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

Coronaclassical 25: Levelling Down

“They are awful liars here: as soon as they don’t want anything they clear off to the country. One of my lady pupils has already left for the country, leaving nine lessons unpaid.”

Frédéric Chopin was writing to a friend about his troubles settling in London in 1848, his landlord having doubled their agreed rent on arrival. The British attitude to a career in music as being a rich kid’s hobby, with remuneration an optional and occasional extra, goes back a long way.

The UK Government’s impending cut to Universal Credit and rise in National Insurance are both causes for understandable worry for anyone who cares about a just and fair tax and welfare system. But what’s the direct impact on the more specific concerns of those who care about justice and fairness in the performing arts?

Last week also saw the Creative Industries Policy Evidence Centre publish their report on Social Mobility in the Creative Economy. It’s worth taking the time to work through the whole thing, which is available online here. You might want to pour yourself a stiff drink first: much of it makes uncomfortable (although frequently unsurprising) reading, shining a light on many areas of deeply entrenched privilege.

Some of those elements are so hard-wired into the psyche of the performing arts, so frequently shrugged off as just part and precarious parcel of the business, that it’s often hard to notice them at all on a day-to-day basis. Financial support received from family and friends during or after training; having access to urban centres, favours of free travel and accommodation in London and elsewhere; the advantages afforded by contacts and networking, when it comes to unearthing opportunities and providing references; the need for those without financial back-up to work second and third jobs, draining their energy and focus: all long-standing givens in the industry. And all bricks in the wall which stands between the industry and the communities it supposedly exists to reflect and serve.

The PEC report also hits hard on how socio-economic barriers to careers in the arts overlap with other areas of systemic exclusion: ethnicity, gender, disability. In my own corner of the industry, addicted as we are to carbon-intensive responses to any challenge, we frequently take the shortcut of flying in what we hope will read as diversity from elsewhere in the world, patting ourselves on the back for having demonstrated our enlightened attitude, before moving on to tomorrow’s headline issues. At the same time we regularly ignore the more laborious, longer-term investment work of engaging with the diverse resource of talent on our own doorstep. Sometimes you have to wonder what we’re afraid of: what’s the worst that could happen if we meaningfully opened the doors of our concert halls and opera houses to all those who live just outside?

The appetite which existed in post-war Britain for a genuinely egalitarian approach to the arts is in danger of fading as the generation who drove it, who demanded it and refused to take no for an answer, leaves us. Just as we saw with Brexit, the performative jingoistic populism of those who “remember” a simulacrum of World War II is in stark contrast to the attitude of those who were actually there, and genuinely recall first-hand what they – and I mean they, not we – fought, suffered and sacrificed for.

The barrier facing those from less-privileged backgrounds who might seek a career in the creative industries is real. Each brick in it might not amount to an insurmountable obstacle in itself, but put together they add up to a formidable wall. 

The Government talks a good game on “levelling-up”, yet in practice its every new move siphons money and opportunity from those who can least afford it, while also underfunding and undermining the provision of music and the performing arts in state schools. At the same time, our industry claims to be desperate to embrace diversity, yet slashes freelancers’ wages on the pretext of hard times – as if it’s not those same freelancers who have already borne the greatest financial brunt of the pandemic.

What small steps can we as individuals take to open a door, or even just a small window, to those who face this wall? 

Deep down, is 21st-Century Britain actually fairly comfortable with the idea that the performing arts should be just a rich kid’s hobby? On pessimistic days, I have a horrible feeling I know what the answer is. Perhaps we’re often too scared even to ask the question.

But let’s not pretend that there isn’t another choice available, for a short while longer at least. The wall between the industry and its grassroots gets bigger every day. But we could choose to smash those bricks. We could choose to tear down that wall.


This article is adapted from one which first appeared as a weekly newsletter for Freelancers Make Theatre Work – for more details on their vital work, and how you can support it, please visit their website at: freelancersmaketheatrework.com

Paul Carey Jones’ recent book based on his hit ‘Coronaclassical’ blog series is now available 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, Brexit, Coronavirus, Opera, Politics, singing, Theatre | Leave a comment

Brexit for Musicians: Endgame

“Global Britain”.

A press release from the Cross-Border Services group last week revealed an oversight in the UK-Switzerland Services Mobility Agreement, essentially meaning that, since 1st January this year, UK citizens living in the EU (or anywhere else in the world) are no longer legally allowed to work as freelance service providers in Switzerland.

Some of my colleagues have a face-to-face meeting with Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden next week. They might consider opening with the question, how does making it harder, and in some cases impossible, for British citizens to work in Switzerland tally with his vision of “Global Britain”? As with the situation in Norway we looked at a few weeks ago, these are not EU member states, so the argument that making life more difficult in the EU would be compensated by opening new doors beyond its borders doesn’t wash. Everywhere they turn, British workers are facing the reality that those doors have been slammed shut in their faces.

By now, we’ve seen enough evidence to show to all but the most entrenched Little Englander or wishful of thinkers that the problems being caused by Brexit are real enough. But where are the solutions?

The totemic demand from musicians continues to be a return to the negotiating table with the EU, to thrash out a “Musician’s Passport” – in other words, visa- and work permit-free business travel for British musicians across the EEA. In effect, this would mean a small section of the UK workforce rejoining the Single Market, and a Customs Union to cover the transport of instruments and technical equipment. Performing artists are asking for performing artists to be included in the scheme, and theatrical freelancers working in other back- and off-stage roles suggest it should also include all performing arts workers.

Meanwhile, the fishing industry continues to make its demands for Government support in dealing with its catastrophic problems. Lawyers, accountants, IT workers, antique dealers, silversmiths… The list goes on, and increases by the day.

So musicians, theatrical artists, performing arts workers – why should they get preferential treatment? There are many valid points to be made about the unique position of the UK’s performing arts industry, and its reliance on the EU market. The Government’s principal objection remains that a reciprocal (as it would surely have to be) visa-free arrangement would be inconsistent with its core manifesto commitment to “Take Back Control of our Borders”. The Incorporated Society of Musicians argues that the two can be reconciled, since the arrangement would only apply to a very small number of people on both sides. Whether you agree with that or not, it’s hard to see it holding water with the Home Office in its current form. Mr Dowden recently revealed that the situation was “much more positive” than he had thought, which is delightful news for him; but it implies that he’s carefully shifting his chair so as not to pick a fight with his counterpart on Marsham Street.

(The above is not to find fault with the ISM. They and a small hardcore of campaigners continue to work tirelessly and impressively, leading the charge on this issue and filling a vacuum neglectfully created by some other organisations. Their suggestions are generally thoroughly researched and spot on.)

How do we rally public support behind us, artists have been asking. All those fans who gleefully consume our end product – surely they’ll back us on this now, when we really need them? All it would take is our own version of Marcus Rashford to put our point across and bring pressure to bear on our political leaders.

The distinction is obvious once you think about it. Rashford has been campaigning for concessions for other people, those clearly in a position less secure than his. We’re asking for something for ourselves, and seeking support from people who have also lost those same rights and privileges. If we should get them back, why shouldn’t they?

Why not indeed. If you look closely at the demands of all those other sectors of British industry, they all boil down to essentially the same thing: membership of a single market, or a customs union, or in most cases, both.

So, two points to make. Firstly, the only thing which will ultimately solve these issues (not to mention those of the Northern Irish border) is a move forward – not, let’s be absolutely clear, back to anything – but forward to a new UK-EU arrangement which includes reciprocal freedom of movement for people, goods and services. It will have to be packaged as something new, and uniquely, exceptionally British. Wrap it in a Union Jack if you have to. But it’s the Single Market Plus Customs Union option which, had the tortuous and ultra-sensitive process of Brexit been given anything approaching a sensible amount of time, would surely have made itself clear as the only rational interpretation of the way ahead.

But while looking forward, musicians also need to look sideways. Standing beside us, making very similar demands, are our colleagues in other performing arts, accountants, lawyers, antique dealers, silversmiths, farmers, lorry drivers, steelworkers, car manufacturers, and yes even fishermen. It may not always be clear just yet, but all asking for the same thing.

A colleague last week described our industry as having a gift for promoting itself to itself. We need the courage to lift our eyes, broaden our horizons, take a look around us. Because that’s where our mutual support lies, not in a headline-grabbing figurehead, but in all these disparate voices eventually coming together with one message, rather than shouting and scrabbling over each other for the best seat on any given day’s political merry-go-round.

At the heart of it, we’re all reinventing the same wheel. It’s a conversation which should have happened post-2016, or in an ideal world years before any referendum; but better late than never.

Still, there’s no disputing that it’s a tough ask. This month’s election results have made it clearer than ever how far we are as a country from seeing a closer relationship with Europe as being a vote-winner. And every time the Government picks a public fight with the EU, justified or not, it adds a couple of points to its poll lead. Ears should have pricked up at the Queen’s Speech announcement that the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act is to be repealed. Our campaigning may have to be directed at securing General Election manifesto commitments sooner that we think, or would like.

How we could do with a Great Explainer, of the sort that politics has struggled to produce in recent history. Every aspect of the modern world is so complex that no one person can understand it all. Anyone who claims to do so, and have simple solutions to its problems and challenges, is either delusional or a con man, or both. But in the absence of someone to put that modern complexity across in simple terms and explain why it’s not something to be feared, many people will understandably turn to those dangerous peddlers of reassuring myths. So the task of explanation is not one which our more rational leaders can afford to shirk, as they have done for a political generation or two by now.

When it comes to shorter-term goals, I’d love my colleagues to ask Mr Dowden next week about the situation with Switzerland, about the treatment of foreign citizens arriving here to work, and about the no-brainer question of issuing second passports to British performing arts workers who regularly travel abroad. However they decide to approach it, they’re a formidable team of champions, and they go with a whole industry fully behind them.

We should also learn the lesson that trade agreements are far easier to influence during the negotiating phase than afterwards. Crucial as the EU market is to the performing arts, there are now talks underway with other nations where the chance of gaining some traction is far greater. We took our eye off the ball in 2020, which is entirely forgivable given the global circumstances at the time. But let’s not make the same mistake twice.

Ultimately, as the post-Brexit era drags on, it’s increasingly impossible to avoid the inescapable necessity of persuading the British public that a new membership of a single market and a customs union with the EU is crucial to our success as a nation. It’s a herculean task, and a long term one. And I hope I’m wrong, and that a more straightforward, albeit narrower, solution to our industry’s problems is achievable in a matter of weeks rather than years.

But if you follow the logic, it’s the only long term answer; not just for my industry, but for pretty much any branch of British business. And, while requiring a marathon effort of campaigning and persuading, I have to believe it’s not beyond reach.

There are a lot of pieces to be manoeuvred and sacrifices to be made in the meantime. But the way the chessboard is laid out, that’s the only endgame.


Paul Carey Jones’ new book based on his hit ‘Coronaclassical’ blog series is now available 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

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Brexit for Musicians: The Evil Empire

In January 1972 the Industrial Correspondent of the Western Mail accompanied three Welsh businessmen on a holiday to Moscow, which they’d won in a competition run by the newspaper. Upon arrival in Russia, the lucky prizewinners cleared immigration without a hitch; but the Soviet authorities, no doubt instinctively suspicious of any British journalist, declared there was an inconsistency in their travelling companion’s paperwork, and promptly sent him for an overnight stay in a chilly Moscow cell.

It’s a tale I’ve been told many times, since the journalist in question was my father. I don’t remember a time when I hadn’t heard the story; and while I must have been too young at first to understand the full workings of a totalitarian regime and its attitude to visits by foreign nationals, it ingrained me with a sense that the Soviet Union was a Bad Place. Not that my father himself seemed to bear them any ill will, but from my perspective they had nearly prevented my ever existing in the first place. When Ronald Reagan later labelled the USSR an “evil empire”, a 9-year-old listener in Cardiff nodded in decisive agreement.

This morning’s edition of La Repubblica carries a report about a young Italian woman, Marta Lo Martire, who had travelled to London a few weeks ago to visit her family and seek work as an au pair. Unclear about the hastily-convened new post-Brexit rules, she arrived at Heathrow Airport without the complete set of paperwork: a clear example of the teething troubles we’ve been hearing so much about, and surely an entirely forgivable and easily rectifiable error given the circumstances.

The rest of the story is shocking to any British citizen who flatters themselves that we still live in a civilised country. Miss Lo Martire was sent to Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre – simply and unambiguously categorised on Google Maps as “prison” – where she was searched and kept under constant guard until being sent on a flight back to Italy. Her incarceration lasted 24 hours, but she reports that another Italian inmate at the centre had already been there five days, since the UK authorities were unwilling to arrange a return flight which cost more than she had initially paid. Personal items, including her smartphone and passport, were confiscated and she was given only a non-functioning basic mobile phone in return. By comparison, in fairness to the Soviet gaolers they at least allowed my father an ageing copy of the Reader’s Digest for company.

I suppose we’re naive to be surprised – after all, the current Home Office attitude to arrivals from elsewhere in the world, recent and historical, has been openly hostile and proud of it. And the Government has been very clear that one of the intended consequences of Brexit is that all nationalities will be treated equally upon arrival in the UK. It’s just that it’s a shock for the penny to drop that they meant, treated with an equal lack of basic civility and humanity.

And rightly or wrongly, for it to be happening to Italians makes it hit home even more brutally. It’s impossible to spend any length of time living and working in Italy without falling in love with the place and its people. Trying to get anything done there is utterly infuriating, sure, but it’s also the most beautiful kind of nothing you’ll ever get done. One of the greatest pleasures of being in London over the last decade or so has been the increase in the number of Italian voices you hear out and about every day. When I lived in Fulham, I’d often see a whole famiglia out for a walk along the Thames at the weekend, unmistakable by the pride of place given to a jet-haired Nonna in the family phalanx. And there have been many summer days where I’ve sat sweltering pinkly on a tube in my shorts and string vest, only to look up and see an impossibly glamorous couple, tanned and impeccably dressed, just being fabulous. They could only be Italian.

Marta Lo Martire has made it safely back to her family in Italy, hopefully without carrying too many psychological scars from her brief visit to these shores. But the point is this: that will now be her story, which she’ll tell as often as my father still recounts the saga of his visit to Moscow. And in this more recent version, the identity of the Evil Empire has changed. It’s us.

Well, so what, you may cry. Who needs Italian au pairs and Polish plumbers and American opera singers anyway? Pull up the drawbridge, two fingers to Giovanni Foreigner, and Believe in Britain!

All very well. But soon enough, as pandemic travel restrictions ease and industries such as my own lurch clumsily back to some sort of life, many British workers will be making the reciprocal journey. And Italy in particular is one of those countries where visa requirements are complex, often less than crystal clear, and very much open to the subjective interpretation of whoever happens to be manning the immigration desk on any given day. That one of my British colleagues will have their paperwork found incomplete or unsatisfactory is a question of when, not if. And at that point, they’ll be hoping to be treated with a damn sight more basic decency than we are currently dishing out to those who arrive here.

The Government has said that in order to assist British workers in maintaining and furthering their global careers, their approach will be to engage in bilateral talks with individual nations, rather than pursue further negotiations with the EU as a whole, in order to smooth out the process of obtaining visas and work permits. But how in God’s name do they expect that to have the slightest chance of success if at the same time they’re incarcerating and deporting the citizens of those very same countries for the slightest discrepancy in their paperwork?

The more time I spend examining this brave new post-Brexit world, the more I have to admit that I have no idea what “Global Britain” is even supposed to mean. But this sure as hell isn’t it.


Update 14th May 2021: The Guardian reports similar incidents involving travellers from France, Bulgaria, Greece, the Czech Republic and Portugal, many of whom seem to have been following the stated rules to the letter. And to reiterate, none of this should surprise us given the Home Office’s established approach to travellers from across the globe, not to mention refugees and asylum seekers. But the shock to see it being rolled out remains legitimate.



All opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

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

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Brexit for Musicians: The Norway Option

In approving the final edit of my attempt at explaining Brexit to Americans for The Middle Class Artist last week, it struck me how little has changed in the two months since I wrote it. As the immediate challenges of the pandemic continue to provide cover for the impact of the new EU visa rules for UK artists, there’s been a fair amount of campaigning heat without much in the way of light when it comes to tangible process.

Many of the industry’s voices are zeroing-in more than ever on returning to the negotiating table and reviving the corpse of an EU-wide visa waiver for musicians. As regular readers will know, I’m an Irish citizen, so ultimately it’s not for me to pontificate on what my British colleagues decide to focus on in their campaigning goals. But on an emotional level if nothing else it’s important to be realistic about the chances of success, even though that involves weighing the words of politicians, and therefore having to separate an awful lot of chaff from precious little wheat.

There are many legitimate criticisms to be made of the UK Government, and their lack of clarity, deliberate or unintended, on many issues is one of them. But on this one they’ve been as clear as they ever get: their core objection to the idea of any reciprocal visa waiver is one of fundamental principle, and in fact probably the principle most fundamental to them – their objection to Freedom of Movement. We may well disagree with that, and we can seek to change their and the public’s minds on the issue. But the fact remains that asking the current Conservative leadership to expand Freedom of Movement, even for a limited sector of the population, is the equivalent of asking Nye Bevan to privatise the NHS.

There’s also often a degree of naivety in the attitude to the EU’s side of the story. Despite their insistence that the visa waiver for musicians is a standard proposal in their trade deals, it’s interesting to note how rarely that seems to have been taken up, by larger countries in particular, and worth asking why that might be.

A more realistic target on this proposal could be getting the Labour Party to include it in their next manifesto. Even that is not as straightforward as we might assume – their leadership is wary of anything which has any suggestion of reversing or “betraying” Brexit about it, since they’ll presumably need to bring a substantial slab of Leave voters back to the fold if they’re to stand any chance of forming a government next time round. Harriet Harman’s 10-point plan for musicians is a promising start at least, and UK performing arts workers should be doing all they can to get Labour to adopt it officially and expand on it to include the whole sector.

For the more immediate future, a casual glance at the news most days confirms the impression that we’re living far closer to Romulus’ cesspool than Plato’s Republic. With an eye to realistic prospects of success, it may be better to focus on persuading those currently in power to get on with doing things that they want to, and which are unarguably in their interests. The Prime Minister’s insistence that he is “working flat out” to find solutions to the crisis is a little short on concrete evidence so far. Built in his image, this is a government which needs its toes kept close to the fire to keep things moving forward, it seems.

Or even just to tread water. The appointment of Lord Frost to the Cabinet Office and the continuing skirmishes with the EU over Northern Ireland, vaccines and so on do not bode well for the co-operative relationship which progress on tackling EU-wide problems will require. With the European Parliament yet to ratify the December 2020 deal, and the UK Government asking for more time to fight their case with the EU over the legality of the Irish border arrangements, we should be under no illusions that No Deal is still far from off the table, and even the small victories contained in the deal as it stands are far from assured. Meanwhile, every time the Government picks a fight with the EU, valid or spurious, it seems to go up a couple of points in the opinion polls. Anyone counting on the UK to demonstrate the motivation or tactical nous needed to thrash out a reciprocal “Musician’s Passport” arrangement would be well advised not to hold their breath.

Smaller scale bilateral progress remains a far more realistic prospect in the shorter term. And unilateral action need not be dismissed either – one of the biggest morale boosts for UK artists was France’s declaration that they were welcome without visa or work permit for up to 90 days, made entirely without reciprocation. The same goes (more or less) for Germany, Finland and Estonia, for example. Where countries can be persuaded that it’s in their interests to open their borders to British workers, there’s no reason that one-way frictionless trade can’t be achieved. Bilateral agreements needn’t be confined to EU member states either – the Government promises us Global Britain, so let them start delivering on that. And while it lacks the glamour of more wide-ranging demands, issuing second passports to British artists with international careers is a step which the UK could take tomorrow morning, with no downside and an immediate positive impact.

The subject of red tape brings us to today’s case study, which looks at the situation in Norway – which, bear in mind, is a member of the EEA, the EFTA and Schengen, but not the EU. As before, please note that this is an account of one artist’s experience, and should not be taken as formal advice nor a reliable guide to what anyone else might need. As always, the responsibility for making sure all official requirements are understood and met ultimately rests with the individual fulfilling the contract.

Case Study: Tim Claydon

Tim Claydon is a British freelance choreographer and movement director specialising in opera. Like most operatic contracts, his recent agreement with the Norwegian Opera and Ballet was finalised and signed well in advance of the engagement, in this case some twelve months ago. At that time, he wouldn’t have needed any form of visa or permit to work for the required six weeks.

Since January 1st 2021 this has all changed.

In January, Tim was informed by the company that he would now need to apply for a Long Stay Visa Residence Permit. He reports that the company were “incredibly helpful and I have been extremely lucky in the fact that they have paid for the application NOK6300 (GBP £561).” He was able to get an interview at the Norway Visa Application Centre in London within ten days. Tim continues: “I filled out a series of forms, which I have to say were far more concise than even the US visa applications that I have filed on several occasions. I was asked to list, with dates, all the times that I had ever visited an EU country!! I must admit that I gave up on this section.”

For the interview, Tim needed to take the following documentation:

  1. passport;
  2. photocopies of all used pages within it;
  3. CV;
  4. documentation showing details of his education;
  5. documentation showing his work experience;
  6. two new photos;
  7. signed copies of contracts;
  8. housing reservation letter (with check-in and check-out times and proof of payment);
  9. a letter of employment form, from the company;
  10. a pay table – showing that the fee meets the payment required by Norwegian government, from the company.

Tim: “I was very lucky to be working with a company that could provide all this for me within such short notice and that I had time to be able to pull all this together. So now we wait; I had an email following the interview to say that my case was being processed but that there is still a minimum processing time of eight weeks. I’m due to fly out to start my ten day quarantine on 26th March. I was able to take my passport away with me, which is some comfort, and the company are being very cool about me possibly arriving after the start of rehearsal.”

So, another complex and expensive process (especially compared to the situation pre-Brexit), and crucially, a lengthy period of uncertainty while the application is processed. It’s worth reiterating that for an experienced artist such as Tim, with an established reputation and the support of a well-resourced employer, these new processes are challenging but not insurmountable. For artists just starting out, or without the same reputation and resources backing them up, they could very well prove the difference between an entire career being viable or not.

I checked in again with Tim around the time he was due to travel to Norway, to see whether the process had been completed successfully and in time.

“Unfortunately the Norway gig was postponed to 2022 last week. I have to say that was due to Oslo shutting down to an outbreak in Covid cases. I’ve since cancelled my visa application. I don’t know whether I would have received my visa in time – I think it was highly unlikely but I guess we will never know.”

Covid cases in Norway rose sharply during February and March, and Oslo imposed new lockdown measures on March 15th, including closing theatres. Once again, the pandemic provided cover for the Brexit crisis. If Tim’s guess is correct and his paperwork had been delayed beyond his arranged travel date, he still had the backing of his employers in working around the situation. But the uncertainty and administrative burden in employing a UK artist will have been noted, and the more those add up, the less likely European companies will be to book British workers in future. And without that European work, a huge number of those British workers won’t be able to sustain a career at all, which would have a devastating impact on the UK industry which relies on them, and frequently takes them for granted, as an irreplaceable resource.

With that in mind, it’s worth revisiting the situation in Spain. We previously examined the production of Lessons in Love and Violence at the Liceu in Barcelona, which was scheduled to move on to Madrid’s Teatro Real next month. That has now been “postponed to a future season” – in effect a cancellation, as far as the freelance artists involved are concerned.

That cancellation has occurred because of a delay in the start of rehearsals for Peter Grimes at the Teatro Real, which is reportedly down to several factors, one of which was “the delay in the (British) artists’ arrival to the rehearsals, caused by the restrictions in mobility and the bureaucratic obstacles of Brexit.”

So we are now beginning to see concrete examples of the direct impact of Brexit. British artists missing out on work, and having to return home without bringing that income and tax revenue back to the UK. And a Spanish audience missing out on the chance to experience a world-class contemporary British opera, showcasing the very best of British culture on an international stage.

The Government talks a good game on “Global Britain”, and on “working flat out” to solve the problems facing those who are out there selling the idea in practice. But talk is cheap. It’s high time for them to put those words into action.


Disclaimer: this article is intended as an anecdotal account and should not be relied upon wholly or in part as a guide to any application process. The responsibility for understanding and fulfilling any contractual and/or official requirements remains solely and entirely that of the contracted artist. All opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

Paul Carey Jones’ new book based on his hit ‘Coronaclassical’ blog series is now available in paperback from Amazon sites worldwide – for more details and a link to your nearest international retailer visit: www.paulcareyjones.net/buy

Giving It Away
Classical Music in Lockdown and other fairytales
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Brexit for Musicians: View from the USA

The US website middleclassartist.com recently commissioned an article from me explaining the post-Brexit state of play to their largely North American audience. British readers familiar with the history from 1945 to the present day can opt to skip the first part. Part Two contains some sharp-eyed observations from my friends and colleagues Elizabeth Llewellyn, Elgan Llyr Thomas, and Sir John Tomlinson, so should be worthwhile reading for all.

The Middleclass Artist: British Musicians Face Up To Brexit’s Perfect Storm

Paul Carey Jones’ new book based on his hit ‘Coronaclassical’ blog series is now available in paperback from Amazon sites worldwide – for more details and a link to your nearest international retailer visit: www.paulcareyjones.net/buy

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Brexit for Musicians: An Englishman Abroad

While the furore over UK artists working in the European Union continues to simmer and boil, a tricky aspect of working out what’s going on is that it’s almost impossible to find any concrete examples. That’s in large part a result of one crisis providing cover for another: were it not for theatre closures and travel restrictions as a result of the pandemic, there would probably be a lot more British workers trapped in embassies and airports across the continent right now.

I was fortunate, therefore, to have the chance to chat to my colleague Peter Hoare, who in a pioneering move not only has performing work, but has actually made it to Barcelona to start rehearsing the role of Mortimer in Lessons in Love and Violence at the Liceu.

Peter generously took the time to give us an exclusive insight into the paperwork he’s had to complete to get out to Catalonia, and with his kind permission I present it here as a case study. Please note that this is an account of one artist’s experience, and should not be taken as formal advice nor a reliable guide to what anyone else might need. As always, the responsibility for making sure all official requirements are understood and met ultimately rests with the individual fulfilling the contract.

Case study: Peter Hoare

Peter Hoare is an English tenor with a well-established freelance international operatic career stretching back over twenty-five years. In January 2021, he was booked at three weeks’ notice to perform the role of Mortimer in Sir George Benjamin’s opera Lessons in Love and Violence at the Liceu theatre in Barcelona in February and March 2021, replacing a colleague from the USA.

Some background notes on Peter’s recent experiences: a full diary of work for 2020 and 2021 was cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic; most cancellations came at short notice and without financial compensation as a result of the broad application, rightly or wrongly, of ‘force majeure’ contract clauses. Peter received no financial support from the UK Government since he was ineligible for any of the support schemes, in particular falling foul of the limitations of the Self Employment Income Support Scheme. Consequently, he was obliged to find alternative work outside of the Performing Arts industry during the pandemic to support his family. He currently has further performing work lined up during 2021, all in the EU, much of it replacing cancelled work in the UK.

Here’s a list of the additional post-Brexit paperwork Peter has had to complete prior to his arrival in Barcelona for the start of rehearsals:

1. Official application form for a work visa – applied for at the Spanish Embassy in London. This required the surrendering of his UK passport for an unspecified period. Cost: £150 plus travel

2. Insurance (NB cost increased because of working during pandemic – see below). Cost: £350

3. UK “resident’s permit” – Peter’s UK passport proved sufficient in this instance, although non-UK citizens would require further proof.

4. Spanish health statement – a lengthy form completed online.

5. “No objection letter” – from the applicant’s accountant, with proof of payment of last year’s taxes.

6. Contract with the theatre.

7. Employer’s invitation from the theatre.

8. Apartment booking.

9. Round trip travel booking.

10. Proof of sufficient financial guarantees – up-to-date original bank statements for the last 3 months certified by bank (online statements not accepted) showing sufficient funds to cover living expenses for the duration of the contract period.

There was also some extra paperwork to do because of the pandemic. Although we’re attempting in this article to focus solely on the post-Brexit aspects of travelling to work, here are the details for reference: proof of permission to travel; a recent negative Covid test (obtained privately at a cost of £99); and valid travel and work insurance – this was an additional cost of £350, since regular insurance policies do not cover travel “in time of plague”. In fact the technical description for this is “Battlefield Insurance”.

The first point to note is that this is now a complex process, and there are potential glitches at every stage. For example, when Peter went to his branch of HSBC to request his “certified bank statements”, he was told this was a service which was discontinued by the bank several years ago. In Peter’s case, he managed to get his application accepted despite not having the required certification, but that’s no guarantee of similar success for other applicants; and an issue with any aspect of the process risks invalidating the whole application.

If those issues prove to cause frequent problems for British artists travelling to work abroad, it risks not only costing those individual artists work, but for the industry overall it may well lead to a reluctance from European theatres to employ British artists, not being sure whether or not they’ll ultimately be able to fulfil the contract.

The process also takes time, in setting up and travelling to an appointment at the Spanish Embassy in London (reportedly the service is also available at offices in Manchester and Edinburgh), applying for and gathering all the necessary information and evidence, and crucially, waiting for the applicant’s passport to be returned. This causes particular problems in the course of a busy career, where several international contracts may be in the pipeline at any given moment. Only being able to process one of them at a time is a major hindrance to pursuing that career, even in the absence of any glitches. The UK’s tightening over recent years of the rules regarding issuing second passports to British citizens working internationally makes this even more challenging. For Peter, the process took at least a couple of weeks, and when international travel returns to nearer its normal levels, that will surely increase. Three weeks’ notice is probably the minimum via conventional means, which raises serious questions over the viability of short notice “jump-in” contracts, for example, for British singers.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the fact that Peter now has a valid work visa for Spain will be of no use to him when it comes to his forthcoming contracts in Germany and France – as a “third country” citizen, he’ll be back to square one with the processes there, which are different for each individual EU member state.

For comparison, pre-Brexit, the only paperwork necessary would have been a valid passport for establishing British citizenship, and an A1 form for avoiding having to make social security payments twice. Both of these are still necessary post-Brexit, in addition to the new requirements listed above.

As an established and successful international artist, Peter naturally has had access to support in this process, from a knowledgable agent, a reliable accountant, experienced colleagues and so on, and a certain amount of financial resources too; and as a resident of the home counties, the Spanish Embassy is a short trip from home. For younger artists just starting out on a career, none of these would necessarily be the case, and consequently as with so many aspects of Brexit, it hits the youngest harder than anyone else.

To all of the above, the cynical among you might think, so what? Why can’t British artists just stay at home and work in the UK, sharing their gifts with their native audiences rather than hawking them around the globe?

Well, for one thing, British artists working abroad is a good thing for the British economy. In Peter’s case, his work in the UK was cancelled, and so if he weren’t working abroad, he wouldn’t be working at all. But even without the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic, there are more British singers than there is work at home, and short of a miraculous change of heart when it comes to British investment in the arts, that’s unlikely to change any time soon. We’re a net exporter of talent, and that brings money into the UK economy in terms of tax and expenditure at home, not to mention maintaining and developing our influence on the world stage – “Global Britain”, as the Government is fond of labelling it.

Furthermore, for British singers, easy access to a wider global market has allowed them to specialise their careers to a far greater extent than had they remained working exclusively in the UK. Peter’s reputation as a specialist in contemporary English language opera no doubt gave him a significant edge when it came to securing the role of Mortimer in the original production, and consequently this latest contract too. Likewise, Britain’s current crop of top-level Wagnerian singers could surely never have reached their level of expertise solely working in the UK, where performances of their niche repertoire are few and far between – think of Catherine Foster, James Rutherford, Iain Paterson, to name but three singers who are heard far more often on European stages than at home. Not that they’re not adept at other repertoire too; but the ability to travel far and wide has allowed them to focus on their strongest suits, and consequently Britain’s global reputation for producing high quality singing to continue to flourish.

So what can be done to help? The complexity of the process being the very issue here, simple solutions are not readily apparent. Even were it possible to resurrect the Brexit negotiating process, for instance, it remains unclear that either of the reported proposals would solve any or all of these problems at a stroke. But streamlining any part of this process would be a step in the right direction – every barnacle you remove from a ship’s hull will help it glide through the water more swiftly.

For starters, the UK Government could very easily review its reluctance to allow second passports to be issued to frequent travellers. At the moment the system doesn’t allow for an anticipated future need as grounds for issuing an additional passport; with most artists’ careers still in lockdown, revising that approach could help them get back up and running as soon as the pandemic allows. Passport fees being what they are, this would instantly raise more revenue for the Treasury, it’s a move which can be made unilaterally, and there’s no obvious downside, assuming that any Home Office security concerns can be assuaged. The prospect of British citizens having their only passport at the mercy of foreign visa processes for weeks and months every year is hardly consistent with the concept of “Taking Back Control”. It should be a no-brainer.

As we move forward, the disproportionate impact of every aspect of Brexit on the younger generation surely has to be addressed too. Support, advice and access to finance are all career-boosters which the Government could readily provide. It was good to see the Principal of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland proposing the creation of a new Erasmus-style programme for his students, and if we’re being asked to accept Brexit as a grown-up, positive concept, then at the very least every step we take should be towards the increase of opportunities for young British citizens to train and work worldwide.

Ultimately, you have to take your hat off to Peter and his colleagues for having stridden forth manfully toward this newly unknown region, like a latter day Neil Armstrong or Captain Scott (hopefully with results more along the lines of the former). Not only will his work at the Liceu further his career and support his family, but even more importantly it will allow audiences in Barcelona to experience a world-class contemporary British opera, showcasing the very best of British culture on an international stage.

If the Government is truly serious about the idea of “Global Britain”, it needs to do everything in its power to support those who are out there right now building it.


Disclaimer: this article is intended as an anecdotal account and should not be relied upon wholly or in part as a guide to any application process. The responsibility for understanding and fulfilling any contractual and/or official requirements remains solely and entirely that of the contracted artist.

My thanks go to Peter Hoare. All opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.


Paul Carey Jones’ new book based on his hit ‘Coronaclassical’ blog series is now available in paperback from Amazon sites worldwide – for more details and a link to your nearest international retailer visit: www.paulcareyjones.net/buy

Giving It Away – Classical Music in Lockdown and other fairytales

All content © Copyright 2021 Paul Carey Jones. All rights reserved.

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Brexit for Musicians: What Happened, What Next?

The debate over an EU “musician’s passport” for UK artists rages on, with much of the focus being on what exactly was on offer during the negotiating process last year.

Leaving aside for a moment the question of how useful those details really are any more, here’s an attempt at piecing together what we know or can reasonably guess. This is based on having spent far more time than I’d ever have wished over the last fortnight reading and listening to statements from the various parties involved, as well as the text of the Deal itself, while applying the filter that politicians of all nationalities and leanings will have a tendency to be economical with the truth, and by definition produce a subjective version of events. As always on these pages, it comes with the caveat that I could be completely wrong about any part or all of this.

If you’re sensible enough not to be interested in the speculative ins and outs of a trade negotiation, feel free to skip straight to Part Two, which should still make sense either way.

PART ONE: WHAT HAPPENED?

The timeline of the negotiations seems to start with the EU including a section in the draft text of an agreement published in March 2020. That text is available online here, and the relevant chunk is on page 354.

“Desiring to ensure a common interpretation, the Parties agree that, for the purposes of this Agreement, the category of persons carrying out a paid activity covers persons entering for the purpose of carrying out a gainful occupation or remunerated activity in the territory of the other Party as an employee or as a service provider. This category should not cover: … sportspersons or artists performing an activity on an ad-hoc basis.”

It seems this was rejected pretty swiftly by the UK. The main reason given by the Government has been that it breached their key manifesto promise to “take back control of our borders” – in other words, that for their liking it provided too much open-ended freedom of movement for a category of not only current EU citizens, but future ones too. Additionally, they have claimed that the definition of “artists” wouldn’t have covered technical and support staff, that the arrangement would still have been subject to potential opt-outs and additional work permit requirements from individual EU member states, and that the definition of “ad-hoc basis” wouldn’t cover most musical activity. The Government claims that, having consulted with the Musicians’ Union and other representative bodies, the proposal would not have met the practical needs of British musicians in full.

Analysis: whether or not those additional objections hold water, they strike you as the sort of thing that could be fixed during a negotiating process – this was the EU’s first draft proposal, after all. The red line was surely the first point, that any version of this proposal would contain far more freedom of movement (for EU citizens coming to the UK) than would be acceptable to this Government, which would explain their summary dismissal of the whole idea without further discussion.

Later on in the negotiations, when service industries were being discussed, the UK team reportedly proposed that musical performances be included in the list of permitted activities for business travellers, and possibly also some sort of reciprocal work permit arrangements along the lines of what the UK already offers to non-UK nationals. In contrast to the EU draft text, the public does not currently have access to the details of this UK proposal. The EU have explained that they rejected it as unworkable, perhaps because the EU doesn’t automatically have the authority to override member states’ right to impose their own work permit requirements on Third Country nationals, but also because it didn’t offer anything to EU citizens travelling to the UK to work which they don’t have access to anyway outside the arrangements in the Deal.

Analysis: it’s trickier to deduce exactly what went on here without being able to see the precise details of the UK proposal. But the UK had already staked out its position on entry requirements for EU artists coming to the UK back in February 2020, effectively spiking their team’s guns on this issue before the negotiations even started in earnest. Given that, I can’t see what incentive there was for the EU to put in the work on their side in return for securing little, if anything, in the way of further concessions for their citizens. On paper, while it’s obviously more restrictive than before, the new set-up isn’t that bad a deal for EU musicians, and at the end of the day they still have 27 other visa-free countries to choose from, unlike their British counterparts.

Ultimately, only a handful of people know what happened during the negotiations, and even then recollections and interpretations will be subjective. It’s important to bear that in mind when demanding that various UK or EU officials release details of what went on – they don’t necessarily know that much more than we do.

Stepping back to look at the overall process, you get the distinct impression that a compromise might have been possible (although the UK Government’s objection to the fundamental principal of freedom of movement should not be underestimated) but that nailing down the fine detail of such a compromise would have required time. There’s a reason that trade talks usually take place over a period of several years rather than a few weeks. So many of the issues that all branches of UK industry are now facing are a consequence of the absurdly rushed nature of the negotiations, and the almost non-existent amount of time left to prepare once the details of the Deal were announced.

Where were British musicians when the negotiations were taking place, when there might have been a decent chance of influencing the UK position? In fairness, we’ve had a lot on our plate over the last ten months. The Government’s rejection of an extension to the negotiations was a cheap shot in the middle of a pandemic, but it worked for them, in that it meant they could force through the Deal they eventually got before anyone had time to scrutinise its numerous flaws. Eating up the last few days with nonsensical quibbling over fish was consistent with that strategy, and there’s little doubt that the shortcomings of the Deal for fishermen and touring musicians will be the first of many more to reveal themselves.

PART TWO: WHAT NEXT?

So much for what may or may not have happened during the negotiations. Whatever the truth of it (assuming such an objective concept can even be applied to a process like this), piecing together the clues is by now a diverting parlour game at best. The EU made an offer, which it claims was excellent, and the UK rejected it. The UK made a counter-proposal, which it also claims was excellent, and the EU rejected it. There wasn’t any time to see if a compromise could be reached, and so the subject of any specific arrangements for musicians working abroad was left out of the final Agreement altogether.

The question which really matters now is, what next for UK musicians?

At this point let me reveal, or remind you, that I have two dogs in this fight, as a dual-nationality British and Irish citizen and passport holder, and so it is probably fair to say that it’s a lot easier for me to survey all this with a calm and rational eye. I fully understand the raw emotions that the whole concept of Brexit continues to invoke in my solely-British colleagues, and if anyone ever wants to question whether this really affects me severely enough for me to have a legitimate view on it, then they may well have a point.

But in many ways a calm, rational approach might just be what is needed right now, if British musicians are to find footholds in the walls of this deep hole in which they’ve been dropped. What is crucial is that we distinguish between the intended and unintended consequences of Brexit.

At long last reality is biting, and it is finally becoming clear what the Government’s vision of Brexit actually is; what “taking back control of our borders” means in practice. Many British industries, our own included, are now complaining about the barriers to international trade we now face. But it’s vital that we take on board that these are not there by accident: they are part of the design. Brexit, as conceived by this Government, involves erecting barriers to international trade by its very definition. The extra costs and red tape are not a mistake. They are there as a direct consequence of the Government’s approach, and they want them to stay there. This is Brexit working as intended.

But there’s another category of problems too. Colleagues with forthcoming work in Spain have reported issues during their visits to the Spanish Embassy, where the software used to process visas hasn’t been updated to include the UK as a possible nationality for applicants.

This is an example of an unintended consequence of Brexit, glitches in the systems used for processing and traversing the new trade barriers. Those glitches are there by accident rather than design.

These unintended consequences are largely a result of that recklessly short timescale of the negotiations, and they are desirable to no one. And so the thin sliver of good news is that, if we are willing and able to separate them from the intended consequences, fixing them should be eminently possible. Like it or not, we need the Government’s help on that, and they have every incentive to help us. They need to show that their Brexit works.

To that end, the multiple references to potential bilateral discussions with individual EU member states during this week’s Urgent Question debate in the House of Commons were promising. In terms of making immediate progress on the issues facing individual UK artists working in the EU right now, this is what will stand the best chance of rapid success – for example on ensuring that any opt-outs by member states to the negotiated new arrangements for social security are kept to a minimum. (Labour’s Barbara Keeley asked a perceptive question on this issue during the debate, and Caroline Dinenage’s answer also displayed an encouraging degree of understanding of it.) The more detailed guidance musicians can give the Government on specific areas like this, the more likely they are to be able to lower one or two of those barriers they’ve placed in our path.

Strangely enough, the current state of the pandemic has provided a little bit of breathing space to fix these unintended consequences – if it weren’t for theatre lockdowns and travel restrictions, there’d very likely be a lot more of us stuck in airports and embassies across Europe right now. So if we act quickly, there’s room for manoeuvre we wouldn’t otherwise have had.

During that Commons debate, Dinenage was clear that bilateral talks would be with a view to facilitating current arrangements for visas and work permits, rather than negotiating any further waivers. That may well be the case for the time being, but once those lines of communication are established, who knows what else might transpire? The Government could end up getting a taste for exercising that “sovereignty” they like to talk about so much – it would be good to see it amount to something tangible for once.

Surely this is a serious lack of ambition on our part though? Other campaigns have frequently forced this Government into U-turns on other issues. Why couldn’t musicians do the same, if we find the right slogan and grab enough headlines?

There’s a crucial distinction, however, between issues like free school meals, and a U-turn on freedom of movement. The former is a question of a relatively small amount of money which the Government doesn’t really want to spend, but which doesn’t ultimately amount to any betrayal of an article of faith. (Even their harshest detractors can’t really believe deep down that most Tories live to starve the children of poor families.) By contrast, “taking control of our borders” was the central manifesto promise for the current crop of Conservative MPs; whether you agree with them or not, there can be no doubting that for many of them, it is their most fundamental raison d’etre, and they can also claim with justification that they have a very recent mandate to act upon it. When we demand that they let go of that principle for our benefit, we need to appreciate the magnitude of what we’re asking them to do – and therefore the likelihood of us succeeding.

The other lesson to be drawn from the success of the Marcus Rashford style of campaign is the use of “SMART” goals – specific, measurable, achievable, resourced, and time-bound. Funding for free school meals is a perfect example of this: Rashford is never asking for the moon on a stick yesterday, and that’s clearly not by chance. Government can provide that funding at the stroke of a pen, and at little political cost; the amount of pressure required to achieve that goal is commensurately light.

Some of the noises from the EU might sound more encouraging: both sides, in fact, seem to have said they’re open to further negotiations on musicians’ movement. But dig a little deeper and you find that they both mean on the basis of their respective original proposals. So the chasm between them remains as wide as ever, with the Deal done, and the negotiating teams stood down and disbanded. (Michel Barnier last week: “This agreement will not be renegotiated, it now needs to be implemented.”) It’s not entirely impossible that a rabbit might pop out of someone’s hat at some stage, but we need to be realistic about how likely that is, now that the show’s over and the magician is on the bus home.

Furthermore, UK fishermen are currently demanding “privileged access to the Single Market”, which boils down to what musicians are asking for too, as are farmers, hauliers, and most if not all other sectors of British industry in their own ways. If the Government suddenly caved in and went back to the original EU proposal for musicians in return for a quieter life, it wouldn’t work – those other groups would all be banging on their door the next morning, demanding the same thing for themselves.

The inexorable logic of all this eventually leads back to UK membership of the EEA at least, be it in an off-the-peg or bespoke arrangement by another name. But that long journey will take time – years, not days or weeks. In the meantime, we may well be better off aiming for smaller, more achievable victories.

But even minor progress will require a hard decision from UK musicians: do we want to protest, or to lobby? In other words, to voice our objections to the whole concept of Brexit, perhaps in the hope of eventually getting it all reversed in a few years or decades; or to make shorter term progress in working with what we’ve got right now? One is an act of ideologically pure principled defiance; the other involves getting hands dirty, working alongside our natural opponents, finding small areas of compromise and mutual interest. Most people are temperamentally better suited to one than the other. Both are valid, and valuable, campaigns. But they are, to a large extent, mutually exclusive – you can’t do both at once. If the goal is to reverse Brexit, the problems it’s causing now are an illustration of why ditching it would make sense. But if many of those problems don’t get solved, and soon, it is we who will suffer first and foremost.

It’s a bit like when you dislike the manager of your football club, and find yourself willing your team to lose a few games so that he gets the sack. It might work in the long run, but in the short term you’re still losing. (And even after all that, you might end up with Mick McCarthy.) Whatever our fully-justified feelings about Brexit, if most of us are to avoid the imminent prospect of going bust, we need it to work.

So British musicians need urgently to decide whether they wish to protest or to lobby; to point out the sheer illogical fallacy of Brexit, or to work more quietly to fix the short term problems which are costing them work in Europe right now. Both are important. But you can only do one at a time.


Paul Carey Jones’ new book based on his hit ‘Coronaclassical’ blog series is now available in paperback from Amazon sites worldwide – for more details and a link to your nearest international retailer visit: www.paulcareyjones.net/buy

Giving It Away - Classical Music in Lockdown and other fairytales
Giving It Away – Classical Music in Lockdown and other fairytales

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