Opera – what’s the point?

Tough times at English National Opera. Those with an interest in the subject will have no doubt already have followed the news emerging of the current dispute between chorus and management. In case you’ve missed it, the details are here:

The Guardian – English National Opera singers to vote on strike action

Opera is a business which seems to be permanently in crisis. That’s a most-probably inevitable consequence of an art form which, if not designed explicitly to be loss-making, was certainly never conceived with the aim of making a profit on its own terms. ENO is just the latest company to hit a financial crunch point.

Plenty of singers have already pitched in with excellent arguments against cuts to (in this instance) the permanent chorus, and I wholeheartedly agree with almost all of the points which have been made. It does seem to me that the moment at which the battle for full-time opera companies, with a permanent body of singers, instrumentalists and other artistic staff, should have been fought was a whole generation ago, when UK companies first started doing away with their company principals, replacing them with a mixture of freelance guest artists and youngsters on various flavours of limited-term Young Artist contracts. Easy as it is to point out in hindsight, when we all chose not to insist on the importance of permanent contracts for one group of artists, we made it far harder – if not ultimately impossible – to win the battle whenever we eventually chose to draw a line in the sand, be that for choruses, orchestras or whichever other group happens to wander across the line of fire at the wrong moment. As things stand, we have ended up in a war where we are destined to spend the foreseeable future fighting a dispiriting rearguard action.

In the long run, if we are ever to win the broader argument in favour of the continued existence of publicly-subsidised opera companies, in whatever form, we cannot do so by solely preaching to those who attend performances. We can assume that they will not take much persuading to take our side (and if not then we’re truly stuffed). The arguments we really need are those which are pitched at the vast majority of taxpayers who have never attended an opera and most likely never will. As they might quite reasonably ask, what benefit do they gain from seeing tens of millions of pounds of their taxes go towards covering the losses of an industry which they will never use?

These are harder questions to answer, but we must resist the temptation to avoid addressing them. The answers do exist, and unless we’re brave enough to provide them we risk the perception that our only argument is that the world owes us and our chums a living.

Before I go any further, let’s briefly nail one very common contradiction in some of the arguments against opera funding. If what is putting people off opera is that the ticket prices are too high, this is an argument for increasing subsidy, not decreasing or abolishing it – it’s subsidy which keeps ticket prices as low as they are. So you can A) argue that attending opera is too expensive, or you can B) argue that opera shouldn’t be subsidised by the taxpayer; but you can’t argue B because of A. The lazy logical inconsistency of this argument rears its head again and again, and can’t be challenged too often.

Now, let me offer three arguments that can be put forward in favour of subsidised opera companies to those who don’t use them.

Who are we?

A national opera company can be a vital part of what defines a nation. This can simply be a case of national pride in the ability to produce world-class productions, but it can, and should, also run much deeper than that. For me, there’s an added frisson watching an opera by Britten or Purcell or Gilbert and Sullivan at ENO, just as there is in seeing Aida in Verona, or (in a different sense) Don Giovanni in Prague. Scottish Opera, to give one example from my recent work, has quietly been tapping into this – in spite of a limited number of main stage productions, they’ve stuck their neck out with recent productions of contemporary pieces by James Macmillan and Stuart MacRae, amongst others – Scottish composers whose operatic works might well not exist without the support of their national company. At a time when most countries are having some sort of existential conversation about what it is that defines them as a nation, a national opera company can provide crucial practical contributions to those discussions. There are operas which are, in various ways, identifiably British, English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh, and are part of what those terms actually mean; and we hope there are many more to come. Perhaps there’s a sense in which many companies, in a search for ‘international’ status, lost touch with the communities and nations from which they originally grew, and the re-examination of those roots is a vital part of establishing their present-day value.

Where are we?

A properly-funded national opera company can take performances to areas and venues of their country at a level which is not feasible for other companies. I’ve been involved over the years with projects in Northern Ireland and Scotland which have done just this, and the sense of contribution to the life and existence of a community is palpable. In some senses it’s unglamorous and thankless work for a company to undertake, since for better or worse most media coverage of opera is focused on performances in capital cities and other large metropolitan areas. But as a way of binding some of the most remote areas of a country into the cultural life of the nation as a whole, it’s vital work, and you don’t have to be someone who attends opera yourself to value the importance of that.

Who do they think we are?

There’s an ambassadorial aspect of the work done by any successful national opera company. I was in Bolzano recently with Welsh National Opera’s production of Lulu, and almost daily I would be asked “Where are you from?” or just as frequently “So you are English?”. To be able to reply “I’m from Wales, just like this show” was something that not only gave me immense personal pride, but far more importantly also I hope raised awareness of our very existence as a nation, and one that produces world-class examples of a global art form. Whether or not we in the UK value it as much as we should, there’s no doubt that opera retains the highest cultural importance in many nations – not only the traditional homes of opera in Europe, but increasingly in the Far East, in South America and many other regions of the world, where the interest in Western classical music – and specifically British opera too – is growing annually. The level of expertise and enthusiasm in China, in particular, has to be seen to be believed. At a time when that is the case, do we really want to continue dismantling one of our best ways of building bridges to the world?

Lulu Bang.png

Fighting the usual rearguard action.

It’s never much fun for artists to be obliged to make these arguments again and again, merely to justify our existence. It would be a far better use of time and resources if we could all just concentrate on producing our work to the very highest standards, and to let that speak for itself, safe in the knowledge that its value was appreciated. But as Stirling Moss once put it, the moment you take a penny of the public’s money, you forego the right to complain about the public feeling they have a right to your time. Most of us would far rather be, and are far better at, doing that by performing – but if we have to make the case in other ways, let’s keep doing so. Our strength ultimately lies in our knowledge and belief that what we do, the art we produce, is of vital importance. If we’re right about that, then it’s a battle we might one day win.

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About Paul Carey Jones

Paul Carey Jones is a Welsh opera singer. He should be writing about the current state of the classical music business but might well digress into science, politics, football or cheese. He has recently started a series of irregular posts along the broad theme of "Things they don't teach you at music college." Any suggestions or requests on this theme will be treated with feigned or genuine interest. You can contact him via comments here or at: mail@paulcareyjones.com
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