Coronaclassical 13: The Death of British Opera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Coronaclassical 12: Drilling Holes in the Titanic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Featured image by Tomas Pueyo

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Coronaclassical 11: Opera’s Kobayashi Maru Test

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Coronaclassical 10: Fiddling While Rome Burns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Where are all the time travellers?

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

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

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

1) Time travel takes a lot of energy.

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

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

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

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

2) Time travel kills the time traveller.

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

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

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

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

Which brings us to our third question.

3) What’s the point?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

TV: Westworld (HBO, Seasons 1 & 2)

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

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Coronaclassical 9: Opening Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Hire Car Top Trumps: Audi A4 Avant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written and originally published March 2016

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Coronaclassical 8: Freelancers and Impotence

 

PARENTAL ADVISORY: this article contains bad language and adult subject matter.

Sir Arnold: Power goes with permanence.

Sir Humphrey: Impermanence is impotence.

Sir Arnold: And rotation is castration.

– Yes Minister, Jonathan Lynn and Anthony Jay

 

“If you saw it, then why didn’t you report it?”

It’s a good question. A friend has recently moved to a new job in the classical music world, and has just had her eyes opened to the industry’s not-so-proud tradition of sexual harassment for the first time. It’s not the first thing she asks me. The first thing she asks me is,

“What the fuck is the matter with all these wankers?” 

Another good question, to be fair.

As the conversation continues, she asks if I’ve ever witnessed any such behaviour myself. The honest answer is only once, kind of. 

I’m sitting in an armchair in a dressing room at a major opera house. Watching the clock, trying not to watch my colleague changing. She’s asked me to be here as some sort of chaperone/bodyguard – there must be a technical term for it, but I skipped most of my music theory exams – since a senior colleague in a position of authority has been doing the rounds of the dressing rooms, conveniently enough always during the point in the female singers’ pre-show routine where they’re in their underwear. Make-up, wigs and costumes often have to go on in a particular order, so changing the routine isn’t an option. Neither is locking the door – they can’t be secured from the inside, and anyone backstage seems to be able to get in if they want to. Sure enough, regular as clockwork, here he is. Slightly taken aback to find his quarry with company. He takes it in his stride, courteous and charming, although I am not charmed. The rest of the evening passes without incident. I perform the same function twice more, and for the final performance (I’ve flown home by this point) she arranges for another trustworthy friend to be present. She later relates that the Lothario appears to realise what is going on by now, but again, all passes without further incident and that’s that.

That’s as close to first hand as I’ve ever been. I’m lucky: as a heterosexual man, I’m almost never on the receiving end of sexual harassment, and if I have been then I’m almost certainly too stupid to have noticed. Why didn’t I report it? I think about it a lot. 

Firstly, I didn’t really witness anything untoward – my presence was intended to prevent that, and it worked. So in itself my testimony wouldn’t add up to much. Secondly, my colleague didn’t want to take the matter any further, and it was her story to tell or not, as she saw fit. Had she decided to pursue it, I hope I’d have been brave enough to back her up.

But the truth is, I’d have to take a very deep breath before reporting any such case. And that’s because I’m a freelance artist, and potential victim of harassment or not, I’m dispensable, and therefore vulnerable.

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In her scintillating book Opera, or the Undoing of Women, Catherine Clément speculates that the reason opera houses so often demand that their prima donnas are foreign is less to do with the lure of the exotic, and more about removing them from their native environment and support network, increasing their vulnerability and ensuring they don’t get too powerful. As with most of her more compelling hypotheses, it applies to all singers, not just her fragile divas. Like any singer, I’ve occasionally been on the end of some pretty rancid behaviour, and when it’s happened abroad all I’ve wanted to do is get home safely in one piece. The idea of pursuing justice and correction is a long way from my mind.

There does appear to be a rule of thumb the world over that a huge number of singers rarely, if ever, appear at their “home” company. It’s a global art form, and there’s generally a glut of supply, so casting directors have a whole planet of singers to choose from. But you do look at some cast lists, taken over an extended period, and wonder at the absence of local talent. Audiences, meanwhile, often don’t seem to realise that singers don’t get to choose where we sing – we have to wait to be invited.

My colleague Axel was an exception, having appeared regularly as a freelance guest artist for his home opera company with great success. After many years of dedicated service, he moved to live elsewhere. Before leaving, he took the trouble to tell the company’s director (a non-native) that he’d be delighted to come back any time he could be of use to them, since appearing there meant so much to him. He was told that he should be grateful for what he’d been given. He hasn’t been invited back since. The colonial masters have spoken.

My point is, a singer who finds herself the target of harassment at work might first turn to her fellow cast members for support, only to find that they are in many ways as vulnerable as she is – freelance visitors, far from home, interchangeable and dispensable, however willing they are to help. Increasingly this may even apply to the chorus, and sometimes even the orchestra too. 

This wasn’t always the case. The last remnants of it have all but died away in the UK, but a generation or two ago, opera houses had a backbone of permanent company principals: a genuine company of artists. Far easier, with that far greater degree of security, for singers to call out bad behaviour by colleagues, or to support them when they’re the victims of it. Not that sexual harassment wasn’t prevalent in the old days… but if anything our current situation makes it even harder to deal with.

Might we return to such a system? The answers to our current problems surely lie ahead of us, not behind, and even before this extraordinary crisis, the world had changed. Aside from anything else, permanent singers cost a UK company more than freelancers, with National Insurance, holiday pay, pensions and so on to be thrown into the mix. Our new friend Rishi Sunak has been one of the more impressive members of the government during the current crisis – admittedly that’s leaping over a bar which is not so much low as subterranean – but you sense his largesse might not last much longer, and already fresh rumblings about the supposedly privileged status of the Self Employed have been emerging from his direction. Canny employers will already have been looking closely at the fine detail of the IR35 legislation in preparation for potential battles ahead.

However, we face more urgent problems. The state will, we hope, at some point soon step in to ensure that our most valuable arts organisations and institutions don’t go bankrupt and disappear forever. But as freelance musicians, we rely entirely on performance fees as the mechanism for passing on the industry’s funds to us. In an era where few if any of us are permanently affiliated to a company, when those companies aren’t giving performances, how can the industry accurately target support for us too? Assuming that safeguarding our futures is considered as important as doing the same for buildings and administrative staff, that is.

No one made much fuss while it was happening, but perhaps companies are also beginning to realise what they lost when their permanent principals were quietly allowed to drift away without being replaced. The recent situation at the Royal Opera, where a performance of Don Carlo had to be cancelled since there was no cover for the lead soprano, and no time to fly anyone in from elsewhere (international opera’s addiction to carbon-intensive solutions to foreseeable problems is a topic for another time), would never have happened in the old days, old lags assure me, when there would have been several Elisabettas in the House at any one time.

Given time, any system will eventually expose its own flaws. It’s all very well taking down a figurehead like Placido Domingo, but if you leave intact the system that allowed him that amount of unchecked power, you’ve achieved nothing. Domingo should know that well enough himself, given how often he’s been on stage at the end of Tosca; even when Scarpia dies, the soprano still loses. 

Power corrupts, and positions of unsupervised power will tend to attract those who are least well-equipped to resist the corruption. It’s entirely right that the accusations against him were taken seriously and that he faces the consequences, but once the dust settles it’s the system that produced and enabled Domingo which needs closest examination. Any industry which allows as a matter of course, for example, a situation where certain male artists are only allocated male wardrobe and make-up assistants, keeping female employees well away from those dressing rooms for their own protection, has more fundamental problems than the behaviour of one individual, however prominent.

“If you saw it, why didn’t you report it?”

Power goes with permanence. This job is, has somehow become, my life. I hate it and I love it and I can’t live without it. Every time I stick my head above the parapet, I risk losing that: casting is a subjective process, and choosing one singer over another for a role, whatever the real reasons, cannot be challenged and requires no justification. I’m expendable. I know it. They know it. They know that I know it.

Impermanence is impotence. I’m scared to speak up. I want to work. I want the conductor, director, casting director, designer, critics, sponsors, audience, colleagues, company managers, chorus, wardrobe assistants, the guy who does the stage door night shift and the taxi driver on the way home, to like me. Because I want to be invited back. To be a freelance artist is to live your life like a startled rabbit, constantly checking for potential danger to your career. I want to help, to be an ally. But above everything else, I’m scared, an addict terrified of being denied his drug.

Rotation is castration. What would change that? Is there a way to keep us in one place for longer? To feel we belong, so that we can set the standards, draw the lines? To allow some of us to put down a few roots for once? Give us permanence, and with it will come the power to speak out. Then, perhaps, some of us might be able to help. If we’re brave enough.

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Coronaclassical 7: Living with Covid-19

Reproduced here is a series of Tweets I sent out on April 19th, soon after recovering from the main symptoms of Covid-19. Day 1 was March 30th – I’m now exactly two months in, and the symptoms have all cleared except for the shortness of breath, which reappeared a couple of weeks ago. Doctors seem to think that should improve slowly, although as they point out there’s no way of knowing for certain, since at this stage no-one in the world has had this disease for more than six months.

1. Since many of you have been asking – here’s a brief rundown of my experience of life with “mild” #COVID19. Firstly – I’m alive and feeling almost like myself for the first time in over 2 weeks. I just had a cup of coffee and it was great.

2. Because I avoided hospital and pneumonia, technically my case was mild. In reality, it was anything but. I’ve had shellfish poisoning a couple of times, and the closest analogy is that it was as bad as that, but in slow motion over a couple of weeks rather than a couple of days.

3. Days 1-3 were a mild cough. Day 4 I made chicken soup at lunchtime and then collapsed into bed just feeling hot and exhausted. Day 5 I perked up again.

4. Day 6 was when it really hit – a proper fever (38-39 degrees), extreme fatigue, cough deepening causing an inability to breathe properly.

5. Day 7 those symptoms worsened, and on Day 8 I was in trouble – my breathing had quickened and shallowed, the fever wouldn’t shift and I was alternating between shivering and sweating uncontrollably. Extreme fatigue and drowsiness, and almost complete loss of appetite.

6. My heartbeat was rapid and erratic, and blood oxygen levels getting towards dangerously low levels. I had a bag packed for hospital at this point.

7. I got some antibiotics for the cough – to cover any possible bacterial infection – via NHS-111. Hard to know whether they helped – I did seem to produce a bit of gunk once they kicked in, but the fever remained persistent.

8. Day 9 was a bit better and just enough to keep me out of hospital. I was still struggling with fever, extreme fatigue and drowsiness – sleeping 18-20 hours a day – diarrhoea, nausea, tingly skin, and more than anything with breathing – it felt impossible to get enough oxygen.

9. Day 10 – 14 were very similar, with the symptoms seeming to take it in turns to give me a proper going-over. As soon as one aspect improved, another would kick in. The impossibility of getting into a rhythm of being ill was one of the things which made it so exhausting.

10. At this point my partner was also down with Covid, and with two kids at home we were grateful for the stockpiling – and the emergency supply package from the amazing Melinda Hughes. 

11. Day 12 (Good Friday) I got seen by a GP at a special Covid hub centre – the effort of getting dressed and driving over there made me feel like I was going to collapse. But my oxygen levels seemed good – and improved with mild activity – and my chest sounded ok. Reassuring. 

12. I’d had a constant fever for over a week by now, and I was beginning to have trouble working out what was going on. I’ve been watching Breaking Bad, and kept waking up thinking the house was surrounded by police and worrying about where all my illicit dollars were stashed etc. 

13. From around Day 16 onwards things began slowly to pick up. The diarrhoea had eased, although my appetite was still non-existent, & there were periods where my temperature dropped to near-normal. I began to go for short walks around the block after dark, which felt like marathons.

14. That gradual improvement continued. This is now Day 21, and I’ve been more or less fever-free without paracetamol for three or four days now. My breathing feels almost normal, the cough is a lot better, and I’m only sleeping for 12 hours a day or so. 

15. So I’m almost feeling myself again. Hope that’s useful and answers a lot of your questions. 

16. Bear in mind, all this comes under “mild symptoms”. In reality it completely wiped me out for two weeks and more. Worth considering when we’re thinking about the practicalities of  lifting lockdowns etc.

17. PS advice re preparing for getting hit: do stockpile! Think about a week or two where you really can’t go out, how would you cope? Especially if you’ve got kids, pets, dependents etc.

18. You’ll need paracetamol – two weeks’ worth is 7 packs of 16. (Bear in mind you can only buy two packs of pain killers at a time.) Think about where you’re going to ride this out. You’ll need a lot of comfortable, loose clothing – because of fever sweats I was having to change clothes 2 or 3 times a day at some points. Get a desk fan.

19. You’ll also need lots of fluids – 2-3 litres a day, and you probably won’t feel like eating or drinking anything. Keep track of how much you’re drinking. Get a reliable thermometer and a blood oxygen monitor if you can.

20. Most importantly, do NOT get sucked into the nonsense of “battling” the illness, carrying on as normal, stiff upper lip and plough through it etc. This isn’t a war. Get yourself organised, cancel everything and go to bed. You fight a virus lying down.

21. For some context – because I avoided hospital I haven’t been tested, but my partner tested positive on Day 4 of my symptoms, so in my case we’re 99% certain.

22. I’m mid-40s and otherwise fit and healthy, and I do breath control for a living. Those breathing exercises really do help and I can’t see any harm in starting now if you can stand it.

I hope that proves useful to someone. If anyone has any further questions please don’t hesitate to drop me a line. Singers in particular may find this excellent article by Molly Noori of interest for further reading – the pattern of her symptoms is remarkably similar to mine: Can I Sing Yet? 

 

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Hire Car Top Trumps: Audi A1

When I was learning to drive in my mother’s 950cc Fiesta, there were four gears and life was a lot simpler. You knew where you stood with four gears. First was for starting off, second was for going slow, fourth was for going fast, and third was for getting from slow to fast. The best gear was third, because the most fun thing about driving isn’t going fast, it’s accelerating, by which I mean the Physics definition of accelerating, which includes going round corners. Which you did in third. The thing is, at the time, when you were in third, you always thought you wanted to be in fourth sometime very soon, so you never really appreciated third gear while you were in it.

At some point soon after that they made a fifth gear, which was sort of fine because you just got to fourth and then eventually remembered there was another one up and across and so that was fifth.

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This is an Audi A1 Sportback S-Line and it has six gears. On paper I thought this would be a good thing on the basis of more-is-more. In practice and with hindsight I think five is plenty if you’re not planning on driving at 100mph+. What six gears means is that whichever gear you’re in, it never feels like the right one – a feeling which is exacerbated by the car, like most modern cars, constantly nagging you about which gear it thinks you should be in. They should just admit what they’re up to and have Patricia Routledge do voice recordings of the whole range of carps. I took fourth as a test case and tried to find a speed at which Hyacinth was happy with me staying in this gear for more than fifty yards. I can report back that fourth gear on an Audi A1 is designed for going at a constant 43mph.

There is also an Audi thing called Drive Select (or that’s what the button said), which allows you to choose between two modes called ‘Dynamic’, which is fun but burns a lot of fuel, correction, which is fun because it burns a lot of fuel, and ‘Efficiency’, which is a lot cheaper but should really be called ‘950cc Fiesta emulator’. The point of shelling out for the sporty model is presumably that it’s more entertaining than the cheaper versions, an experience almost immediately ruined by having one’s inner Hyacinth querying whether we should really be burning this much petrol when there’s a perfectly good and much more economical alternative available at the press of a button.

In S-Line version the handling is very good, at the expense of having a ride quality which feels like when you used to go sledging but only had one sledge between three of you which your big brother would hog so you’d end up having to go down the solid-ice rock-studded sledge slope in a bin bag.

Also it had a built-in Sat Nav with the world’s stupidest route planner, meaning that when I was looking for the Celtic Manor I ended up in McDonald’s. Although perhaps that was just another manifestation of Efficiency mode.

So look, this car popped up on the Avis website as a guaranteed-model option (for an extra twenty quid or so) – that’s worth looking out for if you’re hiring and you like cars. I was quite excited at the prospect of having it for a weekend, and in the end if it wasn’t quite as much fun as I’d hoped then that’s probably my fault more than the car’s (including the fact that it turned out to be a colour which I’ve always reserved exclusively for my first Ferrari). And when I had to hand the keys back I was genuinely sad for a moment.

The thing is, if it came to buying one, I’m not sure who this car is for. If I had been born female I would have been called Jennifer, so my parents tell me. Jennifer Jones would have felt that the A1 Sportback is cute but not as stylish as a Fiat 500 or Mini, not as tidily efficient as a Polo, and not as much fun as one of those mental Fiestas like off the remake of The Sweeney.

As for male manifestations of current selves, what blokes, unless they’re undertakers or harpists, really want in a car is a boot. That’s because the boot is the automotive equivalent of the shed – it’s a place down the end of the thing where a bloke can put Stuff and forget about it for six months. Show me a man in a hatchback and I’ll show you a man who feels there’s something missing in his life but he can’t quite put his finger on it. Unless he owns a shed.

Rented from: Avis Birmingham Airport
Country of origin: Germany
Country of use: UK

Year of manufacture: 2015
Year driven: 2016
Engine capacity: 1400cc
Power: 77/100
Performance: 82/100
Handling: 88/100
Style: 75/100
Comfort: 46/100
Luggage: 60/100
Max passengers: 3
Drivetrain: FWD
Value For Money: 8/10

Written and originally published February 2016

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