Brexit for Musicians: Passport to Nowhere

As the post-Brexit dust begins to settle, UK artists are lobbying for an EU-wide “musician’s passport”, allowing them to travel and work free of restrictions across Europe. It’s a lovely idea. But is it a realistic prospect?

Opinion seems divided over how this negotiation might take place. A petition to Parliament created by Tim Brennan has just passed 230,000 signatures, and asks the UK government “to negotiate a free cultural work permit that gives us visa free travel throughout the 27 EU states for music touring professionals, bands, musicians, artists, TV and sports celebrities that tour the EU to perform shows and events & Carnet exception for touring equipment.” Other parties have suggested approaching the EU directly in order to secure a similar arrangement, presumably as a unilateral gift.

Let’s take the latter suggestion first. Just as many Brexit supporters are guilty of mindlessly demonising the EU, those on the opposite side of the debate often make the equivalent error of portraying the European Union as some sort of benevolent all-powerful omnipresent entity. Let us appeal to this deity, that He may solve all our problems at a miraculous stroke.

The reality is quite different, and Remainers – correction / update, Rejoiners – have even less excuse than anyone else for overlooking it. The EU exists to further the interests of its member states. It has been very clear over the course of the Brexit negotiations that protecting the integrity of the Single Market is the EU’s overriding priority, and that the “Four Freedoms” – of goods, capital, services, and people – are indivisible as far as they’re concerned. When the UK decided that abolishing free movement of persons was a “red line” for them, the direct consequence of that was that none of the other freedoms would be available in its entirety either.

Furthermore, as far as I’m aware, no other third country has any such arrangement with the EU. It may come as a surprise that EU member states retain the right to negotiate work permit arrangements individually with nations outside the EU. Sovereign nations after all, it seems. While many third countries have agreements for visa-free entry to and movement throughout the Schengen area, if we’re asking for an open-ended EU-wide work permit, we are suggesting the EU extend its powers considerably, and persuade its members to accept an entirely new kind of arrangement, for the benefit of a country which is not exactly top of its Christmas card list.

We also need to appreciate that it would require the agreement of all 27 member states, and therefore to think about it from each point of view. It’s not clear what, for example, a Polish, Danish or Estonian musician would gain from having to compete with British artists for jobs in their countries, with no reciprocal access to the UK market.

I’m not saying that the EU wouldn’t agree to all of this, but it’s hard to see why they’d be inclined to go to the trouble without getting something in return. Otherwise it seems as much of a Utopian pipe-dream as the idea of “associate citizenship” of the EU for anyone in the UK who wants it. Lovely idea, but pie-in-the-sky unless any reciprocal benefit for EU citizens was included in the deal.

UPDATE: The Independent published an article a few minutes after I finalised this one, quoting “an EU source” who claims with regard to the Brexit negotiations, “It is usually in our agreements with third countries, that visas are not required for musicians. We tried to include it, but the UK said no.” It’s really not clear what was on offer here – the article goes on to claim that “countries as contrasting as the United States and Saudi Arabia enjoy a permit-free exemption for performers in their deals with the EU, which offers the arrangement as “standard”.” If they mean work permits, this is simply not true, as far as I can tell from several conversations with experienced non-EU artists. There are many countries which have arranged visa-free entry to and travel across the Schengen area; and then many countries within Schengen where work permits are not required for short-term contracts. But the two remain separate issues, and work permit arrangements are a matter for the individual member nations – and so, for example, possessing a German work permit does not give you the right to work in Spain, even when your Schengen visa allows you to travel there. As it stands, the article is confusing and requires clarification on several important points.

FURTHER UPDATE: The organisation Wales For Europe has posted a message from Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt with further details of the EU offer, helpfully pointing us to page 354 of the draft agreement published by the EU in March 2020. That draft text suggests that “the category of persons travelling for the purpose of carrying out a paid activity… should not cover… sportspersons or artists performing an activity on an ad-hoc basis”. The question remains whether the EU could have got that past every one of its member states without exceptions and opt-outs, and of which other trade agreements apply this “standard approach” – I’ve been asking around and still can’t find any, so please do get in touch if you have a verifiable example, particularly if you’re a musician from outside the EU who benefits from such an arrangement. But as it stands in the March text, it’s unarguably a generous offer. Verhofstadt goes on to claim that the UK then revisited the issue when services were being negotiated, with a counter-proposal which the EU in turn rejected, which seems to tally with the version of events presented by various UK ministers. Other than the predictable “our offer was better than yours” sniping, the accounts of both sides do seem to be essentially in agreement. In an interview this week with the Financial Times, chief negotiator Michel Barnier broadly reiterates the EU account of the negotiations, but also more significantly warns: “This agreement will not be renegotiated, it now needs to be implemented.”

The Incorporated Society of Musicians has very helpfully compiled a list of short-term EU work permit arrangements for UK musicians, which they’re aiming to keep updated as situations develop and clarify. Ultimately getting all this absolutely right is of course the responsibility of the contracted artist, but it’s a useful starting point at the very least: ISM EU work permit information. There’s a similar list for comparison provided by UK Europe Arts Work: UKEAW work permit information

This brings us to the other suggestion, of lobbying the UK government first. The quid pro quo would have to be to offer the same Freedom of Movement to EU artists in return. That might stand a better chance of providing the EU with the incentive to consider the proposition – presumably we’d be talking about something like a limited mutual right to work permit-free for up to 90 days across the EU/UK, which would certainly simplify life for touring musicians. (I presumed correctly – see further update paragraph above).

But again, a healthy dose of realism is in order. From the current UK government’s point of view, the abolition of Freedom of Movement to and from the UK for EU citizens, and vice versa, is not an unintended consequence of Brexit. In fact, it is for them the fundamental point of the whole process. Having spent years – and in some cases, decades – working towards this goal, and finally having achieved it, how likely are they then to give it up? We might argue that musicians are a special and limited case. But there are many other industries which could make a similar claim.

The politicians currently running the country have spent a long time building this particular wall. They have finally succeeded. I applaud the optimism of those now asking them to immediately remove one of the bricks, but at the very least we should appreciate the magnitude of what they’re asking the government to do.

If the object of this exercise is genuinely to persuade the government rather than merely howl into the wind, then it might be better to make the argument in their terms, not ours. They are keen to demonstrate that the UK is now an “independent, sovereign nation”. It’s not entirely clear what that means in practice. So why not provide them with a minimum-effort opportunity to put some meat on those very bare bones? France has recently unilaterally decided that UK artists will be allowed to work there permit-free for up to three months. The UK could reciprocate that arrangement for French artists here, and make it clear that the same was on offer to other countries on a case-by-case, bilateral basis.

That approach would also have the benefit, to UK artists, of potentially balancing up the individual arrangements. To consider the one pre-existing example, British and Irish workers have retained the reciprocal right to live and work in each other’s countries. Even with my Irish citizen’s hat on, there’s no question that the benefit to Irish musicians of this arrangement is currently greater, since the UK market is far larger. The one wafer-thin benefit of Brexit to UK musicians is that their EU counterparts will face some red-tape barriers when competing with them for UK jobs. At a time when British artists need those home jobs more than ever, they might take a moment to consider whether opening the UK back up to the EU in its entirety is really in their best interests right now. If they decide that it is, I congratulate them on their generosity – but they shouldn’t kid themselves that it’s all gain at no cost. The arrangement will have to work both ways if it is to work at all.

Come to think of it, bilateral talks would also have the advantage of not requiring UK and EU negotiators to lock horns again – after the last few months, they could hardly be blamed for being thoroughly sick of the sight of each other. In practice, sorting out the fine detail of aspects like reciprocal tax agreements with individual nations might be of more immediate and practical benefit to UK citizens working abroad. And without question, the most urgent issue for UK musicians in the short term is to sort out the chaos and confusion surrounding the new working arrangements, which is already causing problems for those travelling to Europe to work.

To be blunt, the campaign for an EU-wide passport has a strong sense of denial about it, of trying to turn back the clock for our little bubble and pretend Brexit never happened. There is no “full access to the Single Market”, as we have so often pointed out to Leave campaigners, short of full EU or EEA membership, which are off the table for the time being. While the genuine grief and mourning is entirely understandable, at some point we need to face up to where we are. The 2016 referendum will always have serious questions over its legal and constitutional legitimacy. But while we were denied the common-sense right to a further confirmatory referendum, we did have two General Elections where we could have reversed the result had we, as an electorate, chosen to make that our top priority. In England and Wales, we declined the opportunity, and we now have to live with the consequences of that collective decision.

In general there’s no love lost between UK artists and their government – there’s a gaping chasm in sentiment and world-view. But if British musicians are serious about making progress towards opening the EU market back up, they’ll now need to swallow hard and take a small step towards understanding the intellectual territory of hardcore Leave campaigners. Only by doing so will they come up with the proposals and language necessary to seize the government’s attention.

The alternative is to sit tight and grumble for a few years in the hope that the government’s mind-set, or the government itself, changes between now and the scheduled review of the Brexit agreement in 2024. I’m not sure most of us can afford to wait that long.


Paul Carey Jones’ new book based on his hit ‘Coronaclassical’ blog series is now available in paperback from Amazon sites worldwide – for more details and a link to your nearest international retailer visit: www.paulcareyjones.net/buy

On sale now worldwide

All content © Copyright 2021 Paul Carey Jones. All rights reserved.

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Coronaclassical 24: Into the Post-Covid World

Yesterday may have been the first day of the rest of our lives. A press release announced that the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine being developed by Pfizer is, on current data, more than 90% effective.

This is good news.

No one should make the mistake of thinking that this is where our current crisis finishes. In Hollywood rom-coms, weddings usually mark the end of the protagonists’ problems. So it is with vaccines in Hollywood pandemic movies. In real life, both herald the beginning of the real hard work.

Many questions remain over Pfizer’s vaccine – what exactly does 90% effective mean in practice, how easy will it be to distribute, how long will it take to get it out there widely enough to make a difference, how frequent and severe are the side-effects, can we persuade enough people to take it – and so on. This may not even be the most practically effective vaccine we end up using in the long run. And there remains the potential spectre of mutations to the virus which will send us effectively back to square one with vaccine development.

But let’s allow ourselves a moment to pause, breathe, and celebrate a little. It was quite conceivable that scientists might have come out at the end of their trials and told us that a vaccine wasn’t a realistic prospect. Whatever else happens next, that doesn’t seem to be the case. The first twilight before the dawn, whenever it may eventually come.

Without going into the logistical details, and the potential bumps in the road between now and the sunrise, it could still be a while yet. For the classical music industry, 2021 might even turn out to be stranger and more traumatic than 2020 in some ways. In an ideal world, the global distribution of any vaccine would be even, fair, and targeted first at the most vulnerable and those most in need.

In case anyone hadn’t noticed, we do not currently live in an ideal world. The chances are that the globe is about to get even more asymmetric, and inequality even more pronounced than before. Travel restrictions and border controls, for example between vaccinated and non-vaccinated regions, are likely to become a more familiar experience to us before they begin to fade. For the next twelve months or so, I would double down on my existing advice to opera casting directors: think local.

This should also be a stark wake-up call to anyone still publicly questioning the logic of strategies to contain and control the immediate impact of Covid. There can be no question now that we can get through this. We need financial help to sustain the artistic community through the rest of this brutal era. But the idea that we should sacrifice the health and lives of our audiences – many of whom, for classical music, are in the groups most at risk from this ugly, cruel, remorseless disease – in a rush to get back to full steam ahead a few months early must surely now be seen clearly for the reckless misreading of priorities it always has been. There’s a safe way of doing what we do, but theatres are dangerous places in many, many ways, and taking risks with the lives of those on both sides of the curtain should never be an option.

“This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” – Winston Churchill

If we can just hang on for a few short months we’re nearly there, and then we can come back all guns blazing, as it should be. What a day that will be.

Paul Carey Jones’ new book based on his hit ‘Coronaclassical’ blog series is now available in paperback from Amazon sites worldwide – for more details and a link to your nearest international retailer visit: www.paulcareyjones.net/buy

Giving It Away: Classical Music in Lockdown and other fairytales
ON SALE NOW
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Giving It Away: Classical Music in Lockdown and other fairytales

Eagle-eyed regular readers of this blog will have spotted that there’s considerably less material on here than there was a week or so ago. That’s been in anticipation of the launch today of The Book of the Blog:

Based on the last six months of Coronaclassical blog posts, with some additional new exclusive content too, the paperback version is available to order on Amazon right now in the UK, USA, Canada, Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Japan, priced at £7.99 or local currency equivalent. All international purchase links are now available on my website: www.paulcareyjones.net

While I was ill with Covid-19 in April, the Royal Society of Musicians were staunch allies, providing financial, medical, and moral support, making me feel remembered at a time when so many of us were feeling forgotten. It’s my pleasure to be able to pay them back in some small way: 50% of the author’s profits this year will go towards supporting their work.

Keep an eye out for the forthcoming release of the Kindle edition, which will be available in all the territories above as well as India, Mexico and Brazil. An audiobook edition will also be released in early 2021.

If you’ve been reading this blog religiously – I keep an eye on my stats and I know you’re out there – then you’ll be familiar with a lot of the material in this new book, although I hope you’ll still enjoy it in this new format. The support this blog has received over the last six months has been breathtaking at times – thank you all for your time, attention, loyalty and support. Any queries, glitch reports or feedback of any sort will be, as always, very welcome.

This thing caught us all unawares. Disney were preparing to launch their new subscription TV channel on March 24th in many European countries, including the UK, just as those countries headed into lockdown. Disney’s course of action was clear: they immediately stopped production on their new content, told the content creators they couldn’t afford to pay them and laid them off, put all their existing content online for free, and appealed to the public for donations to help them through the current crisis.

Just kidding. Obviously.

So where did I get that nonsensical example? Say hello, ladies and gentlemen, to the fairytale world of classical music.

Stranded in London when the Coronavirus pandemic hit, Welsh opera singer Paul Carey Jones began chronicling the voyage of the classical music industry through the perils – and opportunities – of a global pandemic. Based on his hit blog series Coronaclassical, this book is his lockdown story so far.”

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Coronaclassical 19: No Longer Viable

26th September 2020

I check my bank balance. I have to do it on an ATM because it’s 1998: the 24th of September, which was a Thursday. I know that for a fact, because pay day was always the last Thursday of the month. But this isn’t a pay day for me. It’s the first one I’ve missed.

I’d been working as a secondary school Physics teacher – in effect a job for life, with excellent prospects given the scarcity of graduates in the subject, especially in the Welsh language sector. But the lure of seeing where my singing hobby could take me if I applied myself to it full-time was too seductive to resist. It isn’t until that first missing paycheque that the reality of the leap I’ve taken hits home.

What have I done?

Last Thursday, as coincidence would have it the 24th of September 2020, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced his latest scheme for supporting the UK economy through the next stages of the continuing crisis, which, he explained, “means supporting people to be in viable jobs”. In a contrast to previous Rishigrams, the reaction from most of my self-employed colleagues was underwhelming, to say the least. Later that day the Conservative MP Anthony Browne told BBC Radio 4 that “I advise all musicians to get another job. There are many expanding sectors with job availability”.

Staring down the other end of a barrel which is precisely 22 years long. In a television interview about singing as a career I gave while still a student, I was asked where I saw myself in twenty years’ time. “Anywhere except on the dole”, flippant smart-arse twenty-something me answered. The quip has come back to haunt his middle-aged counterpart over the last six months.

If it was still unclear to anyone in the UK performing arts that this is going to be a long, hard struggle, with no guarantee of there being anything much left at the end of it, the penny must surely have dropped this last week. Wednesday’s announcement that the Metropolitan Opera in New York would remain closed until September 2021 at the earliest sent shock waves through the industry. The Met is the top of the food chain. Maybe it makes sense that the largest carnivores would find it hardest to dodge the meteorite, but the emotional crater was nonetheless huge.

Meanwhile, surely the smaller, more agile omnivores and herbivores should be better suited to survive? The accurate description of evolution is survival of the most adaptable, rather than the fittest, after all.

The problem with that analogy is that we’re facing the wiping out of an entire ecosystem, rather than the ultimately necessary culling of one or two weaker or obsolete species within it. Being a professional musician is a full-time job, even if the bit of it that looks like “work” is sporadic. There’s a delicate virtuous circle of performance, study, rest and practice that in the long run can’t be reconciled with the distraction of a second, unrelated career. There’s really no such thing as a “semi-professonal” musician, only amateurs and pros, and the distinction is not one of talent or knowledge or ability, but one of time and commitment. Once you disrupt that balance and interrupt the cycle, it becomes increasingly difficult to get it back.

In other words, if we send our musicians away to other jobs, most of them will not be returning. The leap into the precarious career of an artist is terrifying, and not one which most people would make at all, let alone twice. So once what we have in this country – our vast reservoir of immensely skilled artistic talent – is gone, it will be gone for good.

What can we do? Anger, criticism and lobbying has thus far been directed at the government and MPs. That’s a good starting point and, in a concrete and focused way, needs to continue; but taking on board three hard realities. Wider public support is mixed and lukewarm. Mr Browne’s attitude is probably quite typical of the modern breed of Tory – these are politicians who would take being labelled ultra-Darwinist as a compliment. And the government clearly feels it’s already done more than enough to help the arts.

Whether they’re right or wrong about the last point, it does raise the question of how the industry intends to help itself – in other words, what are the arts going to do to help artists? Brave pioneering and innovative one-off opera productions are a huge morale-booster, but ultimately the performing model needs to get back to something sustainable – near-capacity audiences on a wide scale – for the freelance operatic ecosystem to survive to any extent. Performances in Paris and other European cities are being held along what seem almost-normal lines, with a little social distancing, compulsory mask-wearing and so on. Surely the UK government can be persuaded to allow something similar; and, at the risk of turning into some sort of aerosolic Cato the Elder, surely the industry can make its case far more persuasive by funding some basic research into how safe it would be?

Opera companies must also think about how they can launch some lifeboats. Even in the face of prospective job losses, they should contemplate how at least a few artistic careers might be saved by moving away from the now-irrelevant brutality of a pure freelance system. What good is an arts industry without artists? Put a few freelancers on contract, even if only for the short term and on minimal wages, and they just might still be artists on the other side of this – and could provide some sorely-needed creative input in the meantime. Not all souls could be saved this way, but that’s no excuse for letting the whole crew drown.

The hardest hit by all of this are the young artists just starting out in their careers. If this is the end of the world as we know it, at least old lags like me have had our moment in the sun, however truncated. Young singers are being kneecapped before they’ve had any time to get going. During their training they’ll have been told to build up a contingency fund – it’s fair to say that very few people saw a pandemic coming, but singers lose voices, break limbs and so on, so a rainy-day back-up of a few months’ income is always judicious. But it takes a few years to build that up, and they haven’t had a chance.

Most of them will not want to follow the official advice and get another job, but many will have no alternative. The problem is that an alternative career, even as a contingency plan, makes its own immediate demands on your time and energy. A young singer might see this now as clearly a short-term stopgap. But as the months and perhaps years drag on, the ex-singer makes progress in their new career – our youngsters are generally a bright and versatile lot, and most would be an asset to any line of work – and they contemplate a return to an industry which is still struggling to revive itself, with singers paid less and singing given less of a priority even than before, that sense of clarity might fade.

What then for an industry model which has evolved to depend on a steady supply of (cheap) young talent? Where then for music colleges which have depended on being able to persuade young people that a viable career exists for them in a thriving classical music industry? Those singers with wealthy family or friends might make it through, but are we really content to stand idle and lose our traditional wealth of talent from less privileged, more diverse backgrounds? No one could blame any young artist for jumping ship right now, and no one who leaves the profession in 2020 should do so tinged with any sort of sense of failure: the failure is the industry’s, not theirs. And the loss would ultimately be ours, not theirs.

Once what we had is gone, it will be gone for good. This crisis is not going away. We need to think seriously about what we want to be left with at the end of it.

26.9.20


Paul Carey Jones’ recent book based on his hit ‘Coronaclassical’ blog series is available now in paperback, Kindle, audiobook and brand new hardback editions from Amazon sites worldwide. For more details and a link to your nearest retailer visit: www.paulcareyjones.net/buy

“A powerful traversal of life in the pandemic” – Mark Valencia, Opera Magazine

“His view is alert and complex, evaluating developments with a searching but sceptical eye.” – George Hall, BBC Music Magazine

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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

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.

6.7.2020


Carey Jones’ recent book based on his hit ‘Coronaclassical’ blog series is available now in paperback, Kindle, audiobook and brand new hardback editions from Amazon sites worldwide. For more details and a link to your nearest retailer visit: www.paulcareyjones.net/buy

“A powerful traversal of life in the pandemic” – Mark Valencia, Opera Magazine

“His view is alert and complex, evaluating developments with a searching but sceptical eye.” – George Hall, BBC Music Magazine

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Hire Car Top Trumps: Audi A4 Avant

This is an Audi A4 Avant TFSi: “T” because it’s got a turbo, “F” because – you know what, I have no idea. Letters on the back of cars are like the medals on the Duke of Edinburgh’s uniform: you assume he earned the first couple but at some point they just started lobbing them on there like kids’ sticky darts. “Avant” is Audisch for “Estate”, which I can’t explain either. Maybe it’s a comment about what eventually happens to members of the avant-garde, they end up driving business-grey German family estates.

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I hope you like this picture, for which I had to break several traffic laws. It was taken on the Afsluitsdijk, which is a 20-mile causeway between Friesland and North Holland, the building of which created a 1100 square-kilometre freshwater lake. The Dutch are really into that sort of thing, and you would be too if your entire country was below sea level. Along the Afsluitsdijk there are several points at which you can stop and buy a souvenir so that you can remember the great time you had staring at the vast grey nothingness of the North Sea and being unimaginably cold.

As you will already have noted, this car is a bit classier than usual, and its job was to drive me on a 900km audition round-trip. I could have kept the car from Budget for a couple of extra days, and if I’d had known it was going to be the Volvo I might well have, but on the other hand, as I explained before, it could have been a Hyundai. Of course you could turn up to an audition in a Hyundai, just as you could walk on stage dressed as Nick Slaughter from Tropical Heat, and when the casting director asks for your CV you could hand him a turd in a shoe box; but in these matters there’s could and there is should.

In other words this was some sort of attempt to give the impression of being a serious grown-up professional, and that’s exactly what this car is – it is serious and grown-up and professional.

The A4 is a modern design classic, neither frozen in time for fear of buggering it up like the Fiat 500 or the Mini, nor actually buggered up by misguided tinkering like the Honda Civic. Every update to the A4 has given it slightly pointier elbows and a slightly more furrowed brow, showing that its design team know exactly what the car is all about. It is serious and grown-up and it means business.

I will pull it up on two points. Firstly, the built-in sat nav is like having a Commodore 64 in the dashboard. It’s so horrible that I drove straight around the block and back to my front door to pick up my Tom Tom. Fine, you can switch it off but it’s odd to lumber half your dashboard with something so useless. Secondly, the stalk for Resume Cruise Control is right next to the stalk for FLASH THE DRIVER IN FRONT OF YOU LIKE AN ARSEHOLE IN AN AUDI, which might explain a lot about the reputation of Audi drivers, and certainly left me wishing I knew the hand signal for Es Tut Mir Leid.

Other than that everything about this car is good, the engine is good, the ride is good, the gearbox (Audi’s trademark superfluous 5th gear notwithstanding) is good, the interior is good, fuel economy is good, load carrying from Ikea is good. It’s all good. And it’s very very good at driving on motorways, and even better on Autobahns, where it will drive extremely fast with only the slightest raise of an eyebrow. In fact, after 900km not a single thing about it bugged me – I’m almost certain it’s the least annoying car I’ve ever driven.

The thing is, there’s that involuntary moment after you’ve been married for a while when a stunning woman in a crowd turns your head, and then on closer inspection you realise it’s your wife, and you know that if you were single you’d marry her all over again. If that sort of feeling is a factor in your choice of car, an Audi A4 Avant is never going to make your heart skip a beat when you catch its eye across a crowded room. But on the other hand, being the least annoying car ever as a basis for wedded bliss also has a lot to commend it.

Rented from: Sixt Den Haag
Country of origin: Deutschland
Country of use: The Netherlands / Deutschland

Year of manufacture: 2015
Year driven: 2016
Engine capacity: 1800cc turbo
Power: 88
Performance: 84
Handling: 74
Style: 72
Comfort: 81
Luggage: 87
Max passengers: 4
Drivetrain: FWD
VFM: 8/10

Written and originally published March 2016

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Coronaclassical 7: Living with Covid-19

Reproduced here is a series of Tweets I sent out on April 19th, soon after recovering from the main symptoms of Covid-19. Day 1 was March 30th – I’m now exactly two months in, and the symptoms have all cleared except for the shortness of breath, which reappeared a couple of weeks ago. Doctors seem to think that should improve slowly, although as they point out there’s no way of knowing for certain, since at this stage no-one in the world has had this disease for more than six months.

1. Since many of you have been asking – here’s a brief rundown of my experience of life with “mild” #COVID19. Firstly – I’m alive and feeling almost like myself for the first time in over 2 weeks. I just had a cup of coffee and it was great.

2. Because I avoided hospital and pneumonia, technically my case was mild. In reality, it was anything but. I’ve had shellfish poisoning a couple of times, and the closest analogy is that it was as bad as that, but in slow motion over a couple of weeks rather than a couple of days.

3. Days 1-3 were a mild cough. Day 4 I made chicken soup at lunchtime and then collapsed into bed just feeling hot and exhausted. Day 5 I perked up again.

4. Day 6 was when it really hit – a proper fever (38-39 degrees), extreme fatigue, cough deepening causing an inability to breathe properly.

5. Day 7 those symptoms worsened, and on Day 8 I was in trouble – my breathing had quickened and shallowed, the fever wouldn’t shift and I was alternating between shivering and sweating uncontrollably. Extreme fatigue and drowsiness, and almost complete loss of appetite.

6. My heartbeat was rapid and erratic, and blood oxygen levels getting towards dangerously low levels. I had a bag packed for hospital at this point.

7. I got some antibiotics for the cough – to cover any possible bacterial infection – via NHS-111. Hard to know whether they helped – I did seem to produce a bit of gunk once they kicked in, but the fever remained persistent.

8. Day 9 was a bit better and just enough to keep me out of hospital. I was still struggling with fever, extreme fatigue and drowsiness – sleeping 18-20 hours a day – diarrhoea, nausea, tingly skin, and more than anything with breathing – it felt impossible to get enough oxygen.

9. Day 10 – 14 were very similar, with the symptoms seeming to take it in turns to give me a proper going-over. As soon as one aspect improved, another would kick in. The impossibility of getting into a rhythm of being ill was one of the things which made it so exhausting.

10. At this point my partner was also down with Covid, and with two kids at home we were grateful for the stockpiling – and the emergency supply package from the amazing Melinda Hughes. 

11. Day 12 (Good Friday) I got seen by a GP at a special Covid hub centre – the effort of getting dressed and driving over there made me feel like I was going to collapse. But my oxygen levels seemed good – and improved with mild activity – and my chest sounded ok. Reassuring. 

12. I’d had a constant fever for over a week by now, and I was beginning to have trouble working out what was going on. I’ve been watching Breaking Bad, and kept waking up thinking the house was surrounded by police and worrying about where all my illicit dollars were stashed etc. 

13. From around Day 16 onwards things began slowly to pick up. The diarrhoea had eased, although my appetite was still non-existent, & there were periods where my temperature dropped to near-normal. I began to go for short walks around the block after dark, which felt like marathons.

14. That gradual improvement continued. This is now Day 21, and I’ve been more or less fever-free without paracetamol for three or four days now. My breathing feels almost normal, the cough is a lot better, and I’m only sleeping for 12 hours a day or so. 

15. So I’m almost feeling myself again. Hope that’s useful and answers a lot of your questions. 

16. Bear in mind, all this comes under “mild symptoms”. In reality it completely wiped me out for two weeks and more. Worth considering when we’re thinking about the practicalities of  lifting lockdowns etc.

17. PS advice re preparing for getting hit: do stockpile! Think about a week or two where you really can’t go out, how would you cope? Especially if you’ve got kids, pets, dependents etc.

18. You’ll need paracetamol – two weeks’ worth is 7 packs of 16. (Bear in mind you can only buy two packs of pain killers at a time.) Think about where you’re going to ride this out. You’ll need a lot of comfortable, loose clothing – because of fever sweats I was having to change clothes 2 or 3 times a day at some points. Get a desk fan.

19. You’ll also need lots of fluids – 2-3 litres a day, and you probably won’t feel like eating or drinking anything. Keep track of how much you’re drinking. Get a reliable thermometer and a blood oxygen monitor if you can.

20. Most importantly, do NOT get sucked into the nonsense of “battling” the illness, carrying on as normal, stiff upper lip and plough through it etc. This isn’t a war. Get yourself organised, cancel everything and go to bed. You fight a virus lying down.

21. For some context – because I avoided hospital I haven’t been tested, but my partner tested positive on Day 4 of my symptoms, so in my case we’re 99% certain.

22. I’m mid-40s and otherwise fit and healthy, and I do breath control for a living. Those breathing exercises really do help and I can’t see any harm in starting now if you can stand it.

I hope that proves useful to someone. If anyone has any further questions please don’t hesitate to drop me a line. Singers in particular may find this excellent article by Molly Noori of interest for further reading – the pattern of her symptoms is remarkably similar to mine: Can I Sing Yet? 


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

“Paul Carey Jones turns out to be an addictively brilliant writer” – Support Action

Details on how to order the paperback and Kindle editions worldwide are available at:www.paulcareyjones.net/buy

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Hire Car Top Trumps: Audi A1

When I was learning to drive in my mother’s 950cc Fiesta, there were four gears and life was a lot simpler. You knew where you stood with four gears. First was for starting off, second was for going slow, fourth was for going fast, and third was for getting from slow to fast. The best gear was third, because the most fun thing about driving isn’t going fast, it’s accelerating, by which I mean the Physics definition of accelerating, which includes going round corners. Which you did in third. The thing is, at the time, when you were in third, you always thought you wanted to be in fourth sometime very soon, so you never really appreciated third gear while you were in it.

At some point soon after that they made a fifth gear, which was sort of fine because you just got to fourth and then eventually remembered there was another one up and across and so that was fifth.

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This is an Audi A1 Sportback S-Line and it has six gears. On paper I thought this would be a good thing on the basis of more-is-more. In practice and with hindsight I think five is plenty if you’re not planning on driving at 100mph+. What six gears means is that whichever gear you’re in, it never feels like the right one – a feeling which is exacerbated by the car, like most modern cars, constantly nagging you about which gear it thinks you should be in. They should just admit what they’re up to and have Patricia Routledge do voice recordings of the whole range of carps. I took fourth as a test case and tried to find a speed at which Hyacinth was happy with me staying in this gear for more than fifty yards. I can report back that fourth gear on an Audi A1 is designed for going at a constant 43mph.

There is also an Audi thing called Drive Select (or that’s what the button said), which allows you to choose between two modes called ‘Dynamic’, which is fun but burns a lot of fuel, correction, which is fun because it burns a lot of fuel, and ‘Efficiency’, which is a lot cheaper but should really be called ‘950cc Fiesta emulator’. The point of shelling out for the sporty model is presumably that it’s more entertaining than the cheaper versions, an experience almost immediately ruined by having one’s inner Hyacinth querying whether we should really be burning this much petrol when there’s a perfectly good and much more economical alternative available at the press of a button.

In S-Line version the handling is very good, at the expense of having a ride quality which feels like when you used to go sledging but only had one sledge between three of you which your big brother would hog so you’d end up having to go down the solid-ice rock-studded sledge slope in a bin bag.

Also it had a built-in Sat Nav with the world’s stupidest route planner, meaning that when I was looking for the Celtic Manor I ended up in McDonald’s. Although perhaps that was just another manifestation of Efficiency mode.

So look, this car popped up on the Avis website as a guaranteed-model option (for an extra twenty quid or so) – that’s worth looking out for if you’re hiring and you like cars. I was quite excited at the prospect of having it for a weekend, and in the end if it wasn’t quite as much fun as I’d hoped then that’s probably my fault more than the car’s (including the fact that it turned out to be a colour which I’ve always reserved exclusively for my first Ferrari). And when I had to hand the keys back I was genuinely sad for a moment.

The thing is, if it came to buying one, I’m not sure who this car is for. If I had been born female I would have been called Jennifer, so my parents tell me. Jennifer Jones would have felt that the A1 Sportback is cute but not as stylish as a Fiat 500 or Mini, not as tidily efficient as a Polo, and not as much fun as one of those mental Fiestas like off the remake of The Sweeney.

As for male manifestations of current selves, what blokes, unless they’re undertakers or harpists, really want in a car is a boot. That’s because the boot is the automotive equivalent of the shed – it’s a place down the end of the thing where a bloke can put Stuff and forget about it for six months. Show me a man in a hatchback and I’ll show you a man who feels there’s something missing in his life but he can’t quite put his finger on it. Unless he owns a shed.

Rented from: Avis Birmingham Airport
Country of origin: Germany
Country of use: UK

Year of manufacture: 2015
Year driven: 2016
Engine capacity: 1400cc
Power: 77/100
Performance: 82/100
Handling: 88/100
Style: 75/100
Comfort: 46/100
Luggage: 60/100
Max passengers: 3
Drivetrain: FWD
Value For Money: 8/10

Written and originally published February 2016

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Coronaclassical 2: Giving It Away

24th April 2020

This thing caught us all unawares. Disney were preparing to launch their new subscription TV channel on March 24th in many European countries, including the UK, just as those countries headed into lockdown. Disney’s course of action was clear – they immediately stopped production on their new content, told the content creators they couldn’t afford to pay them and laid them off, put all their existing content online for free, and appealed to the public for donations to help them through the current crisis.

Just kidding. Obviously.

What Disney in fact did was to keep producing their new content, increased their marketing, and heavily promoted an attractive offer of around 12% off for early subscribers. Speaking anecdotally, it was more than enough to make me sign up, with the prospect of several weeks at home and a lot of spare time suddenly looming.

Disney already had a viable business model for home entertainment set up, and so they were well-placed to cash in on a newly captive audience. And it’s to mutual advantage: subscribers can stump up £5 a month or so, knowing that their contribution will lead to more of the content that they enjoy. It really doesn’t take much – one or two flagship shows in most cases. I’m happy that my contribution to Netflix will help finish Better Call Saul, and similarly with NOW TV and Westworld.

So where did I get that nonsensical example in paragraph one? Say hello, ladies and gentlemen, to the fairytale world of classical music.

I’m combining separate examples for dramatic effect of course, although there are a few companies who have reacted in pretty much all of these ways. Elements of this response are apparent across the industry – freelance artists have been instantly laid off with minimal or no compensation, the cap has been passed round to the usual long-suffering and endlessly generous supporters, and most bizarrely, vast archives of digital content have been put online for free.

Now, if we are to assume that the current crisis will last a matter of a few weeks, and that we’ll all be back to normal by the beginning of the autumn season, this approach might make some sense. With strong hints over the last few days from the UK and Scottish governments, Angela Merkel, Bill Gates and others, that realistically we need to think in terms of months and years rather than weeks – in other words, well into 2021 if not beyond – the penny should be beginning to drop that the wait to get back to “normal” may be a far longer one. There is even a non-negligible chance that this could be a permanent new “normal”.

For companies, a theatrical lockdown which reaches into next year means a long time to go without ticket income, or to rely on audience generosity with nothing to offer in return. For individual artists, it would take most of us beyond the period for which we had confirmed contracts, leaving us without even the support those might have offered, and truly out on a limb.

What then for an industry which has over the last few decades, rightly or wrongly, put all its eggs in the basket of live performance?

This business of releasing digital content free of charge was not without a certain logic, after all. The idea (I infer) was to treat it as a loss leader, to drum up interest (albeit often via a mechanism which was so vague that one suspected it didn’t necessarily exist in any genuine detail at all) in buying tickets for live performances – some of which might, with a bit of luck, turn out to be profitable.

But there was always a flaw in the reasoning here. A video recording of a live performance is, in itself, an artistic product, and there was really never any reason why, with some marketing legwork, a viable paying audience couldn’t have been built up for it over time. The era when people were used to getting movies and TV shows (as opposed to music – that’s a separate set of problems) online for nothing is very much over. If you’re not a Disney+ subscriber, and decide you want to watch Return of the Jedi on YouTube this evening, it’ll set you back £6.99. Would it really take much for classical music audiences to undergo the same paradigm shift? Almost all of the freelance artists we’re watching in those classical broadcasts are currently unemployed and trying to figure out how they’re going to survive the next couple of years. Most of them will not be being paid for these broadcasts, and many would have received next to nothing for them in the first place. Would it be too much to ask that we take the opportunity to invite current viewers to contribute to their livelihoods? In fact, had we already done the work to establish the principle of paying for getting classical music on your TV screen, this could have been a genuine boom time for the industry.

Let me give you a concrete example. My YouTube channel contains a song recital playlist, which I made at my own expense a couple of years ago and which, between the various tracks, now has over 10,000 views. While I make no comment on the singer’s performance, the quality of audio and video is high, and at, say, 49p a view I could not only make a decent profit, but more to the point have the financial capacity to produce similar content once or twice a year at least – even under the current restrictions on social distancing and so on. However, the reality is that my huge, and in many cases hugely subsidised, competitors have set the going rate for viewing online classical music content at precisely zero. So I make a loss, and viewers are denied the ongoing production of new high-quality content. It’s the artistic equivalent of burning fossil fuel. And as with the boar seller in Asterix and the Cauldron, everybody loses.

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This moment in history could be an opportunity to think about the most fundamental basis of how our industry works. Without going into the personal details of the Placido Domingo affair and similar recent scandals, a business which sets itself up such that it relies on huge corporate and individual donations, and therefore needs to give them in return, among other things, some special sort of privileged access to “stars” which it is then obliged to create and place in positions of unassailable power, has created an almost-inevitable problem for itself. We lean on subsidies so that a proportion of our tickets can be sold below cost price, allowing the entire industry to adopt a head-in-the-sand attitude to the fact that ours is an expensive product to make. At some point it’s surely not a moral outrage to ask those who consume it to pay for it. What might a truly egalitarian opera industry – where audiences are invited to make a grown-up decision to pay for what they’re getting – look like? 

And let’s think again about that expense. Our productions are expensive – but on the scale of television and cinema budgets, not impossibly so, especially if we begin to apply ourselves seriously to the idea of a potential global, at-home paying audience.

When we come to live theatrical performance, there’s no getting away from the challenges presented. If we’re honest, theatre was already approaching something of a watershed regarding audience expectations of mutually acceptable behaviour and how to share a space in the modern world. Will we need to rethink venues entirely – around a comfort-based individual experience, rather than cramming ‘em in? Will theatrical boxes make a serious comeback? Stuart Murphy’s latest brainstorm for ENO, touting the idea of drive-in opera, raises more questions than it answers. But at least it’s a sign that the industry may be willing to go back to first principles, which is surely the least the situation will demand – and this is not to mention how we might configure our singers and orchestra members at a safe distance from each other. Perhaps it’ll be like the post-AIDS porn industry, and we’ll need medical certificates before we can perform together without protection.

Let’s take the worst-case scenario, and say that the idea of staging a show in front of a live audience of thousands is a thing of the past. We’d all take a moment to mourn that loss. But as grown-up professional artists, our job is to imagine these scenarios, and prepare to meet these challenges. Opera and classical music on video has almost always been hamstrung by the limitations of pointing cameras at a stage, filming something with the pace and scale of theatre and concert hall rather than cinema or TV. It may be time to revisit seriously what we might be able to achieve by designing pieces from the ground up for screen rather than stage. 

Being restricted by the parameters of works designed for theatrical audiences two centuries ago is a choice we make, and other routes are available. If the ideal material to take advantage of a home broadcast format is limited or unavailable, we have a vast number of hugely talented composers, librettists, directors and designers who could produce it afresh. Acting styles might need to adapt, but they always have done in response to the dramatic tastes of the day. In addition, the quality of video and audio equipment people have at home is, in general, unrecognisably superior to what was available when these questions were first being addressed half a century ago. How do we make opera relevant to now? Making it now, for now, is always a good start.

This thing caught us all unawares. We’ve had a chance to grieve for the art that we’ve already lost. Take another moment to do so if you need it. But at some point we either choose to give up, or to get our thinking caps on and embrace this grimly terrifying, weird, and yet potentially wonderful new world, and ask whether it holds a place for those who seek to make viable, sustainable, profitable art. Are we up for it?

24.4.2020


Paul Carey Jones’ recent book based on his hit ‘Coronaclassical’ blog series is available now in paperback, Kindle, audiobook and brand new hardback editions from Amazon sites worldwide. For more details and a link to your nearest retailer visit: www.paulcareyjones.net/buy

“A powerful traversal of life in the pandemic” – Mark Valencia, Opera Magazine

“His view is alert and complex, evaluating developments with a searching but sceptical eye.” – George Hall, BBC Music Magazine

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Posted in Art, Cinema, Coronavirus, Music, Opera, Politics, Theatre | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments