on the Duke of Edinburgh’s uniform: you assume he earned the first couple but at some point they just started lobbing them on there like kids’ sticky darts. “Avant” is Audisch for “Estate”, which I can’t explain either. Maybe it’s a comment about what eventually happens to members of the avant-garde, they end up driving business-grey German family estates.

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I hope you like this picture, for which I had to break several traffic laws. It was taken on the Afsluitsdijk, which is a 20-mile causeway between Friesland and North Holland, the building of which created a 1100 square-kilometre freshwater lake. The Dutch are really into that sort of thing, and you would be too if your entire country was below sea level. Along the Afsluitsdijk there are several points at which you can stop and buy a souvenir so that you can remember the great time you had staring at the vast grey nothingness of the North Sea and being unimaginably cold.

As you will already have noted, this car is a bit classier than usual, and its job was to drive me on a 900km audition round-trip. I could have kept the car from Budget for a couple of extra days, and if I’d had known it was going to be the Volvo I might well have, but on the other hand, as I explained before, it could have been a Hyundai. Of course you could turn up to an audition in a Hyundai, just as you could walk on stage dressed as Nick Slaughter from Tropical Heat, and when the casting director asks for your CV you could hand him a turd in a shoe box; but in these matters there’s could and there is should.

In other words this was some sort of attempt to give the impression of being a serious grown-up professional, and that’s exactly what this car is – it is serious and grown-up and professional.

The A4 is a modern design classic, neither frozen in time for fear of buggering it up like the Fiat 500 or the Mini, nor actually buggered up by misguided tinkering like the Honda Civic. Every update to the A4 has given it slightly pointier elbows and a slightly more furrowed brow, showing that its design team know exactly what the car is all about. It is serious and grown-up and it means business.

I will pull it up on two points. Firstly, the built-in sat nav is like having a Commodore 64 in the dashboard. It’s so horrible that I drove straight around the block and back to my front door to pick up my Tom Tom. Fine, you can switch it off but it’s odd to lumber half your dashboard with something so useless. Secondly, the stalk for Resume Cruise Control is right next to the stalk for FLASH THE DRIVER IN FRONT OF YOU LIKE AN ARSEHOLE IN AN AUDI, which might explain a lot about the reputation of Audi drivers, and certainly left me wishing I knew the hand signal for Es Tut Mir Leid.

Other than that everything about this car is good, the engine is good, the ride is good, the gearbox (Audi’s trademark superfluous 5th gear notwithstanding) is good, the interior is good, fuel economy is good, load carrying from Ikea is good. It’s all good. And it’s very very good at driving on motorways, and even better on Autobahns, where it will drive extremely fast with only the slightest raise of an eyebrow. In fact, after 900km not a single thing about it bugged me – I’m almost certain it’s the least annoying car I’ve ever driven.

The thing is, there’s that involuntary moment after you’ve been married for a while when a stunning woman in a crowd turns your head, and then on closer inspection you realise it’s your wife, and you know that if you were single you’d marry her all over again. If that sort of feeling is a factor in your choice of car, an Audi A4 Avant is never going to make your heart skip a beat when you catch its eye across a crowded room. But on the other hand, being the least annoying car ever as a basis for wedded bliss also has a lot to commend it.

Rented from: Sixt Den Haag
Country of origin: Deutschland
Country of use: The Netherlands / Deutschland

Year of manufacture: 2015
Year driven: 2016
Engine capacity: 1800cc turbo
Power: 88
Performance: 84
Handling: 74
Style: 72
Comfort: 81
Luggage: 87
Max passengers: 4
Drivetrain: FWD
VFM: 8/10

Written and originally published March 2016

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