6th July 2020
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.
Based on his hit blog series ‘Coronaclassical’, Paul Carey Jones’ lockdown diaries are now on sale via Amazon sites worldwide, and make the perfect Christmas gift for anyone with an interest in the world of opera and classical music. 50% of the author’s profits in 2020 will go to support the work of the Royal Society of Musicians.
“Something good to come out of lockdown.” – John Suchet
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