In Part One we saw that opera is not everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s perfectly fine. That doesn’t mean that everyone shouldn’t feel they can take pride in their national opera company, and fully support its continued public funding.
But how do we get to there from here? How do we engage with those who have tried opera and simply don’t like it – how do we convince them that, despite that, their taxes being used to subsidise opera is a case of money well spent?
In these further chapters, I’m going to talk a fair bit about Welsh National Opera as an example, since I’m Welsh and it’s my turf. I’ll talk a bit about Irish National Opera too, since I’m also Irish and who says men can’t multitask? But many aspects of this discussion should translate equally well to any national or regional opera company.
Here then are three questions for supporters and fans of Welsh National Opera right now, as we struggle to get our heads round how they might navigate the choppy waters ahead.
One: How are we Welsh?
A generation ago, insisting that an organisation or group of people needed to be authentically Welsh would have been a loaded statement. The economic history of the two-peninsula hinterland to which Brythonic Celts retreated a thousand years ago has meant that, more than most, our perception of national identity has clung to a sense of place, of belonging, and of lineage. Yma o Hyd, as Michael Sheen regularly shouts at us these days, encapsulates that limpet-like bloody-minded stubbornness which is a central feature of our national character, for better and worse.
The irony of Dafydd Iwan’s iconic words – We’re still here – currently being on everyone’s lips is that it comes at a time when Wales as a nation is at long last able to look to a tentatively optimistic future, rather than wistfully back to a golden age of a largely mythical past; to look outward to the wider world, rather than inward at ourselves. The Wales of today is a different nation to the one in which I grew up.
A glance at our current, historically successful, football team will tell you a lot about that. The way in which the younger players in particular seem effortlessly (although in actual fact with a lot of effort, leadership and serious understanding of Welsh culture behind the scenes) to embrace a modern, forward-looking sense of their own Cymreictod is instructive and inspiring. They appear to have a natural connection with the nation of people they represent, an affinity for the Welsh language, and an entirely modern lack of stigma in using it publicly and drawing from it as a source of gentle pride. And they also embody the ethnic diversity of modern Wales, without having had to view it as anything other than a definition of Welshness, and a channel to achieving the highest standards.
The fact that some traditionalist cynics, usually from elsewhere, remark that “they don’t look very Welsh to me” merely serves to underline the point: this, in fact, is what Wales looks like now. The football team’s diversity reflects modern Wales because it has grown organically from the grassroots of a present-day Wales which acknowledges and respects its cultural origins, but looks forward not back.
This question of diversity. Britain’s opera companies have strived over the last few years to right the long-standing wrongs of discrimination of all sorts in the industry. But as inspiring as it is to see a broader mix of ethnic backgrounds on our operatic stages, there’s sometimes something about it that doesn’t quite ring true.
Football, of course, is hardly without moral issues of its own; you’ll find plenty of discussion of those over the coming weeks. But when Ethan Ampadu or Brennan Johnson first joined the Wales squad, the manager to which they were contractually obliged to say “Yes boss” was a fellow Welshman from a mixed race background.
That’s a hugely significant difference from British opera, where the increasing diversity on stage is rarely, if ever, matched at management level. A Black singer walking through the stage door of any British opera company today still by and large has to kowtow to a white Casting Director, Artistic Director, Chief Executive Officer, sponsors and Chairman of the Board. In Britain now more than ever, opera singing is a blue-collar, low-paid job, and British singers remain very much towards the bottom of the food chain; until there is genuine change at the top, the industry remains quite legitimately vulnerable to charges of merely scratching the surface of this issue.
Furthermore, as keen as British opera companies are to prove their liberal credentials by importing a diverse array of overseas singers, their track record in how they treat their home-grown singers of Global Majority backgrounds leaves in many cases a lot to be desired. True and lasting reform grows from the roots, and manifests itself in positions of power, and consequently actions of genuine change.
To present one more footballing analogy, a young Black footballer from a non-privileged background growing up in Liverpool might look to Egyptian international Mo Salah as an inspiration; but how much more empowering in practical terms is the career path of a home-grown player like Trent Alexander-Arnold, if that boy dreams of making it as a professional footballer himself? That opera companies’ instinctive response to a call for increased diversity is to import it, implies a difficult truth about their degree of connection with the communities on their own doorsteps. Wise football clubs scour the globe for top players, but not at the expense of nurturing their home-grown talent. Opera companies should, must do likewise.
In the British opera world, there remains much work to be done.
But ah, I hear you cry, what of the socioeconomic barriers? Our aspiring Liverpudlian footballer could reach the professional ranks before even leaving school. But if he were a budding opera singer, a forbiddingly expensive series of educational barriers would still face him at the age of 18: several eye-wateringly expensive years at music college before he could even contemplate getting a toe on the professional ladder, and that after emerging well behind the eight-ball from a state school system in which education in music, drama and languages is now mostly an afterthought, at best.
In a recent interview, Sir Antonio Pappano made just such a point. How can a professional opera company embrace diversity when the musical education of the average British child is now so fatally underfunded and undervalued? Pappano copped some flak for making this point, and while you get where he was coming from, perhaps it was justified, in the sense that he is one of the few people in the UK industry in a position to do something radical about it. If the initial paucity and subsequent expense of the average education is a barrier, ultimately the only instigators for change can be the pipeline-end employers: the biggest of which is the opera house of which Pappano is currently Music Director.
British opera companies have for decades now been running young artists’ schemes of various descriptions. The Royal Opera’s is particularly well-run and independently funded. If the ROH seriously considers the current education system as the major barrier to diversity, they could make a seismic difference by adapting or expanding their own training scheme to be more inclusive for British youngsters, to bypass those barriers they claim stand in the way of their own company’s diversity.
Alright, let’s grasp the bull elephant in the room by the horns here: isn’t all this talk of nationaility and national identity dangerously exclusionary, pulling up the drawbridge, putting up ever more barriers between Britain and the rest of the world?
It surely doesn’t have to be. It only requires a fresh definition of national identity, of civic nationalism, rather than the ethnic version which swiftly fills any vacuum in its absence. To hear WNO’s erstwhile Music Director Carlo Rizzi give an interview with S4C in highly fluent Welsh is as powerful a statement as can be imagined of what a modern outward-looking Wales could be: open to all who choose to embrace it.
How is Irish National Opera Irish? The new company, coming at it more by chance than design but with a blank canvas nonetheless, draws on the wealth of its native resources, puts Ireland’s singers at the heart of what it does, and asks what best could be done with and by them? The resulting repertoire is eclectic and exciting. And quite clearly Irish. Next question.
There are signs, even as I write, that Welsh National Opera too is just beginning to grasp this and act on it. Good: let’s keep going.
British opera companies look enviously at “crossover” opera singers – how can they replicate the marketability of those artists, their connection with their audiences? Let’s cut to the chase: singing is about singers, and those audiences feel they know those singers as human beings. They know where they come from, how they got here, their story. They don’t feel an affinity with their “brand”: they’re fans. They feel they know them, they like them, they want to support them.
Singing is about singers. People don’t pay £300 to engage with Adele’s “brand”: they pay it to see and hear her. And while they may pay just as much to see the Rolling Stones, you can be pretty sure they damn well know who the lead singer is.
Opera’s unique selling point, its heart and soul, is about the power of the human voice. In its increasingly desperate search for new audiences, the industry too often tries to sell opera on the basis of what it isn’t, implicitly apologising, embarrassed about what it actually is. But any opera company which doesn’t have singing and singers as its heart and soul will sooner or later wither and die.
I’ve spent a long time talking about diversity, and that’s because I want there to be no ambiguity that what I’m about to say bears no relation to ethnic nationalism, to excluding anyone on ethnicity, parentage, background, birth or first language. But it is crucial that it is said, and said now.
In the British opera world, there remains much work to be done.
The rewards of that work are a place where a national opera company no longer needs to fight a rearguard action, make excuses, apologise for its failings; it can, by embracing the community it seeks to serve and from which it sprung in the first place, become part of the future rather than a relic of an increasingly embarrassing past.
In July 2020, in the depths of Covid lockdown, I wrote that British opera companies, in receipt of large chunks of the Government’s £2bn bailout fund, rather than batten down the hatches and mothball their offices, needed to think of ways in which British opera singers could be deployed, employed, and saved. Opera companies are not buildings: they are people.
Little has improved since then. Now, or never, what is left of Britain’s opera companies need, for their own survival, to back their British singers, and the young ones in particular. When I was their age, I flitted across Europe, building a multi-national career without even thinking twice about it. Through no fault of their own, the young British singers of today have had their right to do that taken from them.
So now they need their own country’s backing. Otherwise a generation from now, there won’t be any British singers to back. And more than likely, no opera companies either.
Now or never.
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