Private sector commercial musicals, such as Chicago, thrive while public sector opera is in crisis. But the latter has a lot in common with the formerby Herb Greer / January 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Oy gevalt, the Brits! Where else but on this island would an ex-minister moan in print about snobbery excluding him from the crush bar and the cold chicken at the opera? Thus Gerald Kaufman in the Spectator inadvertently cast a cloud over that devastating report on Covent Garden spending. As an American enjoying Covent Garden, I am afraid the drink and the snacks and the occasional hooray Henry in the crush bar pass me by; it is the (usually excellent) music and dance that matter. Reading Kaufman’s moan, I could not help but wonder if the committee’s criticism was poisoned by residual class resentment or even plain envy. But class war aside, does the report have a case?
During the interval of the private sector musical Chicago I brooded on that fuss over public money. Here I was, watching a brilliant (if cynically smug and self-satisfied) piece of musical theatre, mounted without tax help, playing to full houses and booked months ahead. It was enjoyable, but no more than, say, Glyndebourne Opera’s The Makropulos Case which I had seen in Sussex and on tour, or their delightful La Comte Ory. Both shows matched Chicago in polish and entertainment value.
The cost of staging a West End musical may add up to millions of pounds (not counting running costs) all of it met by risk-investors who can, with a successful show, get their money back with a profit. It is a curious paradox that opera-which is also musical theatre, and can fill large houses-does not raise money in the same way. Opera’s production costs seldom match those of a big West End musical; yet its subsidies run into many millions, with no question of risk-or of profit. The money is simply spent, gone where the woodbine twineth, and for what? Entertainment.
There seems no rational explanation as to why opera cannot also function on risk capital, unless it is a conviction that-as “high culture” provided on tap-it should not be subject to risk. Grand musical shows (what else are they?) in the public sector complete their runs regardless of ticket sales, and justify their expense on a notional demiurgic necessity for something called “art” and “culture.” If most of the population do not get to see the product, they still benefit (notionally) from the general elevation of the national soul.
Paradoxically, much of opera’s appeal (and what sets it apart from a show like Chicago) is that it is not really supposed to be “popular,” but something more lofty on the cultural scale. This supposition is extremely arguable to anyone who knows, say, the operas of Rossini. Mozart’s The Magic Flute for instance, was composed and performed in the Viennese Singspiel tradition, as no more than a commercial musical. These examples can be multiplied. Is opera really just another form of musical theatre, like Chicago, but clouded over with a mystique which-like that of the royal family-dissipates when exposed to the light of day?
In London, maybe; but elsewhere the mystique survives. New York’s Metropolitan Opera manages on tax-deductible subsidy from the rich; Glyndebourne also operates in Sussex without the benefit of any Arts Council dosh. Its tour does share costs with the public, but the taxpayer’s tariff is far below the elephantine expenses of the big subsidised companies in London. A production at Glyndebourne does not break the million-pound barrier before opening night.
Glyndebourne flourishes in the big international league of high culture. If it can do that without the exchequer’s boost, why not London companies? Even allowing for higher costs in the big city and longer seasons, subsidy for those houses is still disproportionate when compared to the contributions of Glyndebourne’s corporate backers (which are not tax-deductible).
As sold-out productions have shown, opera can bring in punters, and fill large houses as generously as any West End musical. It is stunningly obvious that a good operatic production can still be a good show: as exciting, as amusing, as attractive, and as accessible as any musical on the West End stage. Considering this-and I speak from experience-is it sane to believe that operatic musical theatre will vanish from London if the supply of public money is cut off? Even if it may remain a primarily beau monde diversion, the example of Glyndebourne suggests that this will not happen. Certainly the opera company as a kind of quasi-civil service sinecure might disappear, but might this government not find it rather attractive to encourage tax-deductible private backing instead? It could also help to resurrect the popular appeal of many shows that were, like Chicago, originally designed to please as large a public as possible.