Established arts organisations are baffled by reduction and removal of essential funding. Is opera in the UK at a crossroads or a dead end?
The Glyndebourne Tour was founded in 1968, with financial help from Arts Council England, and it had two aims: to bring first class opera productions to broad audiences around the country, and to foster and encourage emerging talents. In both cases it has succeeded triumphantly; with its affordable prices it has enabled so many people to enjoy this art form, and as for emerging talents, to say that the roster of present day stars who got their first stage experiences with the Tour is impressive, would be an understatement. For both these reasons, it seems inappropriate, to put it mildly, that its funding should now be entirely cut.
Stephen Langridge, the Artistic Director of Glyndebourne, says that “It is a huge blow to have to cancel our tour in 2023, which would have taken us to Liverpool, Canterbury, Norwich and Milton Keynes.” He also points out that the Tour is not just about staged opera productions but “…exciting opportunities for people to make music in those locations with Glyndebourne in their community. This would have seen hundreds of children singing with the Glyndebourne Chorus, workshops in care homes and chamber music recitals at universities.”
Most of the commentary on the present funding debacle focuses on the perversity of a cut in funding to an organisation which takes opera beyond the culturally privileged South East into the regions, given that the stated aim is to do precisely what Glyndebourne Tour has been doing for decades. This view perhaps assumes a greater understanding of what national touring means to the regions, and also, dare one say, a more nuanced appreciation of exactly what constitutes North and South.
It is indisputable that the very name of Glyndebourne summons up visions of rich people quaffing champagne and caviar, so for many people the removal of funding from any part of it seems to make sense. Those of us who are geographically privileged to frequent the place know very well that you’re just as likely to meet couples with Tesco sandwiches or Sainsbury’s Prosecco, and as for the price, seats may be had for less than it would cost to hear, say, Adele or attend a Premier League football match. For the Tour, a decent seat would set you back around £25, making it seem doubly perverse that it has been singled out. Glyndebourne itself has always subsidised the Tour – from the funding provided by those rich Bolly quaffers – but cannot cover the full cost of nationwide performances.
Part of the problem is that these decisions set group against group, with many wondering why they have been singled out for removal of funding: for example, it’s astonishing to the Britten Sinfonia that their funding has been cut, given that they are an organisation outside of London which serves a sparsely favoured region in cultural terms, yet the funding for the London based Chineke! has been set at £700,000. It would be facetious to suggest that names are influential – ‘Britten’ to some inspiring perhaps the same sort of sneer as ‘opera’ – but one is forced to look beyond artistic merit when allocations seem perverse. This is in no way to disparage the excellent Chineke! but simply to wonder why the allocation of funding seems not to follow any logical pattern.
“…to say that the roster of present day stars who got their first stage experiences with the Tour is impressive, would be an understatement”
It’s sometimes hard to avoid the idea that what the government would really like is to go over to the US model where the Arts are for the most part privately funded, so the perceptions of the issue take in both sides, the ‘right on’ and the very much not so. Obviously the Government awards the funding from the public purse but it is then up to ACE to distribute it; the current Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Michelle Donelan, has not been any more forthcoming than to say that the current policy, originally proposed by Nadine Dorries, will continue.
Many people have expressed the view that the reduction in funding for the English National Opera was similarly perverse, with howls of outrage from some quarters. As with Glyndebourne, the ENO has introduced generations to opera and been a part of our national life, but there have been reservations about its direction in recent years. However, the notion of diverting funds from its London base in order to establish a new one in Manchester is another decision which looks deliberately perverse, but is again much more likely to stem from lack of awareness of life outside London. It’s probably meant well – ‘Let’s give those in the miserable North a bit of culture’ – thank you, but we do have Opera North, you know, and it seems to have been forgotten that the BBC tried sending sections to Salford, with the result that many staff kicked up, refused to leave London and the corporation was stuck with funding hotels and travel.
So what is the solution to this funding crisis? Stephen Langridge is stoical, promising that Glyndebourne will continue to maintain its tradition of fostering new talent and opening opera up to new audiences, but of course this will be geographically limited. Is the future to be all online? For sure, we cannot rely upon a change of government, given the attitude of the present opposition to Brexit and its lack of passion when it comes to what one might call the nobler aspects of culture – one presumes too scared of frightening that all-important Red Wall.