A Funny Thing Happened to me as I left the Opera

First published in Canvas: 19th Feburary 2013

On the 8th February 2013, the Welsh National Opera (WNO) opened a new version of Lulu. Set in 1930s Vienna, the plot follows a femme fatale who, like a female Don Juan, works her way through every man in Viennese high society, often with fatal results. A lavish production masterminded by the WNO artistic director David Pountney, its ambition is underpinned by more than £10 million pounds of government funding in the current financial year.

It is a remarkable turnaround for the WNO, which almost went out of business in July 1990 due to lack of funds,[1]and on the occasion of its opening night, Pountney was particularly forthright in his belief that opera was a vital component of British culture. “The arts are a signal of our civilisation, the arts are the school of the imagination in society, and a society without imagination is a really terrible thing…and part of that is expressed in the fact that we bring beauty, we bring cultural ideas, we bring philosophical ideas, we bring music into our being, into our existence as a society. And that’s what makes us civilised. And if we don’t do that, then we risk turning back into animals.”[2]

Of all the publicly funded arts, opera is the most controversial. Long standing debates have raged regarding the status of opera funding and whether this should continue, particularly at times when other arts institutions face cuts in public spending. The premiere of Lulu, for example, comes only three weeks after it was reported that the Arts Council of England (ACE) stated it was considering a shakeup of opera funding in England after the English National Opera (ENO) posted a loss of more than £2 million. The ENO is the first national company to have fallen into debt since the economic downturn. In 2011-12, the company, which operates the Coliseum, filled only 71% of its seats. At the same time, the ACE grant was reduced by £1.3 million to £17 million. Opera accounts for 11% of ACE’s total investment, which is seen by detractors as overly large, and not enough by those who argue that opera is an expensive investment.[3]

At its nadir in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the opera sector was in disarray, with the two major opera houses in London – the English National Opera (ENO) and the Royal Opera House (ROH) – frequently encountering funding problems. In particular the ROH faced massive tabloid pressure during its £200 million pound refurbishment, whilst the ENO has frequently applied for, and received, emergency grants from the Arts Council to plug holes in its budget.[4] With a work force of 341 – a 62 piece orchestra and 41 piece choruses – the ENO has large fixed costs, and has received rescue packages in 2003 and 2007.

The issue is further complicated by the public perception of opera. Unlike theatre, which was always open to the lower classes – even in the days of Shakespeare – the opera has always been considered as a more refined and elite institution. To some extent, this label has stuck. Conservative MP Sir George Young will forever be remembered for his statement that the poor were “those people you step over when leaving the Opera”. In the mid 1990s, Labour MP Gerald Kaufman fought to bring more accountability into the spending of public funds for opera, and that the Royal Opera House was a club where you were made to feel an unwelcome outsider.[5] “I have stood at the bar at Gorton Working Men’s Club and argued the case,” he wrote in 1998 “for state support for the arts to constituents who complain that their smoking underwrites the privileged pleasures of toffee-nosed opera -goers.” [6]

There are voices who believe that the lack of acceptance for opera is due to the London centrism of arts funding. In March 2012 Colin Tweedy, the vice-president of Arts and Business, a charity run by the Prince of Wales, called for a radical re-think of the arts sector, which was dominated by a “London-centric, middle-class elite” which failed the rest of the population. The issue was complex – 81 percent of all private philanthropy was London based, with three quarters of that going to 25 institutions. Of £658 million in private investment in 2010-11, £488 million of that went to London. “The arts,” stated Tweedy, “must remain relevant to the people with we want to transform our communities. We need to address the fact that the majority of British people are not able to go to the National Theatre or the Royal Opera House.”[7]

Attempts are being made to try and strip opera of its elitist image. A partnership with the BBC has led to the ROH holding open open-air screenings to mass audiences, and Facebook and Twitter have helped them reach out to younger audiences.[8]  And in February 2013, the Arts Council appropriated individual grants of £125,000 for arts organisations to create digital projects such as mobile applications.[9]

In spite of this progress, there are persistent voices who believe that the public funding of opera and other arts should be suspended, in order that a high quality of funding is maintained. Michael Prowse, an American economics correspondent at The Times, has been a particularly vociferous, but atypical example, in that he believes that the removing of arts subsidies would not damage the arts because subsidies are a recent innovation. If a piece of art was not of high enough quality to be purchased voluntarily without subsidies, then its absence would not be missed.

The fact that people have become more affluent means that a greater number of rich patrons are able to pay for more art to be displayed, therefore making subsidies unnecessary.  “For most of human history painters, composers, and writers were either supported by individual patrons or produced for “the market….It is notoriously difficult to judge the quality of the art of one’s own period…Yet it still seems likely that the second half of the 20thcentury will be rated a barren period for the arts. It is not a coincidence that this half century saw the mushrooming of arts subsidies.”[10]

A more recent expression of this view was provided by Simon Heffer of The Daily Telegraph in 2012. In a time of “economic stringency,” he claimed, it was too much to expect the state to keep arts projects funded at the levels they had been, and that more community based projects, produced by a mixture of private individuals and corporations, rather than an extension of the welfare state. “The stat is not the only body at whom the begging bowl can be directed, and it whatever these organisations are producing is of real merit and worth they will, like the London Philharmonic Orchestra, find patrons in the private sector who are willing to support them and link the reputation of their brands with that of the organisation.”[11]

The issue, Heffer concluded, was also one of quality control. Though the Arts Council and the British Film Council were responsible for some good works, they were also responsible for “unutterable rubbish” made to fill cultural quotas rather than encourage quality. Elitist beliefs such as this were echoed in the announcement of ENO’s latest financial set-back. ”Overshadowing the debate,” Michael Volpe, the general manager of Opera Holland Park stated “is the question over opera’s popularity and the continuing attempts by major houses to prove it so. I differ quite virulently with the idea of distorting opera or attempting to render it ‘down wiv da kids’ because I think it makes us look scared of what we do. Nothing wrong with adventure either, but don’t always believe your own publicity, and giving people a chance to see opera need not require expensive, hip commissions.”

Comments like this are at the heart of the problem. Opera has been tied to notions of ‘high-court’ civility for so many centuries that it is a nigh-on impossible task to make it attractive to the wider public without upsetting many of the figures who are in control of opera, and the rich patrons who consume it. Related to the broader issue of arts funding in general, an over-wrought commitment to ‘quality’ art has often shielded the benefits of arts projects in bringing people together in an expression of humanity. An opera production, like any other medium, might be of inferior quality, but try telling that to the cast and musicians who have put their heart and soul into a production.

Perhaps the problem is simply that opera is hard to understand, given that the classical repertoire is almost wholly in Italian, and that musical theatre provides a more accessible form of entertainment.  Famous English language operas such as George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and John Adam’s Nixon in China both faced uphill struggles to gain acceptance among opera goers, who dismiss musicals such as Le Miserable’s andJesus Christ Superstar as inferior distillations of a purer musical form.

There is a huge market for music theatre in the UK, and yet it is clear that until the operatic world rids itself of it snobbery, then it will continue to suffer financially.


[1] Welsh National Opera given extra funds” Financial Times (London, England) –
Friday, February 1, 1991

[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-21384560

[3]http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2013/jan/16/arts-council-opera-eno-loss

[4] More trouble at the opera, The Independent (London, England) – Thursday, June 12, 1997

[5] http://www.timeout.com/london/things-to-do/make-london-better-take-opera-off-the-toffs

[6] Philistines are good for the arts, The Times (London, England) – Saturday, January 17, 1998

[7] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/we-cant-all-go-to-the-royal-opera-house-funding-is-too-londoncentric-says-arts-chief-7584907.html

[8] http://www.forbes.com/2009/05/19/opera-house-funding-markets-faces-arts.html

[9] http://www.thestage.co.uk/news/2013/02/arts-groups-given-funding-for-digital-projects/

[10] Shakespeare didn’t need a subsidy: America Financial Times (London, England) –
Monday, June 12, 1995

[11] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/simonheffer/8499571/The-arts-can-survive-and-thrive-without-public-money.html

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