Each year the UK's major opera companies receive around £65m of taxpayer's money, from a total government arts budget of around £1.1bnby Michael Bywater, Anna Picard / July 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
© Cameron Millar, George Miller & Roger Goodgrove/rex/shutterstock Should we stop subsidising Opera? It’s an appealing proposition whether or not you go to the opera. If you do, there comes that moment when you look around the audience and think “Dear God let me not be one of them.” And if you don’t, you’d reasonably think “Rich snobs; they have so much money, so why should they get mine too?” It seems simple. But it’s not. Let me deconstruct it a bit. “Should” surely implies a moral imperative. But what sort of morality? Social? Aesthetic? Political? Or just an animal gut instinct, bile and spite and tooth and claw? All of them, I suspect. Socially, the opera audience is there to display its culture. It disdains the demotic mood of the times. Aesthetically, opera is on thin ice, too, shimmering between the crass and the sublime. No other art-form can, as in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier in the scene of the rose presentation, turn two people into the quintessence of erotic desire. But it comes at the price of a hefty dollop of vulgarity and slop. Political? Our egalitarian polity loathes the sleek men who buy the tickets, softening up clients or other men’s wives. There is no knock on the door that makes them feel sick. They don’t know where to find Poundland or the benefit office. “Subsidising?” We’re confining ourselves, I think, to public money, distributed openly and accountably. And finally: “opera.” It’s the most expensive and highest-status public performing art, and makes no secret of it on either side of the proscenium. So it comes down to this: opera is a wasteful, socially-divisive big-ticket festival for rich people to show off to each other and look down on the rest of us, so should we stop giving them a hand they don’t need from public funds which are scarce (and going to get a lot scarcer)? Yes, of course. Anna Picard writes for the Times and is a regular contributor to BBC Radio Three. Is the proposition really that complex? I don’t think so. But it does depend where you choose to look. These sleek men at Glyndebourne, softening up other people’s wives? Some are there to impress—though the hot tickets now for wooing clients are sporting events. Some will be at Rosenkavalier because the opera is just something they do a couple of times a year, like going to church at Christmas. But some will be there for the same reasons as the people you haven’t been looking at: the ones in the circle, amphitheatre and gods, the ones with standing tickets. Look up. They aren’t sleek. But they are important to the opera companies because they are there all year round, for new productions and revivals, as well as student shows and fringe shows in pubs and warehouses. They have perfectly ordinary jobs. They plan their diaries around performance schedules, ticket reductions, rare works or favourite singers, conductors or directors, and they tend to know more about opera than most opera critics. Take subsidy away and they will still turn up, just less often. But there won’t be any more to replace them when they die, because the opportunities that they, you and I had won’t be there. And if opera is to become a private, exclusive entertainment, as it was for its first five decades, what we’ll hear and see won’t be Rosenkavalier, it’ll be Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, where the opera is timed to slot in between dinner and fireworks. Michael Bywater is a writer and critic, currently engaged in writing a musical. Not an opera. Fireworks! Given the chance, I love the occasion, the crush bar, the sleekness, the idea that I too may be sleek for an evening. Unsurprisingly, I simultaneously feel uneasy when I think of its being subsidised with money grifted from a public who have no interest and no say. *In the cheap seats, though, where I usually am, I tell myself I have the upper hand. The nobs in the posh seats aren’t excited. They take it as their due. As you say, opera demonstrates power and position—desirable because it is expensive and rationed—and a little status inversion in the gods settles a fragment of that debt. But debt or not, the compulsory funding bothers me. You argue that without it, future generations won’t get the chance to find out for themselves. I disagree. I found opera with my eyes shut, on my own, in my room: Sophie’s silver-and-rose accord, Orfeo’s apotheosis, Brünnhilde’s ravens and a thousand other wonders. Lights off. Headphones on. The same as a live production? No. But the music is the skeleton, the core, the soul. When something astonishing happens in a production, it’s because someone’s found something in the music. Subsidy corrals this process, measuring things which therefore appear important because they can be measured. Subsidy believes in a social mission for art, as if it is good for you even if you don’t like it. In big-ticket items like opera, subsidy promotes a subtle conservatism, the orchestra stalls being notoriously risk-averse in art. But art cannot thrive within the constipated apparatus of a spreadsheet. So I suggest: not subsidy, but a gift. Flatter the benefactor if you will, but—like Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks—no strings. No strings, perhaps, at the Royal Fireworks premiere (in 1749), but there were three deaths, two maimings, near disaster when a pavilion caught fire, a bill of £14,500, and, of course, rain. You’re not alone in wanting to be alone with the music, headphones on, enjoying a private, rather than communal, experience. Most people’s first exposure to opera is courtesy of BBC Radio Three, and if that’s not subsidy in action, with a Reithian moral agenda, I don’t know what is. Contrary to your assertion, subsidy liberates opera. Between the United States and the continent, we are in a position to compare non-subsidised and (by British standards) generously subsidised opera. Broadly speaking, North America favours opera à la Franco Zeffirelli: a lavish, unnatural naturalism with big voices, big sets, big costume budgets. Look to Germany and you’ll see something very different. Yes, the grey room and the fluorescent strip lighting of Regietheater has become its own cliché, but the best of these productions chip away at artifice and accreted performance traditions. They can take risks because the public purse supports them. Sometimes they pay off. Sometimes not. And if prices are kept low, as they are in Germany, then the audience can develop its own tastes. Without subsidy, the art becomes coloratura in crinolines. Consider how open people are to contemporary art—because they can access it cheaply and easily. No one goes to one film, dislikes it and says “I don’t like cinema.” Opera, which is theatre plus concert, should be the same, but to achieve that it needs financial support. As to the moral imperative, yes, I do believe that opera, at its best, can improve, just as great literature can: it can make us think about power. Yes, the Music for the Royal Fireworks had it all. State subsidy, to demonstrate “the happy Re-establishment of Commerce under the best of Kings.” Private subsidy, for profit, from the manager of Vauxhall Gardens. Public enthusiasm: 12,000 turning up, causing a three-hour traffic jam at Vauxhall Bridge. The hubris, the catastrophe and the sheer money might remind us of the Athenian theatre of fifth century BC. All the elements of opera are there: music, dance, peril, love, choruses, duets, soliloquies, justice, catastrophe, redemption. And, again, everyone came: 15,000, all crammed into the steeply-raked theatre, and, of course, subsidised. Subsidy is as old as art itself. Re-playing different interpretations in my mind’s ear from the score is free, and private; but, crucially, I can only do it because I was taught how and that teaching was subsidised. In public art the bigger the production, the bigger the subsidy, the less the chance of its being self-funding. So if we fund it, what return should, and could, we expect? I missed the crucial word of the question at the beginning of our exchange. It was “we.” What sort of “we”? What values does this “we” hold, outside the purely financial? Do we base public support purely on financial return, or on the way the arts can free, challenge, move, and nourish people to be more alive and aware? These questions need to be decided long before any “we” can say, yes, we should subsidise opera because art is an essential of the civilised society we wish to be, or, no, bugger the nobs, give us bread and circuses and we’ll keep quiet. But, grievously, the answer, in our current dodgy polity, which knows only money and financial return, is still, sadly: “Yes. We should stop.” Yes, it is possible to coerce an audience of 12,000, 15,000 or several hundred thousand. With sufficient political power you can make people listen to anything, even Wagner’s Rienzi, and silence work that is felt to be subversive or degenerate. I know it’s cheap to use examples from totalitarian regimes in a debate about the funding of opera in a democracy. But your example of Athens seems too remote when our concept of subsidy is based on the work of an organisation we now call the Arts Council that was, like the NHS, created to build a more civilised life after the Second World War. Its original name was the Committee for Encouragement of Music and Arts, established in 1940. It’s such a genteel word, “encouragement,” though it accorded extraordinary power to the taste-makers who decided what art is supported. We were lucky that they were so well educated. That “encouragement,” played out in schools, festivals, theatres and on the radio, is what gave you and me the tools to listen to music and understand it. And with music, art and drama, the three disciplines essential to opera, now increasingly sidelined in schools, there is more pressure on opera companies to focus on education. Happily even Glyndebourne, the grand-daddy of unsubsidised opera, does this. When you give children the tools to understand opera, you are educating the artists and audience of the future. I want to return to the audience in the cheap seats, the unsleek faithful. Without them we’re sunk. Without them the singers, instrumentalists, directors, designers, composers and librettists are, if not redundant, dependent on the whims of the plutocrats—many of whom give generously to challenging work, some of whom just want high-end bread and exclusive circuses. You can’t measure the impact of opera in purely economic terms. It is a small part of Britain’s creative economy. But post-empire, post-industry, post-crash, and post-referendum, it’s as much a part of our cultural character as theatre, art, film, television, literature. Look at Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring (1947). That’s us, with our petty snobbery and awkward rituals. Look at Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face (1995). That’s us too, with our secret vices and our suffocating class system. Look at Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, re-animated by Philip Venables as an opera just this year. That’s us, with our derelict asylums and care in the community. Listen to “Fairest Isle,” from Henry Purcell’s King Arthur (1691). That’s what we’d like to be.