The Freelancers’ Arts Council

A flat I used to rent had a leaking pipe. Nothing dramatic at first. Just drip-drip-drip above the kitchen every time someone emptied the bath upstairs. We told the landlord – let’s call him Colin – about it, many times over the years. Every now and then he would take notice and send someone round to look at it. A plumber would come, wince, and tell us it needed a builder before he could do anything. A builder would come, suck his teeth, and tell us a plumber needed to look at it first. We’d always report back to Colin, who would nod and make encouraging noises. Everyone agreed something should be done. But no one could pinpoint who should be doing it. And so it went on, with lots of talking, wincing, and sucking of teeth. But very little by way of action. Meanwhile, drip-drip-drip went the pipe above the kitchen. Eventually, inevitably, one night the kitchen ceiling fell in; and that was the end of our time at Colin’s flat.

Over the last three years, there has been much talking, wincing, and sucking of teeth regarding the drip-drip-drip over the heads of the UK’s performing arts freelancers. There is a broad consensus that something must be done – even, despite how it might sometimes appear to the grass roots workforce, among most of the industry’s Colin the Landlords. In many cases there is also a growing awareness of the sort of thing that needs to be done; although as with Colin’s kitchen pipe, the nagging suspicion that it may well require major excavation, rather than a quick bit of duct tape and a lick of paint, means that the temptation to look the other way and hope for the best is often hard to resist.

But the biggest obstacle to the necessary renovations is not whether there’s a problem, nor what needs to be done, but who should be doing it.

Since the start of this year I’ve jotted down the details of each separate issue facing performing arts freelancers as they’ve cropped up in meetings and conversations, and collated them in a diagram. It’s incomplete and not thoroughly logical, but at the moment it looks like this:

I’m sure there are issues I’ve missed, and further elements which should quite rightly be added to the ones already there. Each one of them is a very long conversation in itself. But the glaring omission is right at the centre: who should be dealing with all this?

Various answers spring to mind. Westminster / National / Local government? DCMS / the Home Office / Foreign Office? Arts councils? Charities? Unions? “The industry”?

In truth of course, all of the above in one form or another do grapple with one or more of the issues listed, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and effectiveness. But what’s lacking is one professional body with freelancers’ interests at its core, as its raison d’etre.

Freelancers are, I sense, feeling this absence more keenly than ever. Not just on a practical level in having their issues addressed and problems solved, but also in terms of a fundamental feeling of being acknowledged and valued by an industry to which they have, in so many cases, devoted their lives and for which they have made so many sacrifices. In a Twitter poll (admittedly the most inexact of sciences) I ran last week, over 90% of freelance performing arts workers responded that they did not feel that the current model of arts funding had been effective in supporting their work and careers in recent years. Freelancers feel they have nowhere to turn when confronted with this multitude of intimidating and disheartening challenges; a sense that no one is going in to bat for them, no one to consistently represent their interests and make their voices heard.

Perhaps a generation or two ago a single entity to fulfil this role wasn’t necessary. Government and other sources of funding passed money on, perhaps via a funding body, to companies and organisations, which in turn looked after the artists and other freelance workers on which they relied. A “trickle-down” economic model.

But trickle-down economics, if it ever works at all, has been shown to fail over time. That was never clearer than during the first phases of the pandemic, where the UK government pumped £2bn of emergency funding into the top end of the pipe, and freelancers waited for their share to trickle down. In many cases, they waited in vain, as organisations battened down the hatches of their large ships, prioritising their buildings and permanent staff, and waited to see, once the seas were finally calmer, which freelancers might have managed to cling on to their life rafts and weather the storm.

Meanwhile, surely the freelancers should have been taken care of by the Treasury’s Self-Employed Income Support Scheme, which was supposed to mirror the 80% furlough payments available for those in permanent employment? And yet, because of the various idiosyncrasies which make up a typical performing arts freelancer’s income, 59% of them missed out on the SEISS support throughout; 29% of the freelance workforce received no financial support during lockdown at all. Sink or swim.

And in many cases, survival of the richest: those from less privileged socioeconomic backgrounds were the hardest hit, with least to fall back on. In an industry which talks such a good game on lowering barriers and increasing diversity, the reality behind the scenes is so often in stark contrast to the well-intentioned words and shopfront displays.

None of this is intended as a criticism of any particular organisation, government department, union or arts council. They all have their role to perform in the system as it stands. In particular, I’m not here to criticise any of the existing UK arts councils; in fact, it seems to me that most of them do their job of focusing on the needs of organisations and buildings very well, certainly relative to the interests and concerns of freelancers. But even if all these bodies played their parts to the utmost, that ??? gap at the heart of the freelancers’ diagram would remain unfilled.

What is needed is a new body, not instead of any of the existing elements in the system, but working hand-in-hand alongside them, informing and enabling them to support the freelancers who support them, and whose work, creativity and dedication vitally underpin the industry as a whole.

What is needed is a properly funded, permanent and empowered Freelancers’ Arts Council.

I’ve sat in countless crisis meetings over the last three years as one representative of the freelance workforce. The discussion will always eventually turn to, what can be done directly to help our freelancers? And the answer is so often: nothing – we just have to sit and wait for the trickle-down.

The way in which a plethora of grassroots voluntary groups sprung up during lockdown was surely a reflection of the urgent necessity for something to change. But those groups are now under threat as the pressures of work have returned, and curtailed the available time and energy of the volunteers involved. Many have already fallen by the wayside; and the few that have survived, including Freelancers Make Theatre Work of which I’ve been a member since 2021, do so largely because of some degree of financial backing to cover a few of the costs involved. Either way, the need is clearly there, and there is only so much voluntary groups can do to meet that need. A more permanent, securely funded body is needed to take on the bulk of the extensive workload.

Crucially, such a body should be staffed where possible by members of the current freelance workforce. 48% of performing arts freelancers earn some of their income from elsewhere – the “portfolio career” is far more widespread than many realise, and most arts workers in this country are versatile and multi-skilled. This would be a way of keeping their talents and knowledge within the industry, and making sure that as much of the funding goes to maintaining the economic viability of the arts in this country – in other words, not just another layer of costly administration for its own sake, but an opportunity for working arts freelancers to bolster their income and financial security. It needn’t cost an arm and a leg on the scale of UK arts funding; but whatever does get spent on it should be kept within the workforce as it currently stands wherever possible, providing a much-needed boost to the ecosystem on that basis alone.

One of the first tasks facing a Freelancers’ Council would be to gather more information about the freelance workforce itself. Proposals to support performing arts freelancers often fall at the first hurdle of the lack of hard data – our best estimate is that there are about 200,000 of us in the UK, but we don’t really know for sure, because nobody has the authority or the resources to pin the figure down. In order to help freelancers, we need to know who they are, how many of them there are, and where to find them.

Who would fund a Freelancers’ Arts Council? Surely, when the country is faced with so many other crises and challenges, no politician would be brave enough to tackle such a radical, wide-reaching project?

Under normal circumstances, I’d probably, reluctantly, agree. But there is a window of opportunity approaching, not just with a General Election imminent, but in this once-in-a-generation post-pandemic moment of maybe, just maybe, meaningfully wanting to “Build Back Better”. Empowering Britain’s creative freelancers is a concept which should get backing across the political spectrum. If any party with an eye on their manifesto is looking for a Big Idea on the arts, this should be top of their list.

The freelance workforce is in crisis, and all the signs continue to indicate that it’s an existential one. Not for the individual freelancers themselves: once any of them takes the heartbreaking decision to leave, the problems no longer belong to them, but to the industry they leave behind. Colin’s tenants moved on; Colin’s flat, or what remained of it, was ultimately Colin’s problem.

For the freelancers’ crisis to be solved, and for the UK’s performing arts industry to survive in anything like its current form, radical action is needed, soon. We know what the problems are. We know what needs to be done.

Now somebody must be given the power to do it.


This article represents the author’s own views and not those of any company or organisation to which he is affiliated.

Statistics quoted from The Big Freelancer Survey 2022 unless otherwise stated.

The narrative elements of this article are fictional. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is coincidental.

Posted in Art, Brexit, Coronavirus, Music, Opera, Politics, singing, Theatre, What they don't teach you at music college | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Opera Under Siege: Part Two

In Part One we saw that opera is not everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s perfectly fine. That doesn’t mean that everyone shouldn’t feel they can take pride in their national opera company, and fully support its continued public funding.

But how do we get to there from here? How do we engage with those who have tried opera and simply don’t like it – how do we convince them that, despite that, their taxes being used to subsidise opera is a case of money well spent?

In these further chapters, I’m going to talk a fair bit about Welsh National Opera as an example, since I’m Welsh and it’s my turf. I’ll talk a bit about Irish National Opera too, since I’m also Irish and who says men can’t multitask? But many aspects of this discussion should translate equally well to any national or regional opera company.

Here then are three questions for supporters and fans of Welsh National Opera right now, as we struggle to get our heads round how they might navigate the choppy waters ahead. 

One: How are we Welsh?

A generation ago, insisting that an organisation or group of people needed to be authentically Welsh would have been a loaded statement. The economic history of the two-peninsula hinterland to which Brythonic Celts retreated a thousand years ago has meant that, more than most, our perception of national identity has clung to a sense of place, of belonging, and of lineage. Yma o Hyd, as Michael Sheen regularly shouts at us these days, encapsulates that limpet-like bloody-minded stubbornness which is a central feature of our national character, for better and worse. 

The irony of Dafydd Iwan’s iconic wordsWe’re still here – currently being on everyone’s lips is that it comes at a time when Wales as a nation is at long last able to look to a tentatively optimistic future, rather than wistfully back to a golden age of a largely mythical past; to look outward to the wider world, rather than inward at ourselves. The Wales of today is a different nation to the one in which I grew up. 

A glance at our current, historically successful, football team will tell you a lot about that. The way in which the younger players in particular seem effortlessly (although in actual fact with a lot of effort, leadership and serious understanding of Welsh culture behind the scenes) to embrace a modern, forward-looking sense of their own Cymreictod is instructive and inspiring. They appear to have a natural connection with the nation of people they represent, an affinity for the Welsh language, and an entirely modern lack of stigma in using it publicly and drawing from it as a source of gentle pride. And they also embody the ethnic diversity of modern Wales, without having had to view it as anything other than a definition of Welshness, and a channel to achieving the highest standards.

The fact that some traditionalist cynics, usually from elsewhere, remark that “they don’t look very Welsh to me” merely serves to underline the point: this, in fact, is what Wales looks like now. The football team’s diversity reflects modern Wales because it has grown organically from the grassroots of a present-day Wales which acknowledges and respects its cultural origins, but looks forward not back.

This question of diversity. Britain’s opera companies have strived over the last few years to right the long-standing wrongs of discrimination of all sorts in the industry. But as inspiring as it is to see a broader mix of ethnic backgrounds on our operatic stages, there’s sometimes something about it that doesn’t quite ring true. 

Football, of course, is hardly without moral issues of its own; you’ll find plenty of discussion of those over the coming weeks. But when Ethan Ampadu or Brennan Johnson first joined the Wales squad, the manager to which they were contractually obliged to say “Yes boss” was a fellow Welshman from a mixed race background. 

That’s a hugely significant difference from British opera, where the increasing diversity on stage is rarely, if ever, matched at management level. A Black singer walking through the stage door of any British opera company today still by and large has to kowtow to a white Casting Director, Artistic Director, Chief Executive Officer, sponsors and Chairman of the Board. In Britain now more than ever, opera singing is a blue-collar, low-paid job, and British singers remain very much towards the bottom of the food chain; until there is genuine change at the top, the industry remains quite legitimately vulnerable to charges of merely scratching the surface of this issue.

Furthermore, as keen as British opera companies are to prove their liberal credentials by importing a diverse array of overseas singers, their track record in how they treat their home-grown singers of Global Majority backgrounds leaves in many cases a lot to be desired. True and lasting reform grows from the roots, and manifests itself in positions of power, and consequently actions of genuine change.

To present one more footballing analogy, a young Black footballer from a non-privileged background growing up in Liverpool might look to Egyptian international Mo Salah as an inspiration; but how much more empowering in practical terms is the career path of a home-grown player like Trent Alexander-Arnold, if that boy dreams of making it as a professional footballer himself? That opera companies’ instinctive response to a call for increased diversity is to import it, implies a difficult truth about their degree of connection with the communities on their own doorsteps. Wise football clubs scour the globe for top players, but not at the expense of nurturing their home-grown talent. Opera companies should, must do likewise.

In the British opera world, there remains much work to be done.

But ah, I hear you cry, what of the socioeconomic barriers? Our aspiring Liverpudlian footballer could reach the professional ranks before even leaving school. But if he were a budding opera singer, a forbiddingly expensive series of educational barriers would still face him at the age of 18: several eye-wateringly expensive years at music college before he could even contemplate getting a toe on the professional ladder, and that after emerging well behind the eight-ball from a state school system in which education in music, drama and languages is now mostly an afterthought, at best.

In a recent interview, Sir Antonio Pappano made just such a point. How can a professional opera company embrace diversity when the musical education of the average British child is now so fatally underfunded and undervalued? Pappano copped some flak for making this point, and while you get where he was coming from, perhaps it was justified, in the sense that he is one of the few people in the UK industry in a position to do something radical about it. If the initial paucity and subsequent expense of the average education is a barrier, ultimately the only instigators for change can be the pipeline-end employers: the biggest of which is the opera house of which Pappano is currently Music Director. 

British opera companies have for decades now been running young artists’ schemes of various descriptions. The Royal Opera’s is particularly well-run and independently funded. If the ROH seriously considers the current education system as the major barrier to diversity, they could make a seismic difference by adapting or expanding their own training scheme to be more inclusive for British youngsters, to bypass those barriers they claim stand in the way of their own company’s diversity.

Alright, let’s grasp the bull elephant in the room by the horns here: isn’t all this talk of nationaility and national identity dangerously exclusionary, pulling up the drawbridge, putting up ever more barriers between Britain and the rest of the world?

It surely doesn’t have to be. It only requires a fresh definition of national identity, of civic nationalism, rather than the ethnic version which swiftly fills any vacuum in its absence. To hear WNO’s erstwhile Music Director Carlo Rizzi give an interview with S4C in highly fluent Welsh is as powerful a statement as can be imagined of what a modern outward-looking Wales could be: open to all who choose to embrace it. 

How is Irish National Opera Irish? The new company, coming at it more by chance than design but with a blank canvas nonetheless, draws on the wealth of its native resources, puts Ireland’s singers at the heart of what it does, and asks what best could be done with and by them? The resulting repertoire is eclectic and exciting. And quite clearly Irish. Next question.

There are signs, even as I write, that Welsh National Opera too is just beginning to grasp this and act on it. Good: let’s keep going.

British opera companies look enviously at “crossover” opera singers – how can they replicate the marketability of those artists, their connection with their audiences? Let’s cut to the chase: singing is about singers, and those audiences feel they know those singers as human beings. They know where they come from, how they got here, their story. They don’t feel an affinity with their “brand”: they’re fans. They feel they know them, they like them, they want to support them.

Singing is about singers. People don’t pay £300 to engage with Adele’s “brand”: they pay it to see and hear her. And while they may pay just as much to see the Rolling Stones, you can be pretty sure they damn well know who the lead singer is.

Opera’s unique selling point, its heart and soul, is about the power of the human voice. In its increasingly desperate search for new audiences, the industry too often tries to sell opera on the basis of what it isn’t, implicitly apologising, embarrassed about what it actually is. But any opera company which doesn’t have singing and singers as its heart and soul will sooner or later wither and die.

I’ve spent a long time talking about diversity, and that’s because I want there to be no ambiguity that what I’m about to say bears no relation to ethnic nationalism, to excluding anyone on ethnicity, parentage, background, birth or first language. But it is crucial that it is said, and said now.

In the British opera world, there remains much work to be done.

The rewards of that work are a place where a national opera company no longer needs to fight a rearguard action, make excuses, apologise for its failings; it can, by embracing the community it seeks to serve and from which it sprung in the first place, become part of the future rather than a relic of an increasingly embarrassing past.

In July 2020, in the depths of Covid lockdown, I wrote that British opera companies, in receipt of large chunks of the Government’s £2bn bailout fund, rather than batten down the hatches and mothball their offices, needed to think of ways in which British opera singers could be deployed, employed, and saved. Opera companies are not buildings: they are people.

Little has improved since then. Now, or never, what is left of Britain’s opera companies need, for their own survival, to back their British singers, and the young ones in particular. When I was their age, I flitted across Europe, building a multi-national career without even thinking twice about it. Through no fault of their own, the young British singers of today have had their right to do that taken from them.

So now they need their own country’s backing. Otherwise a generation from now, there won’t be any British singers to back. And more than likely, no opera companies either.

Now or never.

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Paul Carey Jones’ recent book based on his hit ‘Coronaclassical’ blog series is available now in paperback, Kindle, audiobook and brand new hardback editions from Amazon sites worldwide. For more details and a link to your nearest retailer visit: www.paulcareyjones.net/buy

“A powerful traversal of life in the pandemic” – Opera Magazine

“His view is alert and complex, evaluating developments with a searching but sceptical eye.” – BBC Music Magazine

Posted in Opera | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Opera Under Siege: Part One

Last week I stumbled across a sketch for an article I wrote back in April, just after Ukrainian forces sunk the flagship of the Russian fleet. The general thrust of it was that, by rewriting the rules by which Arts Council England would decide their impending funding awards, then Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries had aimed a Neptune missile at London’s major opera companies, and they were every bit as much a sitting duck as the Moskva.

The decision by ACE not to renew English National Opera’s status as a National Portfolio Organisation has inevitably dominated recent headlines, for the same reason as a 10,000 ton missile cruiser being summarily dispatched to the bottom of the Black Sea did a few months ago. And whatever the failings of the Arts Council in this and other processes, ultimately there can be no question that the decision to scupper ENO was a direct and inevitable result of the Dorries edict that London’s overall NPO funding was to be cut by 15%. Particularly in the face of 11% inflation (and the rate has been far higher than that for many elements of theatrical costs for quite some time), the choice was to sink all the boats slowly, or one capital ship at a stroke. London has four hulking battleships: the National Theatre, Royal Opera House, South Bank Centre and ENO; so the odds for any of them were not promising.

But ENO’s predicament aside, taken as a whole there can be no doubt that ACE’s combined decisions constitute a frontal assault on the very idea of subsidised full-scale opera in England. Significant cuts have also been made to the funds awarded to ROH, Glyndebourne’s touring arm, and Welsh National Opera, which traditionally has received more than half its public funding via ACE for its touring work to English venues. And even Opera North’s increased award was a real-terms decrease.

ENO’s fate now lies in the hands of their Chief Executive Officer Stuart Murphy and his team, and supporters must hope that during his short career in opera he has rapidly developed a formidable set of political skills: if ENO is to be saved via public funding, it will require the threading of an extraordinarily fine needle. All the rest of us can do is offer them our support in sharing ENO’s petition, writing to our MPs, and crossing our fingers that Murphy’s Hail Mary pass somehow hits its target.

In some senses Welsh National Opera now finds itself in a similar position to ENO back in 2014, when its core annual funding was cut by £5m. The following year the company was placed into “special measures” by ACE, the latter effectively demanding a change of leadership and business model if public funding of ENO was to continue beyond 2017. Now is really not the time to unpick all the details of that, but you do get the impression that ENO has been in the crosshairs for quite some time; while this latest broadside unarguably comes as a shock, anyone who claims it was a surprise cannot have been paying attention.

Now that the rubicon of taking down a full-scale organisation on this scale at a few months’ notice has been crossed, what can WNO, or any other publicly-funded national opera company, do to avoid a similar fate?

The most important lesson to take on board is that the continuing existence of any taxpayer-funded organisation relies on public support. And for opera in particular, that cannot just be from those who work for or attend performances given by those companies.

ACE targeted ENO rather than, for example, the National Theatre, because for one thing the public outcry over the loss of the latter would have surely been far greater. The man on the street might not have seen Ian McKellen or Judi Dench or Patrick Stewart on one of the NT’s stages with his own eyes, but for the most part he probably has a positive feeling knowing that they, and it, are there. Opera has been in a relegation battle in terms of its public profile for several decades, so its task on this front is far harder. But somehow it has to manage it. 

How does opera get the support of the man on the street? A man who perhaps has no interest in opera at all?

One of the ways in which opera companies have been tackling this task has been through their education and outreach work – and in fairness to various Arts Councils across the land, much of that development has been at their prompting. I’ve been involved in many of these projects over the years, and they are always inspiring and often potentially transformative. 

But there’s a danger that comes with this approach alone, which is that it accepts the premise of that catch-all charge so often levelled at opera by its opponents: Elitism.

Is opera “elitist”? Have you stopped mugging pensioners yet? Some questions don’t have yes-or-no answers.

The more we try to disprove the charge of “elitism” – by education and outreach projects, by lowering ticket prices drastically beneath cost price, by parodying or playing up to cliches about the perceived nature of opera singers and singing – the more we are in danger of accepting that the charge had some basis in the first place. If the peripheral good that opera companies do is central to their justification for public funding, at some point it will be pointed out that the same work could be done far cheaper without there being a full-scale opera company tagged onto it. Somehow, opera needs to take a deep breath, be brave, and make the case for the art form itself as an absolute public good.

Part of that is accepting the falsity of a current operatic truism: that Opera Is For Everyone. Because it very obviously is not.

What do I mean by that? Well, opera is not, for example, for anyone who doesn’t like sung narrative drama. It is not for people who don’t like unamplified singing with vibrato. It is not, by and large, for people who don’t like sitting in theatres surrounded by other people. There are many perfectly valid reasons why someone might not like opera, and that’s perfectly fine – unless we try to justify its public funding with the insistence that everyone can, should, and bloody well will enjoy opera, whether they like it or not.

Don’t get me wrong: opera can be for anyone. But it is not for everyone.

The problem with insisting otherwise is that we then fall into the trap of audience-blaming. You didn’t like it? Well perhaps you didn’t do your homework, your education was lacking, you need to try harder to understand what you’re being served up, because opera is for everyone, don’t you know! 

You can’t build a castle on bullshit. Opera is not for everyone, and that’s perfectly fine. But: that doesn’t mean that everyone shouldn’t feel they can take pride in their national opera company, and fully support its continued public funding.

But how do we get to there from here?

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Paul Carey Jones’ recent book based on his hit ‘Coronaclassical’ blog series is available now in paperback, Kindle, audiobook and brand new hardback editions from Amazon sites worldwide. For more details and a link to your nearest retailer visit: www.paulcareyjones.net/buy

“A powerful traversal of life in the pandemic” – Opera Magazine

“His view is alert and complex, evaluating developments with a searching but sceptical eye.” – BBC Music Magazine

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Playing God

I met my old lover
On the street last night
She seemed so glad to see me
I just smiled
And we talked about some old times
And we drank ourselves some beers
Still crazy after all these years
Oh, still crazy after all these years

This time tomorrow I’ll be in an opera rehearsal room. The last time I could say that was 11th November 2021, nearly five months ago. Talking to colleagues, these accidental sabbaticals seem to be a feature of post-pandemic life for singers, as the opera industry lurches asymmetrically into some sort of reanimation.

Opera. Sometimes it can’t live without you, and sometimes you’re a spare part. For singers it’s always been that way, and a long stretch of neglect like this current one is merely one extreme. I’ve done other things in the meantime, some of them I’ve enjoyed, some of them have been well paid, some of them have been sincerely appreciated; sometimes even all three. And then, just when you’re feeling it might be time to move on, the old seducer comes calling, and you find yourself falling for his old routine. He needs you. You’re special. Only you can make him feel this way.

Many singers have described the last two years as traumatic. Deep down I think it’s the trauma of realising your entire career has been a relationship with a narcissistic psychopath, who wooed you with flattery and love-bombing, made you feel like the centre of his universe; he inspired you to neglect friends, family, the chance of a normal life to focus on him and him alone. Only now does the penny drop that he doesn’t give a shit about you, about anyone other than himself. And yet here we are, together again at the last chance saloon.

Still crazy after all these years.

Machynlleth, August 2015. I’m sitting in the bar of The Wynnstay hotel, having a drink with John Tomlinson. He’s just sung Winterreise at Julius Drake’s festival up the road. Julius had the Steinway lid open on the full stick that day. Other patrons are recognising John – it’s hard not to – and approaching him, tentatively. John has that effect on people. What’s fascinating is that by and large they aren’t asking him questions, this endless mine of knowledge and legends. No, they’re telling him things, sharing stories of times he’s entered their lives, in an almost confessional manner. I imagine it’s how they might react if they were granted a five minute audience with God. John, as I say, has that effect on people. He is listening politely and sympathetically, occasionally being allowed to interject with appreciation and gratitude: very much as his audience may well hope the Almighty Himself might listen to their intercessions. It’s easy to see why people love John Tomlinson.

Tomorrow morning I’ll be taking my first steps as Wotan in his third incarnation, rebranding himself in Siegfried as “The Wanderer” as a result of trauma-induced Dissociative Identity Disorder. (Maybe. I’m not a trained psychiatrist.) It’s a thrilling and terrifying prospect. A fellow cast member messaged me last night asking how it is that he’s been working on his role for several years and still feels woefully underprepared.

I tell him that’s a good feeling, the time to start worrying is the moment when you start to feel you know it. The goal is to survive, to reach the top of the mountain; the nuances and polish can wait till the next time. You can have it all planned out, but everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth, as Mike Tyson succinctly pointed out. The first time you put it under fire with live ammunition, Wagner punches you in all sorts of places; and the first time it happens, it comes as a shock.

So, never do anything for the first time. That’s especially true of big Wagner roles. Last year I was one of several singers around the world making their debut as Wotan in Die Walküre. There’s a shared bond between those who have climbed that mountain – you can’t really understand the burden that comes with it until you’ve carried it yourself. All you can do is set your own targets and judge for yourself how close you’ve come to hitting them. Some people will love what you do with the role and hail you as the saviour of mankind and the Next Big Thing; others will feel you weren’t what they were expecting at all and question your choice of career.

Everyone creates God in their own image. Or at the very least, has their own idea of what God looks like, sounds like, how God should make them feel. Any iconic role carries with it a weight of prior incarnations and the preconceptions that audiences and critics build around those. But Wotan is different: those preconceptions carry a far heavier load. People want God to exist, and they want Him to fill a void in a particular way. You, as a pale earthly imitation, either will or you won’t, but there’s not a lot you can do about it, other than walk your own path up the mountain.

I’ve been reading some of the reviews from last summer, now that I’m allowed to and haven’t had anything much better to do. You can find the shiny ones on my website, because that’s where the shiny ones belong. Down here we can take more time to look at three which aren’t so pluggable but which struck a chord nonetheless.

Richard Morrison in The Times was a bit so-so about my Wotan, although he liked the singing side of things (singers will forgive critics a lot if they’re nice about the singing). He wrote that he found the interpretation “a bit professorial”. I quite like this as a comment – it’s absolutely what I was going for, that Wotan is a driven intellectual, a self-made man and the smartest guy in the room at Walhall when we first meet him in Rheingold. The idea is to make his descent into blind post-traumatic grief-driven rage far steeper and more acutely tragic, and that should continue to pay dividends in this next instalment. It’s interesting to read a response which essentially says “I understood what he was setting out to do, and I didn’t like it”. That’s totally fine by me, and comes with the territory.

Next here’s Katie Barnes writing for Harmony magazine: “His nervous gesture as she (Fricka) bore down upon him, realising that he was not wearing a tie and knowing that she was going to nag him for it, said everything about the state of their marriage.” I think this is my all-time favourite observation from a critic. In that confrontation with his wife in Act 2 of Walküre, Fricka must be the audience’s focus for it to work – if the singer playing Wotan undermines that, he’ll suffer later on since he needs a whole procession of Fricka’s arguments to hit home for his overall journey to make sense. So whatever Wotan does, it has to be theatrically quite underplayed. This was made harder for us because of the pandemic-induced straitjacket in which we were working: Fricka was centre stage, but a long way back with the full string section between her and the auditorium. Wotan meanwhile was socially distanced all the way downstage right. Covid safety regulations meant that neither of us was allowed to move from our mark. For those sitting in the left hand side of the stalls in particular, I was several metres closer to them, and for a few even eclipsing their view of the brilliant Madeleine Shaw (whose performance was so powerful that I woke up a few mornings during rehearsals from cold sweat dreams about my ex-wife). On the other hand, you can’t just stand there, and Wotan realising, too late, that he was underdressed for this summit meeting was a detail that we built in, small enough that it wouldn’t upstage the central figure in that scene, but hopefully clear enough that it painted a picture if anyone happened to be looking my way at that point. One person was, so full marks and a bullseye to Katie Barnes, who is now my favourite critic and the rest will just have to live with that.

Finally here’s a post from Japan by a YouTube viewer who saw Longborough’s broadcast of one of our performances. I’ll leave you to enjoy the idiosyncrasies of how Google Translate deals with the Japanese language, but here’s their description of my singing: “There is also a part that sounds like incorporating old musical instrument technology. Instead of adding an accent to the beginning, it’s a way to enter a little lightly and inflate your voice. How to make the sound melt into the space instead of making the outline of the outline stand out.” Even with what’s lost in translation, that’s such an elegant description of how Wagnerian legato is supposed to work. So often singers get misled by Wagner’s great big fortissimo chords at the start of a phrase, get sucked into trying to compete with the sheer volume of sound, not noticing that Wagner has also brought the orchestra down to a lucid pianissimo by the second or third beat of the phrase. Assuming that you have a skilful conductor in charge, that’s where the singer does their stuff, but for that to happen they mustn’t have blown their whole wad on the downbeat.

So here we go again. I’m packing my work bag for rehearsal, trying to remember what goes in there, trying to remember what and when I need to eat and drink and stretch and rest today. During lockdown, we all had to face the question of who we are when we’re not opera singers; what’s the point of opera singers when there’s no opera to sing? Today I’m trying to remember who I am, how to find that person, whether that person even still exists any more.

She said why don’t we both
Just sleep on it tonight
And I believe in the morning
You’ll begin to see the light
And then she kissed me
And I realized she probably was right
There must be fifty ways
To leave your lover

Still crazy after all these years. See you in the morning.

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Paul Carey Jones’ recent book based on his hit ‘Coronaclassical’ blog series is available now in paperback, Kindle, audiobook and brand new hardback editions from Amazon sites worldwide. For more details and a link to your nearest retailer visit: www.paulcareyjones.net/buy

“A powerful traversal of life in the pandemic” – Opera Magazine

“His view is alert and complex, evaluating developments with a searching but sceptical eye.” – BBC Music Magazine

Posted in acting, Art, Coronavirus, Music, Opera, Religion, singing, Theatre, Wagner | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Who Will Back British Opera?

I hate Peter Grimes. I don’t really understand the story, and I hate all the characters in it, who seem like deeply unpleasant people who all deserve each other and the parochial hell they’ve created. And its attempts at jocularity leave me cold – when it comes to Britten and me, I infer there would have been very little overlap between our senses of humour, if any.

The bad news for any fellow Grimesophobes out there is that Britten’s first genuine opera is showing ominous signs of entering the mainstream repertoire. A quick search on Operabase for 2021-22 shows no fewer than 14 productions taking place worldwide (over a period when the industry has still been some way from full capacity), including runs in France, Italy, Spain, The Netherlands, Finland, the Czech Republic, two in Austria, four in Germany, and this autumn at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Oh yes, and in London. Deborah Warner’s co-production (with Madrid and Paris) for the Royal Opera closes tonight, and has been met with five star reviews, sold out houses, and social media clamour for any hint of a spare ticket. Deservedly so: it’s a striking production which pulls no punches, with a starry (and largely home-grown) world-class cast, and fiery playing from the ROH orchestra under Mark Elder. In particular, Allan Clayton in the title role blows out of the water forever the myth that an authentic “English tenor” sound requires any compromise at all in vocal quality: his singing, acting, diction, movement, and utter embodiment of the character are unforgettable. If I never see the piece live again, I’ll always know that I saw it executed at its very best.

If you’re lucky enough to have a ticket, and your route to Covent Garden takes you along the creaking Bakerloo Line, you may well pass a whole row of posters advertising the ROH’s next operatic offering. If you had to guess blindfold, and are smart at playing the odds, you’d probably put money on it being La Traviata, and of course you’d be right.

The ROH’s milking of its perennial cash cow has by now become a bit of a recurring joke in the industry, viewed and largely accepted, eye-rolling aside, as a necessity in these financially challenging times. Top prices, endless double-cast runs, lavish marketing, bums on seats. Opera companies don’t generally publish show-by-show breakdowns of their budgets, but you’d assume that the revenue generated by what seems to have become a triannual corporate tourist trap helps fund some of the ROH’s more artistically innovative, and far less lucrative, ventures.

It’s not really possible to question that approach in detail, at least without a closer look at the books. What I think is worth questioning is the idea that a piece like Peter Grimes comes under that category of cliff-edge artistic risks that are impossible to perform without financial water wings.

Covent Garden’s recent productions of Britten’s operas have also included Billy Budd and Death in Venice in 2019, again to rave reviews and sold out houses. The model for Peter Grimes seems to have been the same: a timidly short run of six shows, and a generous range of cut price tickets. It’s a cautious approach, and one which might be entirely reasonable if you were looking at an untested new piece with a cast of unknown singers.

Let’s look again at that list of performances worldwide. The Met, with a seating capacity nearly twice that of the Royal Opera House, is putting on eight performances – that means 30,000 New Yorkers will get a chance to see Clayton reprising his now global star turn in the title role, compared to 13,500 in London. Admittedly, the ROH seems once more to have sold out this short run with minimal outlay on publicity and advertising, and they might be satisfied with the glow of hitting that target. But the question is, should they be?

Industry veterans put out an argument along the lines that “of course Traviata will need a greater marketing push, since it has more performances and those tickets don’t sell themselves”. It seems somewhat contradictory to argue that a product requires more marketing as a result of it being more popular; more expensive, perhaps. (Red Bull owns four football clubs and a Formula 1 team.)

Here are two questions to chew on: at what point might a well-resourced UK company like the Royal Opera feel confident enough to shift the approach up a gear for a work like Peter Grimes, to market and price it along something closer to the model for Traviata? Grimes as a piece, and this production in particular, is a known five-star quantity, with a big name cast on top form; and by now the opera is as old as Turandot was in 2001. If not now, when?

The other challenge is, what should be the aim of the marketing work of a large, taxpayer-subsidised opera company in the UK in 2022? Is it purely selling tickets and increasing revenue? Or is there also a wider responsibility for shaping the public perception of “what opera is”?

Tourists come to Britain from all over the world. We invite them to explore British history, British culture, British castles, British museums, British monuments, British cinema, British literature, British theatre, and we flog them souvenirs plastered in the British flag. The sole exception, it seems, is opera, which we spend millions on telling them is 200 years old, Italian, and ideally sung by foreigners.

I mean, we even now sell them British sparkling wine: imagine that a generation ago. And there’s surely a lesson there. Climate change and canny investment has transformed the quality of the product – but that’s less than half the battle. A concerted marketing campaign continues to be necessary to bring the bubbly-buying public round to the idea that there’s a home-grown alternative to Champagne which is every bit as good.

If the analogy holds for British operas, which have only really begun to bear the right sort of fruit over the last few decades, Britain’s best singers have been premier cru supérieur for a lot longer. That’s despite the former situation representing a significant obstacle to any British singer starting out. Their Italian counterparts will unquestioningly be viewed as experts in their native repertoire; the same goes for German, French and Russian singers. Britain’s aspiring opera singers have to bring themselves up to those standards before they get started on their careers – and in so many cases, they do. English National Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Die Walküre may have received a lukewarm reception from the critics; but what was not in doubt was the quality of their all-British cast. What’s more, you can bet your bottom deutschmark that cast would have been every bit as proficient had they been singing in German. There are British singers who are world-class interpreters of Italian, French, Russian, Czech repertoire too. But a true acceptance of British opera into the mainstream would give our young singers a head start in launching themselves internationally, at a time when they face rougher seas than ever before. And that process surely has to begin at home, where far too often the imported product is automatically viewed as superior. (Glyndebourne, for example, has picked a German baritone and a Mexican tenor in two of the main roles in Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers this summer, which is being sung in French. Go figure.)

Beyond the challenges facing its British workforce, opera also has an urgent need for new repertoire which is capable of connecting with as wide a public as possible. The art form often stands accused of misogyny and racism in its narrative content, sometimes unjustly, but often with a hard kernel of undeniable truth. That cannot fundamentally change while we remain chained to repertoire which was written a long way away and a long time ago. Genuine, lasting diversity will never be achieved until opera can give a voice to the communities it should be serving, until that public can walk past, or hopefully even into, their local theatre and see their own stories being told on stage. That requires those stories to be written by them, for them, now.

If we can’t even bring ourselves to pluck up our courage and present a surefire global hit such as Peter Grimes as being “what opera is”, what hope does any new opera have? Italy, Germany, France and Spain clearly have the cojones to back British opera. If Britain itself can’t do the same, we really are lost at sea.

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Paul Carey Jones’ recent book based on his hit ‘Coronaclassical’ blog series is available now in paperback, Kindle, audiobook and brand new hardback editions from Amazon sites worldwide. For more details and a link to your nearest retailer visit: www.paulcareyjones.net/buy

“A powerful traversal of life in the pandemic” – Opera Magazine

“His view is alert and complex, evaluating developments with a searching but sceptical eye.” – BBC Music Magazine

Posted in Brexit, Music, Opera, Politics, singing, Theatre, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Performative Hypocrisy: Classical Music and the War in Ukraine

“Yeah, sorry mate, I can’t really get involved in that sort of joke any more. I’m sure you understand why.”

A few years ago, my friend had been appointed to a high-up job with a major UK-based arts organisation, and I’d just made a lightly provocative comment about questionable sponsorship money from Russian oligarchs. A few weeks before that, my friend would have taken the joke and run with it. Now, my friend felt unable to respond.

And yes, I’m sure I understood why.

Over the last fortnight, across the Western classical music world pressure has been growing on Russian artists to denounce the actions of the Russian state in Ukraine. Rarely in recent times has a geopolitical situation resolved itself so clearly into Right and Wrong. In an era of moral relativism, where so many issues seem to involve vast grey areas and ethical minefields, maybe it’s some sort of relief to focus exclusively on a moment where the forces of Good and Evil seem so clear by comparison.

Inevitably, the highest profile abstainers have grabbed the headlines and opprobrium, Valery Gergiev (entirely fairly) and Anna Netrebko (perhaps a little more harshly) being the most notable examples. Both, in their own ways, have done pretty well out of the Putin years, and so perhaps we shouldn’t really be surprised at their reticence. Money is a powerful master.

But we’d be far better spending our time and column inches on their many, far braver compatriots who, in many cases without hesitation or equivocation, have come out publicly against the actions of the Russian military, whatever the cost or the risks.

Because the truth is not so simple, and the moral responsibility of this situation is far more widely distributed than glib PR statements might have us believe. Russian artists who make these public declarations of unequivocal condemnation run the risk of damage not just to their careers and livelihoods, but to the liberty, safety and potentially even lives of themselves and their friends and family members back home. This has been the harsh reality for Russian public figures for many, many years, not to mention those from neighbouring countries. No Western artist has faced those dangers for a very long time; would we have the moral and physical courage to do what we’re asking of them? We have the privilege of not knowing. And meanwhile we’ve treated the situation in Russia as a bleakly cynical joke, with Putin as its dark punchline.

Now that we in the West have finally deigned to admit the truth about the nature of this Russian regime, we also need to acknowledge the bravery of those who have opposed it, in Russia and abroad. Many have suffered and died for their convictions. And the least we owe their compatriots now is clarity about why we require a public statement of their opposition. For one thing, that clarity of thinking from us forms part of the antidote to the real danger of generalised Russophobia – cancelling performances of Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony can surely only get us further, far further, from the solution to our catastrophic human condition.

I can think of two clear and legitimate reasons for our demands of our Russian friends. Firstly, as a basic duty of care, in an international art form, where trust and emotional openness between colleagues is of paramount importance, it cannot be right to expect Ukrainian artists to work alongside their Russian counterparts if there is not absolute clarity about the latter’s attitude, privately and publicly, towards the profound inhuman horrors being inflicted on the former’s countrymen, family and friends at the moment in the name of Russian interests. When those shared feelings are open and clear, art can truly be a force for good, providing a message of hope, unity and peace. But the statement has to be explicit and unambiguous. To argue that art and politics don’t mix simply won’t wash; the act of making art together across personal, cultural, and national boundaries is implicitly a political statement, whether we like it or not, and to pretend otherwise is shambolically naive.

Secondly, the situation in Russia itself. The atrocities in Ukraine are the work of Putin, we reassure ourselves, not of the Russian people. While that’s undoubtedly true in essence, there can still be no denying that Putin does retain the support of a significant proportion of his subjects. Ah yes, we again reassure ourselves on their behalf, but they are under the influence of an overwhelming amount of state propaganda. Very well: it is therefore entirely right that we make sure we are doing everything in our power not to be complicit in that propaganda. Ensuring that there can be no ambiguity about the role of Russian artists working in our countries, for our state-subsidised national organisations, must surely therefore be an entirely reasonable request. By appearing here they are endorsing our national values, not we theirs.

But we need to tread carefully, particularly at a time when the precise nature of those national values is under more scrutiny than at any time in our recent history. We require our artists to be politically engaged? Perhaps we should be careful what we wish for. What about their views on other international conflicts where the lines of right and wrong are far more blurred? What do we say to singers who declaim their scepticism of Covid safety measures, of masks and vaccinations, when we cheerily engage them to work in close proximity to colleagues and audiences many of whom have all sorts of clinical vulnerabilities to that disease, which is very much still with us? What about artists who feel that their views on transgender rights are incompatible with colleagues who have strong opinions on feminist politics, or vice versa, in an industry which still has much soul-searching to do on both its deeply ingrained transphobia and misogyny? And what happens when the prevailing national consensus on an issue changes? Do we then expect our artists to change their opinions accordingly?

How does asking, demanding that our artists be openly political live alongside a conviction that we all have the right to work without being confronted by beliefs we find offensive, especially in an international industry with a global, multicultural workforce? Will the industry’s answer be to invest time, money and radical change to nurture the wellbeing of its freelance workers in an atmosphere of openness, tolerance, and mutual respect? Or is this an industry which is more likely, in a time of ever-decreasing opportunities for those workers – and of dwindling funds and rising inflation – to shun, consciously or otherwise, those artists seen as “difficult”?

We demand politically active artists? Why then, for example, have British artists been so reluctant to campaign on far less controversial topics, such as the combined impact of government and industry indifference to the plight of performing arts freelancers during the pandemic? Succoured by the complicit flattery of knighthoods and MBEs, how many high profile British singers have spoken out about the impact of Brexit, on their powerless younger colleagues in particular? Far easier to ride out the storm, stick with what you have and take what you can get – no point risking getting a reputation for “being difficult”.

And at the same time, there are also a number of singers who feel unable to evangelise in favour of what they see as the opportunities presented by the UK’s post-EU era. I disagree with these colleagues in the most fundamental way possible, but the fact is that many of them feel left behind, unrepresented and voiceless, cowed into silence by the spectre of unemployability – of “being difficult” – and most likely for good reason. We’ve all been trained not to even think of biting the hands that occasionally condescend to feed us. But until all these voices can speak and be heard reasonably and rationally, we remain a nation incapable of having a vitally necessary conversation about who we are, what we share, and what we stand for.

Is the classical music industry all of a sudden truly serious about its desire for politically engaged artists, after a generation of hammering them into monochrome moulds of glossy PR-friendly “Living The Dream” bullshit?

As ever, the bulk of the moralistic artillery does seem to have landed on those precariously vulnerable freelance artists: a human shield for the organisations, and those who are sheltered by working for them, which should be facing the hardest and most pressing questions. It’s easy enough to light up a building in the colours of the Ukrainian flag, get the orchestra to play the anthem, pat on the back, another box ticked, and on to finding a hashtag for next month’s hot trending topic.

More meaningful answers might be provided as to the precise relationship of the UK’s arts organisations to Russian funding, from individuals, corporations, and indirectly from sponsors who still do business in Russia. How do conductors like Gergiev seem to live a charmed life with major venues and orchestras, often at the expense of far more capable rivals? What is the relationship between large and powerful international agencies, which run lucrative orchestral tours and whose singers dominate cast lists across the globe, and Russian money? Are we really willing to open every Pandora’s Box, to clean out the whole industry from top to bottom whatever the financial cost? Or shall we merely make a few performative gestures, express some comforting words and songs for our eastern European friends, then continue to turn a blind eye, take the money and move on to our next opening night? After all: the show must go on, and at all costs, mustn’t it?

Don’t get me wrong. I want the freedom for artists to be politically engaged. More than that: I want it to be an obligation, I want the public to demand it, to accept nothing less than a truthful, meaningful, human presentation of what art should be; of who and how artists should be if art is to mean anything. For that to happen, arts organisations, where the true power and security now lies in this business, need to take a long, hard look at themselves, and create the conditions where that can happen, whatever the corporate cost: to choose to respect, care for, and nurture their workforce, not just the output it produces. And to recognise that “being difficult”, in the sense of standing up for what’s right and making sure that what we do means something, should be part of any artist’s job description.

The other choice, the status quo – the “Old Normal” – is safe, lucrative, and in today’s world, utterly meaningless. My fear is that the industry as it exists now is incapable of taking anything other than that easy choice.

And yes, I’m sure we’ll all understand exactly why.

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Paul Carey Jones’ recent book based on his hit ‘Coronaclassical’ blog series is available now in paperback, Kindle, audiobook and brand new hardback editions from Amazon sites worldwide. For more details and a link to your nearest retailer visit: www.paulcareyjones.net/buy

“A powerful traversal of life in the pandemic” – Opera Magazine

“His view is alert and complex, evaluating developments with a searching but sceptical eye.” – BBC Music Magazine

Posted in Art, Brexit, Coronavirus, Music, Opera, Politics, singing, Theatre | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Brexit for Musicians: Breakthrough

Among all the various bouts of brouhaha in UK domestic politics at the moment, Sir Keir Starmer’s speech to the Creative Coalition Festival 2022 last Wednesday went largely unnoticed and unremarked upon. Which was a shame, since it contained a significant breakthrough.

If I’m brutally honest, the prospect of spending an hour sitting through a Starmer speech hadn’t exactly thrilled me, although I’ve said from the day of his election that his being a bit boring but competent and serious should be viewed as a strength in the current circumstances. He may not be at the top of anyone’s list to host a witty panel show, but an increasing number of voters would take that over the alternative, now that we’ve been living with it for a couple of years. It seems odd that Boris Johnson continues to remind us that Starmer is a highly successful lawyer, as if that’s some sort of flaw; it’s an especially strange approach given the Prime Minster’s current issues with the law.

In fairness, kudos to Starmer for accepting the invitation and turning up, having clearly done his homework, especially only a couple of hours after Prime Minister’s Questions. Even I had to concede that it showed a degree of commitment to the creative industries which is worth acknowledging, entertainment value or not.

I watched Starmer’s address on catch-up, figuring I could skip through the stodgier bits, a bit like with all the chummy banter between the actual football on Match of the Day. This turned out to have been a useful move for a different reason, since there was a section on EU touring for creative artists which had me reaching for the rewind, rather than fast forward, button. Had he really just nailed Labour’s colours to the mast as emphatically as it sounded? Surely not. I wrote it down to be certain.

“Leaving the EU does pose challenges. Creative professionals need to be able to travel abroad at speed, so the impact on them has been particularly tough, with musicians especially hard hit. We would push for a visa waiver for touring artists, and we would negotiate an EU-wide cultural touring agreement, including allowances for cabotage, carnets and customs rules.”

In other words, exactly what UK artists have been saying they need for two years now. It stops just short of a concrete commitment to include all this in the Labour manifesto for the next General Election; but the language is unequivocal, to the extent that should anything less than this appear in that manifesto, it would represent a humiliating public climbdown for Starmer and his team. He could easily have been less emphatic, aspirations rather than commitments this far out, especially given how precariously many of Labour’s votes in England still lie across the Leave-Remain dividing line. That he feels bold enough to have moved this far forward in the language he’s using is a narrow ray of hope in what have been dark times.

Yawn, you may reply – more words, mere hot air, so what? British creative workers are suffering now and have been for some time; they need solutions today, not just the promise of them from a hypothetical new government in 2025.

Realistically though, this has always been the best hope for a viable way forward, certainly as it became clear that the current government possesses neither the will nor the nous to seek and secure the sort of agreement with the EU and its member states that is needed.

Labour committing to doing just that puts pressure on the other opposition parties to match their offer. And the more it’s discussed and highlighted, the more genuine pressure there is on the Conservatives to do something more than just mouth platitudes and assure us that something must be done, preferably by someone else. No one should cling to the false hope that these issues can be solved swiftly or simply, and the world as it was won’t be coming back. The solutions lie ahead of us, not behind, and we can’t solve new problems with old thinking.

At the end of his speech Starmer made it clear that he doesn’t feel Labour has gone far enough in its plans for supporting the UK’s creative workforce, and that they are open to further concrete ideas on what is needed. If anyone has something they’d like to get onto the table, drop me a line here and I’ll be happy to help point you in the right direction.

I’m not going to say this is the beginning of the end of this crisis, nor even necessarily the end of the beginning. Restoring the ecosystem of the UK’s performing arts industry, after the battering it’s taken from Brexit and the pandemic, will take a generation of radical thought and action. 

But for a long time now we’ve needed a tunnel out of this mountain of shit that’s suffocating us. We can now at least see where that tunnel might start – and possibly even a faint light at the end of it.

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Finally, what can you do about this? Keep talking about it, exhausting as that often feels. Remind our audiences that the problems have not gone away. Keep highlighting the ongoing issues on social media and any other platforms you have. And keep writing to your MPs – Freelancers Make Theatre Work have a template here which could be a useful starting point. If your MP is a Labour member, show that you’ve picked up on their leader’s statement, and ask about those manifesto commitments. If your MP is with another opposition party, draw their attention to Labour’s stance and ask if they can match it. And if they’re on the Tory benches, ask them why the Government is still dragging its heels on this. Keep the pressure on. The progress may be achingly slow, but we’re getting there.

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Paul Carey Jones’ recent book based on his hit ‘Coronaclassical’ blog series is available now in paperback, Kindle, audiobook and brand new hardback editions from Amazon sites worldwide. For more details and a link to your nearest retailer visit: www.paulcareyjones.net/buy

“A powerful traversal of life in the pandemic” – Opera Magazine

“His view is alert and complex, evaluating developments with a searching but sceptical eye.” – BBC Music Magazine

Posted in Brexit, Music, Opera, Politics, singing, Theatre | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Coronaclassical 28: Learning to Live With The Virus

Scene: Bridge of the USS Enterprise

Klingons on the starboard bow, Captain!

On screen. All stations, Red Alert!

Umm Captain… “Red Alert”. I was just wondering, the bit about diverting power to the main shields – last time that meant I didn’t have hot water in my cabin. So maybe we could leave that bit out this time?

Yes, Captain, while we’re on the subject, I’ve got quite a packed social calendar right now, high pressure job, need to let off some steam, so it would be great if the whole “man the battle stations” thing didn’t apply to me this time round.

While we’re at it, Captain, these seatbelts really chafe my sensitive skin, so I’d like to be exempt from wearing them. In fact, perhaps you could remove them all now I think of it?

Also Captain, do you think we could tone down the whole “Red Alert” message over the tannoy? We don’t want to cause panic, and there’s a theory that the Klingons will have evolved to become less aggressive…

Bridge explodes in a cataclysm of bad acting.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, the Prime Minister of the UK took up another chunk of our time yesterday evening to announce that he would not hesitate to take any necessary action to combat the latest wave of the coronavirus pandemic, the action in this case being to hesitate about making any decision about taking action.

While he fiddles away, the nation’s theatre industry is smouldering ominously. Theatres across London are being forced to cancel performances as a result of Covid outbreaks among cast and crew: 25 West End shows are currently dark according to a recent estimate. Even where they are clinging on and remaining open, sparse attendances and drastically reduced ticket sales are being widely reported, as audiences understandably prioritise their health over their entertainment. Well-intentioned artists currently arguing that theatres must be kept open at all costs are hardly helping public confidence on this front.

At present, it seems that you can either shut the virus down, or it will shut you down.

The huge problem with the latter approach is that short of a government-enforced closure, many insurance policies will not cover the cost of cancellations. And while theatres are in theory allowed to stay open, the Government can also deny any obligation to provide them with targeted financial support. It all feels very much like March 2020 again, right down to freelancers bearing the heaviest financial brunt: far from reforming standard agreements to protect their fragile freelance workforce against the current crippling uncertainty, many employers seem to have made things even more precarious – and this despite the fact that some of the cancellations have been a result of the freelance workforce being depleted by the first waves of the pandemic, many of the most experienced workers having been forced to switch careers and take their frequently irreplaceable skills elsewhere.

This is all quite perplexing to those of us who worked so hard over the earlier months of this year to produce “Covid-safe” shows, at a time when community cases were far, far lower. It was an artistic and emotional strait-jacket: masks in rehearsals, no socialising outside of work, sanitising props, two-metre distancing on stage and off at all times. It often felt like threading a needle blindfolded; but we all recognised how vital it was in getting the industry back up and running, cancellations and Covid outbreaks were extremely rare, and there was huge support and understanding from audiences in sold-out theatres, and even from critics, or at least the more discerning ones.

You can’t help but get the impression that the industry looked at the success of all those precautions, and decided that it meant that the precautions were no longer necessary. (As with the Millennium Bug, where the hard-of-understanding often wonder why computer engineers bothered doing all that work before 1st Jan 2000 to prevent it causing disasters, since looking back no disasters ended up happening…) Admittedly, we now seem to be facing a variant of SARS-CoV-2 which is much more transmissible and faster moving; but even so, for example, I was in a show in June where the full team of understudies were kept away from the rehearsal room at all times – so even a full wipeout of the main cast shouldn’t have brought the show to a halt. Failure to plan is a plan for failure.

As an industry, we’ve been shutting our eyes and hoping Covid has gone away. It hasn’t. And barring a miracle, it will keep coming back again and again. The comforting idea that those successive mutations will gradually get milder in nature leans on an awful lot of wishful thinking which ignores the basic principles of evolutionary pressure. (The less reassuring inference of those pressures is far more likely to be that the virus evolves to evade our existing precautions; in fact, we’ve seen it do just that three times already.)

The strong likelihood is there will be another wave after this one. By the time it hits, we need some cold, hard thinking.

Learning to live with the virus does not mean ignoring its existence. Quite the opposite, in fact. It means studying and accepting the fundamental nature of its life cycles – already some sort of pattern seems to be beginning to emerge – and working out how our business model and working methods can adapt. Let’s say we reach an endemic equilibrium which requires a short, slightly unpredictable closedown once every year or two, to buy time to roll out the latest vaccine. How would a theatre industry adapt to coexist with that?

In terms of the Omicron wave, the horse has already bolted, and we’re left going cap in hand once again to a largely unsympathetic government. But before the next wave hits, our industry leaders need to open their eyes, go back to first principles, and be bold and imaginative. Two years into this pandemic, not having a Plan B is surely no longer forgivable.

It may involve the need to persuade audiences to pay more for a smaller scale, more flexible product; a less precariously efficient, but more resilient, model. A far more intelligent approach will unarguably be needed to retaining and safeguarding the freelance workforce, in terms of job security, sick pay, cancellation clauses, to name but a few. And companies will have to put some long-overdue hard work and investment into reassuring audiences that their venues are safe; I’ve been writing for eighteen months about the dearth of studies into ventilation and crowd movement in this country’s theatres and concert halls. They remain conspicuous by their absence.

Less realistically, we also need our political leaders to extend their foresight beyond the middle of next week. Many Asian countries dealt with even the first wave of Covid with stunning speed and effectiveness; that was in large part down to the lessons they learned from dealing with the original SARS epidemic. They’d already had the hard conversations about how to deal with such an outbreak collectively, what their priorities were, who and what to protect, and what freedoms they were willing to sacrifice temporarily. There are no right and wrong answers to those questions; but they are hard conversations which any mature society needs to be willing to have, so that when the need arises for a national Red Alert, everyone understands and accepts what that means. It demands clarity, guts and leadership from those running the country. That won’t be easy, nor universally popular; but it’s what we pay them to do.

In the UK we, meanwhile, are still arguing about the seatbelts on the Starship Enterprise. And the Klingons are once again looming on the starboard bow.

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Paul Carey Jones’ recent book based on his hit ‘Coronaclassical’ blog series is available now in paperback, Kindle, audiobook and brand new hardback editions from Amazon sites worldwide. For more details and a link to your nearest retailer visit: www.paulcareyjones.net/buy

“A powerful traversal of life in the pandemic” – Opera Magazine

“His view is alert and complex, evaluating developments with a searching but sceptical eye.” – BBC Music Magazine

Posted in Coronavirus, Opera, Politics, Science, Science Fiction, singing, Theatre | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Coronaclassical 27: Not Just Cricket

Long-suffering followers of England’s Test cricket team on their Ashes tours may currently seem slightly less bleary-eyed than usual at this time of year. If so, they can thank the underwhelming efforts of the England players, who managed to keep the first Test in Brisbane going for only just over three days, giving their fans back home an extra couple of nights’ sleep, at the expense of a humiliating defeat. At least they’ve had plenty of practice at coping with that.

Speaking of practice, to describe England’s preparations for this most challenging of series as minimal would be an outrageous understatement. Going back a few decades, a tour of Australia would have involved multiple highly competitive fixtures against the best state sides – mere “warm-up” knockabouts they were not – and further games in between the Tests, giving England’s full squad an extensive opportunity to acclimatise and hone their techniques to Australian conditions, in the knowledge that the opposition would be busting a gut for a chance to get one over the visiting Poms.

This time round, England only allowed time to throw together a couple of informal practice matches against themselves. When all but a few overs of those were unplayable due to rain, they were reportedly reduced to walking briskly around the streets of Brisbane in an attempt to get some sort of physical conditioning at least. When Rory Burns allowed the very first ball of the series to flatten his stumps as he stumbled around wondering what day it was, cause and effect were rarely so clearly made incarnate. “Always keep an eye on the Six P’s: Plenty of Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance”, as one of the elders of my church choir reminded me on the day I left for music college.

Another reason behind England’s proverbial P-PP was the omission of their two all-time leading wicket takers, Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad, in bowling conditions which would surely have suited them. That was down to having to “manage the workload”, the assessment being made that two players well into their thirties would not be up to handling the physical demands of two high-intensity matches in quick succession: the second Test in Adelaide starts on Thursday morning. Traditionally in cricket, Test matches would have a full week plus a few days in between, not to mention rest days during the course of the matches themselves. “Managing the workload” and “squad rotation” are not terms that cricketers from the past would have recognised, nor needed to.

What this all boils down to in the end, of course, is money. Televised cricket, an Ashes tour in particular, is big business, and the temptation to squeeze the goose that lays the golden eggs is seemingly irresistible.

But squeeze a goose too hard, and the supply of eggs will dry up permanently. The fundamental point of Test cricket is that it is the hard-fought, virtuosically executed pinnacle of the sport. Watching England thrash about abjectly last week, virtuosity was not a quality which came to mind. It would be interesting to know how BT Sport, having paid through the nose for the coverage, felt about the resultant viewing figures – I can’t imagine anyone but the most masochistic of England fans stayed up beyond the lunch intervals.

Modern sport being big business means that a lot of investment has been made into keeping athletes, if not in peak condition, at least able to get out on the field two or three times a week. As sports budgets have exploded, classical music has faced the opposite trend, and consequently the study of musicians’ physiology has fallen a long way behind that of their sporting counterparts. “Managing the workload”, when it comes to opera singers, is usually an afterthought, assuming it happens at all.

As theatres and concert halls have opened back up after the first waves of Covid, and all involved in the business have licked their financial wounds, recovery time is one of the aspects which has often suffered drastic cutbacks. Over the summer, rehearsal schedules were condensed and extra shows were packed into performance periods, in order to counteract the impact of audience restrictions.

Inevitably, this leads to heavy demands on cast members. Singing is an inherently physical task, and as with any athletic pursuit, and even given impeccable vocal technique, there will be a degree of inflammation post-activity. That’s entirely normal, and best dealt with via nature’s greatest cure: rest.

Traditionally, one could expect “big” operas in particular to have at least three rest days in between performances. It’s interesting to note how that tallies with the conclusions of cutting-edge sports science for football, for example. Data suggests that a team which has three rest days between matches roughly has a 30% better chance of victory when playing opposition who have only had two days off. In particular, the middle day of the three gives coaches a chance to work with the team in training: by and large, the post-match day will be recuperation, and pre-match spent on physical preparation – a “warm-down” and “warm-up” day. With only two days’ rest, there’s no time for anything else.

A similar rule of thumb applies with opera, especially when considering long, physically taxing roles. Two days off between shows leaves no room for error or correction, no learning process. With an experienced cast of role veterans, that shouldn’t be too much of an issue. In a situation where many singers are performing their roles for the first time, it leaves little room for trial and error, no chance to fix things if they go off the rails slightly – and as with so many other burdens at present, that hits younger singers harder than anyone else.

When that recovery time is squeezed even further to one day off, the conveyer belt is in danger of becoming a meat grinder, especially coming straight off the back of a gruellingly condensed rehearsal period. For Longborough’s Die Walküre back in June, stage rehearsals were reduced to five days over the course of a week, and an extra two shows squeezed into the already tight schedule, leaving us with seven performances in fourteen days. Taking that into consideration, the results were miraculous; at the same time, there’s no question that paying audiences were short-changed relative to the standard they would have been entitled to expect under normal conditions. Everyone involved signed up to this, for no extra payment, out of commitment to getting live theatre back up and running. We all knew what was at stake, and these were not normal conditions.

And in fairness to Longborough, they sold every single available seat for every single performance, and could have done so many times over. And the same was true of my subsequent employers at Opera Holland Park, where a similarly packed schedule was in place. (While Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz is far shorter than anything of Wagner’s, it still imposes a hefty workload on its lead soprano and tenor.) So there was no doubt at all that we were responding to a keen demand, and there was a palpable sense of support amongst those live audiences, a shared commitment to getting the opera industry back on its feet, whatever it took.

More concerning in the long run is the hint that, having pushed schedules and workloads to the limits and beyond, the punishingly extreme becomes the new normal. There are signs of that squeeze in the rest times for performers becoming standard; theatres are now back to full capacity, and yet schedules are still being packed. When those performances are to sold-out houses, you can see a point, in the financial short term at least. But cramming in a physically reckless number of shows, only to sell a third of the available tickets, makes no sense for anyone. There needs to be some joined-up thinking, from the first planning to the final curtain.

That’s not just for the physical and mental wellbeing of cast and crew. At the end of the day, as with Test cricket, the goal of opera is that it has to be the absolute pinnacle, the best it can be every single time it’s performed, or it risks missing the point altogether. It’s fine dining, not fast food. If it continually falls short, it runs the risk of having the same effect on its audience as yet another England batting collapse. Now more than ever, opera needs to keep its eye on those Six P’s.

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Paul Carey Jones’ recent book based on his hit ‘Coronaclassical’ blog series is available now in paperback, Kindle, audiobook and brand new hardback editions from Amazon sites worldwide. For more details and a link to your nearest retailer visit: www.paulcareyjones.net/buy

“A powerful traversal of life in the pandemic” – Opera Magazine

“His view is alert and complex, evaluating developments with a searching but sceptical eye.” – BBC Music Magazine

Posted in Coronavirus, Cricket, Football, Music, Opera, Science, singing, Sport, Theatre, Wagner | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Coronaclassical 26: Counting the Cost

I’ve just put my accounts for the financial year 2020-21 to bed, and will share a few comparisons with 2019-20 to illustrate the typical impact of the pandemic on freelancers in the performing arts, as well as some of the lifelines we’ve been clinging to where possible.

This is from the perspective of a singer who, after 20 years in the job, was doing ok financially, reaching the kind of stability where you can start to imagine keeping at this for the rest of your working life. I’ve also been relatively well supported by various support and recovery schemes, unlike many colleagues who have slipped through the gaps.

With all of these figures, I’ll deal in percentages (using figures for 2019-20 as the denominator) rather than the absolute brass tacks, if you’ll forgive the discretion. Because the financial year runs from April to April, the 2020-21 period corresponds very neatly to the period of lockdown – cancellations started in mid-March 2020, and things began to splutter back to life around April 2021.

Total gross income for 2020-21 was down 47% compared to the previous financial year.

Business expenses were also down, as you might reasonably expect, by 66% compared to 2019-20.

Those combine to produce a decrease in net income of 34% in 2020-21. That’s a pretty substantial blow on its own terms, although not entirely unprecedented in scale as part of the precarious financial rough and tumble of life as a freelance artist. Let’s dig a little deeper though…

When we isolate the income from actual work, the decrease from 2019-20 becomes a pretty seismic 78%. Even then, just under half of that earned income was from cancellation fees for contracts which fell foul of lockdown.

Income from contracts outside the UK was reduced to precisely zero – that’s having been around 26% of the previous year’s earnings. As an Irish citizen, I’m largely immune to the impact of Brexit, so that reduction can fairly safely be put entirely down to the pandemic.

Income from support payments and grants was equally predictably up from zero in 2019-20 to well over 50% of the gross income for 2020-21.

Income from actual singing work was down by a whopping 90%, nearly disappearing entirely in 2020-21.

(Read more about the entirely avoidable near-extinction of monetisable classical music during lockdown in Giving It Away – Classical Music in Lockdown and other fairytales, on sale now worldwide.)

The bottom line: discarding support schemes, grants, cancellation payments and the like, 2020 income was down by 87%.

I’m deeply grateful for those financial lifelines; and at the same time, acutely aware of many, many colleagues who were not so fortunate, and in many cases completely abandoned. Given the 90% annihilation of my singing income, that financial support meant that, while I’ve had to make a lot of spending cutbacks, I’ve still been able to focus on keeping my voice going during lockdown. From time to time I also earn money as a singing teacher, language consultant, voice actor and (over the last few months) a professional writer; but thanks to those support payments, I didn’t have to find an alternative full-time job to replace the main breadwinner, which has left me with some energy to devote to singing.

That’s played a large part in my being able to come back to performing in decent vocal shape: rested rather than rusty. Many other colleagues have achieved the same feat under more demanding circumstances; and any who may have found the comeback curve a little steeper deserve to be cut a fair amount of slack. The challenge has been unprecedented, and there’s no guidebook.

A few more figures for you, with an eye to the knock-on effects and the whole ecosystem. My spending on transport, accommodation and so on was down by 80%. Agents’ fees by 70%. Spending on coachings and lessons down by 88%.

These are all UK workers and businesses who depend on people like me for their income. That income disappeared for them too, and since our financial reserves have been depleted, our ability to bring that income back on-stream is still severely limited. The UK arts ecosystem is in existential crisis, and it’s only just beginning to bite.

For example, I’ve already had to turn down some great UK projects because I no longer have the resources to subsidise their lower-budget fees. That’s something I’ve been able to do in the past, and it’s a great regret that I can’t help out at the moment. The same will be true for many experienced colleagues, and it’s the UK arts scene which loses.

Some well-funded UK companies have clearly understood the importance of bringing these income streams back online as swiftly as possible, and are consciously supporting the country’s performing arts ecosystem back towards some sort of viable economic health. Bravi to them and more power to their elbows. There are others who would do well to heed their example.

As I say, I’ve been fairly well protected by the erratic safety net. Many colleagues have been less fortunate. And there’s no meritocracy to it: this is far from some sort of necessary Darwinian cull of the less artistically viable. Some colleagues who’ve been cut adrift are more lauded, some more talented; and many of them younger than I am – they’ve been amongst the most vulnerable.

Our industry has long had an unhelpful habit of presenting an image to the public that the life of an artist is “Living The Dream”. The last 18 months have been truly brutal, and the crisis is still biting as hard as ever. Behind that PR smokescreen, now more than ever, the UK freelance arts scene hangs by an extremely fragile thread.


Paul Carey Jones’ recent book based on his hit ‘Coronaclassical’ blog series is available now in paperback, Kindle and audiobook editions from Amazon sites worldwide. For more details and a link to your nearest retailer visit: www.paulcareyjones.net/buy

“A powerful traversal of life in the pandemic” – Opera Magazine

“His view is alert and complex, evaluating developments with a searching but sceptical eye.” – BBC Music Magazine

Posted in Art, Books, Brexit, Coronavirus, Music, Opera, Politics, singing, Theatre | Leave a comment