Coronaclassical 18: British Voices, British Stories

As part of a recent discussion on the question of “colour-blind” casting in Hamilton, the New York Times quoted the playwright August Wilson, an excerpt from his 1996 speech The Ground On Which I Stand.

Wilson’s compelling analysis of the shortcomings of colour-blind casting – “(Black Americans) do not need colorblind casting; we need theatres” – makes disquieting reading for those of us in an opera world which has settled on the comfortable assertion that any singer can portray any character as a straightforward panacea for accusations of institutional racism.

Wilson’s arguments are worth reading in full, as is the article by the poet Maya Phillips in which he was quoted. As a middle-aged white man, my role in these issues is mainly to listen and learn rather than wade in with largely unqualified opinions for the sake of having them.

Having said that, there are particular challenges for opera in this field, and they’re mostly a result of our reliance on a core repertoire which is well over a hundred years old. A contemporary diversity of narrative voices is only possible, even in theory, if the material being produced is also contemporary. Colour-blind casting may limit the ability of stories to discuss historical questions of race (as Phillips asserts about Hamilton), but in opera’s case those discussions, if they exist at all, are founded on a perspective which is centuries out of date.

In his article on classical music and race in this week’s New Yorker, the critic and author Alex Ross asserts that “Classical music can overcome the shadows of its past only if it commits more strongly to the present.”

But there’s an obvious problem here, and it’s this: almost all the best operas were written by white European men between 1780 and 1920.

Most of them were German or Italian. Some of them were French or Russian. A few may have been homosexual. That’s about as far as the diversity goes. You may choose to quibble according to your own personal taste – but if we define “best” as “those that the greatest number of people want to hear”, then the case is pretty much closed. We’ve spent most of this year arguing about how, or whether, to define Beethoven’s “greatness”, and it’s a fascinating discussion: but the bottom line is that lots of people really like listening to his music. (The proof surely being that no-one ever seriously argues that he’s a “great” operatic composer, since Fidelio is hard work for even the most ardent listener.)

It’s right that we examine our use of the concept of “greatness” as applied to composers, and even if we decide it’s valid, whether basing it mostly on large-scale works is in itself exclusionary. But short of the invention of time travel, there are only so many non-white, non-male composers of these sorts of works that we can unearth historically. You can’t rediscover what doesn’t, what was denied the opportunity to, exist.

So where does that leave us? If I were German or Italian and writing this article, I’d probably end it here. It’s not at all clear that the world needs any more German or Italian operas, although I’d be very happy to be convinced otherwise. Singers from other countries can look on with envy at how fundamentally those operas underpin the culture of their respective nations, and more than that, encapsulate their native relationship to language, emotion, and national character. Not that there isn’t always something new to discover about those concepts, but in all honesty, they’ve got plenty to be getting on with, and I don’t envy any contemporary composer trying to slot into that somewhere.

The British situation is different – it’s hard to deny there’s a gap in the market, since even the best-known British operas are hardly core repertoire worldwide, nor indeed even at home. The time is surely ripe for investing to change that. British opera companies are largely still in lockdown, their well-funded facilities lying unused behind locked doors. The idiosyncrasies of the UK’s furlough payments have arguably meant that has had to be the case up till now, but as administrative staff get back to work, surely there’s an opportunity to make use of practice rooms and rehearsal spaces, for composers and librettists to get together with singers and repetiteurs, and see what comes out. Any state-subsidised opera company needs to have some opera to show for their funding, or stands on precariously thin ice in political terms.

If now is not the time for British opera to pick itself up and allow itself to tell its own stories, then when will it ever be? And if British opera is truly concerned about problems of diversity, why should we continue to import many of those problems – from abroad, and from the past?

When I mentioned this idea – British music, British voices, British stories – at the end of my recent post on how opera has treated its composers in recent times, it provoked something of a backlash. That the idea of looking to native resources to produce work that is rooted in, reflects the state of, and has a chance of speaking to contemporary society in Britain is often automatically assumed to be a narrow-minded, insular, exclusionary statement shows how far the task of defining nationalism has been surrendered by those who have a more outward-looking, inclusive view of it.

Make no mistake, it would be far more comfortable for our opera industry to continue to view ourselves as part of a broader pan-European tradition, to argue that the works of Wagner and Verdi and Bizet and Tchaikovsky course instinctively through the veins as the birthright of anyone who lives here.

But the problem is that we’re not bringing anything much to the party ourselves. The recent, largely manufactured, controversy over the Last Night of the Proms at least showed that most Brits have an awareness of the tune and words of Rule, Britannia, and a vague understanding (or misunderstanding) of their meaning. Where is the operatic equivalent?

It’s easy to complain about British opera companies importing singers for their limited performances right now, and it’s certainly a legitimate point when so many British singers, whose taxes subsidise those same companies, are sitting at home at severe risk of going out of business. But the casting choices reveal the truth, if there was ever any doubt, that the British view opera as an exotic foreign art form, best performed by foreign singers if it’s the real thing, and the British version as inferior fare. That this view clearly pervades even at the very top of the British operatic establishment should serve as a wake-up call.

Opera puts words to music, and at its best turns those base elements into stories which speak in the most direct way to those for whom those words are an everyday language. If we truly care about accessibility, it starts right there. And in a modern world where, with few exceptions, operas are performed in their original language, that means producing new operas, now, in our own languages.

Furthermore, the absence of any great historical canon gives British opera a golden opportunity to address all those accusations of racism and misogyny. Opera uniquely gives voice to its characters in the most literal sense, in a way that other art forms can’t. Bizet’s Carmen, Verdi’s Violetta, Tchaikovsky’s Tatyana are the dramatically empowered protagonists of their stories to a degree that their literary counterparts could never be. Opera has the intrinsic power to tell the stories of contemporary Britain, from the perspective of those who live here now, if we choose to embrace the opportunity.

These are honest conversations which Britain desperately needs to have with itself. Few of us would have chosen to live in an era of toxic culture wars, but as artists we don’t legitimately have the option in the long run of ignoring it, nor of planting ourselves on one side and sniping uncomprehendingly at the other, without ultimately making ourselves irrelevant. It’s clear that the stories Britain tells itself, about itself, increasingly fail to make sense in the context of the modern world. We can help with that, if we’re brave enough to tackle it. That’s what stories are for, and stories are what we do.

Neither should we be afraid to acknowledge and embrace the diverse nature of historical British culture. Opera also deals with the fundamental relationship of a culture with emotion – hence German and Italian opera, for example, being very different from each other. As the child of a Welsh and Irish family, who’s lived large parts of his adult life in England and Scotland, it seems to me there’s a stark variance in that relationship across the UK’s constituent nations. Welsh opera, in both of its primary languages, has been largely neglected in recent decades, and the time must surely soon come when that is rectified on a national level. How about a Welsh operatic Mabinogion, Dic Penderyn or Tryweryn? An honest English examination of the Empire from the diverse perspectives of all involved? Hell, how about a Scottish Macbeth? Give voices a place on their own stage and they will tell their own stories.

British singers are among the most well-trained and versatile in the world – the huge numbers of youngsters who come to our music colleges and training schemes from across the globe is clear evidence of that. Look among their ranks and you will find examples of British and British-trained artists who can perform in German, Italian, French, Russian, Czech repertoire as authentically as most natives. May that never change, and may we continue to embrace the wider world, and be embraced by it. That we need simultaneously to find ways of breaking down the increasing social and financial barriers which stand in the way of nurturing operatic talent from all parts of British society is beyond question.

But at the same time, this fundamental British talent – in all its modern diversity – could also be given the chance to engage far more deeply with its own language, history, culture, challenges and opportunities. In other words, with its own stories. So that when our audiences are finally allowed to return, we have something new to tell them – something that speaks directly to them as modern Britons. The opera industry looks with scornful envy at its “crossover” rivals, at how the relatability of their stars with their recognisable back stories invites new audiences in a way that mainstream classical music can only dream of. And yet British opera so often fails to heed the clear lesson when it comes to employing and promoting the talent on its own doorstep.

It might well be the start of a long journey. We’d need to embrace our composers and decide to put them at the heart of the creative process from beginning to end. But our current catastrophic situation could be the chance to sow the seeds of the first real golden era of British opera. All it needs is a small amount of investment, vision and bravery from our artistic leaders.

Britain’s singers are here, her composers and librettists are here; they’re ready, and they’ve got stories to tell. Let’s give them the chance to tell those stories.

Posted in Art, Coronavirus, Music, Opera, Politics, singing, Theatre, Time travel, Wales | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Coronaclassical 17: Beyond the Costello Report

PANDEMIC COULD BE OVER WITHIN TWO YEARS!

screamed the headline from BBC News, followed immediately by,

CORONAVIRUS WILL BE WITH US FOREVER!

Cue many baffled posts on social media – couldn’t the BBC make its mind up? Presumably the posters must think that when they blow out their birthday candles, the phenomenon of fire is extinguished forever. The virus will outlive the pandemic.

Shoddy headlines and cack-handed government advice notwithstanding, sometimes you have to wonder if the ignorance is wilful. The music industry looks on with envy as sports events get back up and running. Why aren’t we allowed to go back to work too, musicians ask, conveniently overlooking the amount of time, effort and money that sports have put into adapting their ways of operating. They haven’t been “allowed” to go back to work so much as made a persuasive case about how they can do so with the minimum risk to their employees, and the smallest possible impact on wider public health.

Ten days ago, ENT surgeon Declan Costello and his colleagues published a scientific report into the aerosol concentrations produced by various types of singing, as well as by speaking and breathing. You can read the full thing here, and it’s very much worth a few minutes of your time, since it’s fascinating stuff. Many performers seized on it immediately as a green light to get back on stage. In fact it’s far from that, and as with any good scientific report, it raises at least as many questions as it answers. That’s how this works.

The results suggest that singing doesn’t produce a significantly greater amount of aerosols than speaking at a similar volume. Singing is safe! – cried those for whom it was crucial to believe that singing is safe. That’s not quite what it says, and the results demand closer inspection and further exploration, in particular for those of us whose job frequently involves being in poorly-ventilated rooms full of people singing very loudly indeed.

So it’s a start. We’ve established that there’s no need to live in specific fear of singing, so conclusions and strategies are transferable. What we need to look at is how we put what we know into practice for safe rehearsing and performing.

It would be helpful if we were more careful about distinguishing between the situation for performers (and those working alongside them) – which should be about ensuring a minimum-risk working environment – and audiences, where the question is far more about the impact on the broader spread of the virus.

For the latter, the recent study by Berlin’s Charité hospital should be seized upon by the industry, suggesting quite plausibly as it does that classical music audiences, being generally inclined towards disciplined behaviour when it comes to moving around, singing along, shouting and so on, should be safe enough if universally masked, and given a bit of thought as to possible bottlenecks during ingress and regress. Our audiences are used to being asked not to applaud between movements, or at the end of entire acts in the case of Parsifal, so they’d surely take this in their stride. In fact, ahead of the curve as always, audiences have been refraining from cheering during my curtain calls for several years now.

The possibility of a near-capacity auditorium sometime soon would be a genuine game-changer for theatres and concert halls, and gut instinct surely tells us that there’s a way of doing this relatively sensibly and safely, especially compared to a crowd at a rock concert or football match. Or indeed in a pub.

In terms of performers’ safety, we could do with seeing further detail from the WHO on the relative importance of heavier particles (where social distancing and hand-washing are crucial factors) and aerosol transmission (where masks and ventilation are the principal weapons). Assuming the former still play a role – and there’s no reason to think they don’t – we need to know, for example, whether singing and speaking at higher volumes increases the range of those particles, something which the Costello report by definition doesn’t explore. That would then inform us, for example, how far singers need to stand back from the edge of the orchestra pit when all guns are blazing. (Orchestral players don’t as a rule appreciate having to put their well-being on the line at work, and they’re absolutely right about that.)

There’s one truly shocking thing about the Costello report though: that this vital research has only just taken place, and even then we depended on the initiative and generosity of a group of medical professionals to get it done. If the honours system stood for anything, Declan and his colleagues should be nailed-on for gongs all round. But the fact that it took them to do it off their own bat is a shameful condemnation of our own industry’s collective lethargy since the crisis hit. Why was this study not commissioned by any of the hundreds of arts organisations now relying on it as a crucial piece of evidence, months ago and with a far more extensive remit?

Let’s not get stuck on the retrospective blame game for now, since the clock is ticking ever louder. Costello’s work suggests strongly that there’s no distinction between different styles of singing, nor indeed between singing and the spoken word. This means that every single branch of theatre – sung and spoken, commercial and subsidised – shares an urgent existential interest in examining this further. Most of the issues being equally crucial to all, our industry leaders need to bang their heads together, pool their resources, and get the science done. We hear from them almost daily of the billions of pounds the performing arts are worth to the economy. It would take a tiny fraction of that to commission the work needed to get us back up and running with a vengeance.

Initiative, co-operation, a small amount of investment; and huge potential dividends. If our artistic leaders didn’t know where to start or who to ask, they do now. There are no longer any valid excuses. We need fewer buts, and more Costellos.

PS The most eye-catching part of the report for me was lines 220-227, and the related data around the variations in aerosol generation between individuals. In brief, a few people emit more just from breathing than most do from singing or shouting. Given that scientists have been on the hunt for months for explanations as to how super-spreading occurs, this is surely worth looking at in far greater depth, as the report itself recommends.

PPS The flautist Kathryn Williams has very helpfully been in touch with a link to the global literature review on performance and Covid-19 she has carried out with Dr Jodie Underhill for the Incorporated Society of Musicians. It’s updated to 21st August 2020, available online here for free, and is very much worth bookmarking.

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

Coronaclassical 16: Sick Pay and Quarantine

“I’ve got a mortgage, a wife and six kids, and George Bush has just devalued the dollar. I can’t afford to be here.”

From his expression, I guessed my colleague wasn’t exaggerating. And that was before he ended up in hospital for opening night.

Let’s talk about how freelance opera soloists are paid. In general, all the factors – the value of work put in during rehearsals, travel and accommodation expenses, the time and expenditure of learning and preparing a role, and so on – are rolled together and presented as an overall fee per performance.

There are more sophisticated models, where the remuneration is broken down into rehearsal fees, expense allowances etc, but they’re generally at the lower end of the pay scale. Companies tend to prefer the simplicity of the inclusive per-show fee – as do agents, who can then take their slice of that larger gross figure.

(Sometimes these days a flat fee – related to the show fee – is also included for rehearsals, essentially in the hope that it might persuade the superstars in the cast to turn up before the dress.)

Back in the days when singers earned the price of a small house for a cough and a spit, this all probably worked out fine. But as margins have got tighter – as a general rule, opera singers’ pay has moved in antiphase with professional footballers’ – the shortcomings have emerged.

For one thing, singers have to pay their expenses up front, and then may not get paid for weeks after opening night, meaning there’s a cashflow issue of several months. Given a steady cycle of work, this is on the whole manageable. But like a particularly traumatic game of musical chairs, when the music suddenly stopped a few months ago, many singers were left with a crippling amount of non-refundable outgoings, with the income which was supposed to cover them disappearing in a magic contract-transcending puff of “force majeure”.

Another idiosyncrasy of this system is that, in the case of illness, the decision as to whether a singer performs or cancels is almost always left in the hands of the singer themselves. They can decide to soldier on, in which case they get paid, or to go home to bed, in which case they don’t. But in the former situation, opera companies don’t give themselves any option other than going ahead with a sick singer aerosolling away in a cramped theatre.

We wait with bated breath for Declan Costello’s report on singing-related transmission of SARS-CoV-2, which is published tomorrow. Many singers have already seized on his Twitter preview as being the silver bullet we’ve all been waiting for, although even this first glance raises as many questions as it answers. Even the best-case comeback will be halting and messy – what the science can do is help us to do it as sustainably and safely as possible for all involved.

That latter point will become more important as the reality of rehearsing hits us, especially as more evidence emerges of the specific long-term dangers of Covid-19 to professional singers – an issue which far too many of my colleagues, in their understandable desperation to get back to work, continue to overlook. But already the last few months have provided much food for thought about singers and contagious illnesses in rehearsal and performance situations.

My American colleague fell seriously ill just before the sitzprobe stage of rehearsals, and was still in hospital on opening night. He missed the second show as well, and by this point things must have been getting financially serious for him. It was a run of eight performances (not at all an atypical number, and longer than many runs), so he’d already lost 25% of his overall income for the four month project. Bear in mind that as well as travel and accommodation, he’d need to pay taxes, agents’ commission, and currency exchange fees, before he even began to think about sending a few quid home to his family. Miss another show and he’d probably be facing an overall loss on the whole contract.

Understandably, therefore, when it came to the third performance, there he was on stage. That he managed to haul himself out of a hospital bed to get there was a testament to his character and determination. But it was a deeply uncomfortable experience performing opposite a colleague and friend, all the while not knowing whether he would make it to the end of the show in one piece – and I don’t mean vocally. He looked like death. But he couldn’t afford not to be there.

As it happened, that was a non-contagious illness. Imagine the added complication if his presence was also endangering the health of those around him. Or indeed, what if he was perfectly capable of performing his role, but could be infecting his colleagues – perhaps via asymptomatic transmission of some new virus?

The decision as to whether a singer should perform or not cannot be left in the hands of that singer, when financially they may have no option. It’s reasonable that they be given first call – for one thing, you can understand why a company might be keen for there to be as much incentive as possible for their A-listers to show up in the first place. But once the singer has declared themselves willing and able to perform, the company must surely now, more than ever, give themselves the option of keeping the singer away from the rest of the cast and crew, at no financial cost to the singer themselves.

There are plenty of problems raised by the current crisis to which there are no straightforward solutions. And it’s important that we keep asking those questions, even when it’s not clear that there are any answers, exhausting as that often is. But here’s a problem with a ready solution – a simple, low-cost change that can, and should, be made right away.

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Coronaclassical 15: Counting the Peanuts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Coronaclassical 14: Who cares about composers?

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hire Car Top Trumps: Vauxhall Mokka

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

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

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

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

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The Tooting Avengers

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

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

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

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

Written and originally published May 2019

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Coronaclassical 13: The Death of British Opera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Coronaclassical 12: Drilling Holes in the Titanic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Featured image by Tomas Pueyo

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Coronaclassical 11: Opera’s Kobayashi Maru Test

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bones1

“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.)

And then, what happens to a singer in the case of a positive test? If they have to quarantine for two weeks, and miss a string of performances, under our current system of remuneration, they don’t get paid, at all. To make such a system work in the UK you’d need to rethink the whole freelance model – which isn’t a bad idea for many reasons, but you’ll forgive me if I don’t hold my breath.

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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