Last week I stumbled across a sketch for an article I wrote back in April, just after Ukrainian forces sunk the flagship of the Russian fleet. The general thrust of it was that, by rewriting the rules by which Arts Council England would decide their impending funding awards, then Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries had aimed a Neptune missile at London’s major opera companies, and they were every bit as much a sitting duck as the Moskva.
The decision by ACE not to renew English National Opera’s status as a National Portfolio Organisation has inevitably dominated recent headlines, for the same reason as a 10,000 ton missile cruiser being summarily dispatched to the bottom of the Black Sea did a few months ago. And whatever the failings of the Arts Council in this and other processes, ultimately there can be no question that the decision to scupper ENO was a direct and inevitable result of the Dorries edict that London’s overall NPO funding was to be cut by 15%. Particularly in the face of 11% inflation (and the rate has been far higher than that for many elements of theatrical costs for quite some time), the choice was to sink all the boats slowly, or one capital ship at a stroke. London has four hulking battleships: the National Theatre, Royal Opera House, South Bank Centre and ENO; so the odds for any of them were not promising.
But ENO’s predicament aside, taken as a whole there can be no doubt that ACE’s combined decisions constitute a frontal assault on the very idea of subsidised full-scale opera in England. Significant cuts have also been made to the funds awarded to ROH, Glyndebourne’s touring arm, and Welsh National Opera, which traditionally has received more than half its public funding via ACE for its touring work to English venues. And even Opera North’s increased award was a real-terms decrease.
ENO’s fate now lies in the hands of their Chief Executive Officer Stuart Murphy and his team, and supporters must hope that during his short career in opera he has rapidly developed a formidable set of political skills: if ENO is to be saved via public funding, it will require the threading of an extraordinarily fine needle. All the rest of us can do is offer them our support in sharing ENO’s petition, writing to our MPs, and crossing our fingers that Murphy’s Hail Mary pass somehow hits its target.
In some senses Welsh National Opera now finds itself in a similar position to ENO back in 2014, when its core annual funding was cut by £5m. The following year the company was placed into “special measures” by ACE, the latter effectively demanding a change of leadership and business model if public funding of ENO was to continue beyond 2017. Now is really not the time to unpick all the details of that, but you do get the impression that ENO has been in the crosshairs for quite some time; while this latest broadside unarguably comes as a shock, anyone who claims it was a surprise cannot have been paying attention.
Now that the rubicon of taking down a full-scale organisation on this scale at a few months’ notice has been crossed, what can WNO, or any other publicly-funded national opera company, do to avoid a similar fate?
The most important lesson to take on board is that the continuing existence of any taxpayer-funded organisation relies on public support. And for opera in particular, that cannot just be from those who work for or attend performances given by those companies.
ACE targeted ENO rather than, for example, the National Theatre, because for one thing the public outcry over the loss of the latter would have surely been far greater. The man on the street might not have seen Ian McKellen or Judi Dench or Patrick Stewart on one of the NT’s stages with his own eyes, but for the most part he probably has a positive feeling knowing that they, and it, are there. Opera has been in a relegation battle in terms of its public profile for several decades, so its task on this front is far harder. But somehow it has to manage it.
How does opera get the support of the man on the street? A man who perhaps has no interest in opera at all?
One of the ways in which opera companies have been tackling this task has been through their education and outreach work – and in fairness to various Arts Councils across the land, much of that development has been at their prompting. I’ve been involved in many of these projects over the years, and they are always inspiring and often potentially transformative.
But there’s a danger that comes with this approach alone, which is that it accepts the premise of that catch-all charge so often levelled at opera by its opponents: Elitism.
Is opera “elitist”? Have you stopped mugging pensioners yet? Some questions don’t have yes-or-no answers.
The more we try to disprove the charge of “elitism” – by education and outreach projects, by lowering ticket prices drastically beneath cost price, by parodying or playing up to cliches about the perceived nature of opera singers and singing – the more we are in danger of accepting that the charge had some basis in the first place. If the peripheral good that opera companies do is central to their justification for public funding, at some point it will be pointed out that the same work could be done far cheaper without there being a full-scale opera company tagged onto it. Somehow, opera needs to take a deep breath, be brave, and make the case for the art form itself as an absolute public good.
Part of that is accepting the falsity of a current operatic truism: that Opera Is For Everyone. Because it very obviously is not.
What do I mean by that? Well, opera is not, for example, for anyone who doesn’t like sung narrative drama. It is not for people who don’t like unamplified singing with vibrato. It is not, by and large, for people who don’t like sitting in theatres surrounded by other people. There are many perfectly valid reasons why someone might not like opera, and that’s perfectly fine – unless we try to justify its public funding with the insistence that everyone can, should, and bloody well will enjoy opera, whether they like it or not.
Don’t get me wrong: opera can be for anyone. But it is not for everyone.
The problem with insisting otherwise is that we then fall into the trap of audience-blaming. You didn’t like it? Well perhaps you didn’t do your homework, your education was lacking, you need to try harder to understand what you’re being served up, because opera is for everyone, don’t you know!
You can’t build a castle on bullshit. Opera is not for everyone, and that’s perfectly fine. But: 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?
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