The failure of Raymond Gubbay's commercial opera shows we need subsidyby Michael White / June 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
It was, according to the Evening Standard, “the biggest shake-up the subsidised arts have ever faced.” There were editorials in the Times and Guardian and items on the Today programme.
And what was this world-turning, cultural event? It was the launch of a small-time commercial opera company at the Savoy Theatre by the impresario Raymond Gubbay.
But in the end the world did not turn. And after only a few weeks, the Savoy Opera declared it would pack up in June because it was a business, ruled by the bottom line. And if you don’t get enough paying customers, you close. It happens all the time.
But the brief existence of the Savoy Opera leaves a lingering question about why the general press made such an issue of it (the arts press, by and large, knew better). Why was it thought so significant? And why were so many journalists falling over themselves to believe Gubbay’s own public relations about making art available to what the Standard trumpeted as “working men and women.”
The answer is that it was another opportunity to characterise the arts in general – and opera in particular – as a bastion of elitism, the preserve of grandees who expect their pleasures to be subsidised by the taxpayer, the working man and woman whom the Standard, when it suits, mythologises.
Gubbay’s shows allegedly don’t play to grandees. And they get no public subsidy. They are commercial, and he makes a virtue of it. In the past few years he has rarely missed an opportunity to proclaim that, given that he can put on opera without subsidy, why can’t everybody else? Why siphon vast amounts of public money into the coffers of the Royal Opera or ENO when practical men can roll their sleeves up, shove the stuff on at a fraction of the cost, with no call on the lottery or taxpayer, but with ticket prices everybody can afford? No fuss. No diamonds and tiaras. Easy peasy.
Writing as someone who loves opera, I can see, up to a point, the virtues of his argument. I don’t want opera to be diamonds and tiaras, playing to a ghetto of the rich. I want its marvels to be appreciated by the whole world. I’m an evangelist. And I want more, not less – which means I wasn’t hostile to the creation of Savoy Opera and do not…