Late last week, Glyndebourne announced it was stopping touring following drastic cuts to Arts Council England funding. The reaction of Richard Davidson-Houston, managing director of the East Sussex company, highlighted the idiocy of ACE’s decision.
“These cuts were partly justified by the need to redirect public funds to support culture in the regions. In this context, the decision to cut Glyndebourne’s funding by 50 per cent seems contradictory as it has the immediate, inevitable and predictable consequence of making our tour financially unsustainable.”
The irony is obvious: the ACE’s mission to raise the bar has led England to a dearth of access to high-quality opera. The Glyndebourne Tour began in 1968 under the aegis of company founder George Christie and continues to serve regions with little fanfare – this year it traveled to Liverpool, Norwich, Milton Keynes and Canterbury.
The tour was a way for the world-class musicality associated with the main festival to be brought to the rest of the country. As star soprano Danielle de Niese (who is married to Executive Chairman Gus Christie) notes, “George aimed to spread joy and bring opera to everyone, regardless of their socio-economic background or geography, and seeing how that is received is horrible.
“After the tour, only Opera North, a year-round Leeds-based company that takes its repertoire to various cities in the North and East Midlands, and Welsh National Opera, whose funding for visiting English cities has been cut by 35 per cent by ACE (already announced that they will no longer go to Liverpool) as English companies are able to offer full-length productions to a regional audience.
Admittedly, there are several smaller tour companies, such as English Touring Opera. Sarah Playfair, who has worked in high-profile opera for over 50 years, is full of praise for the ETO, which she describes as “smaller scale but very bold”, yet there is no doubt that what you get from touring like Glyndebourne is “the real thrill of a full orchestra, full production as originally intended.”
Playfair has been here before. As administrator of the Glyndebourne Touring Opera for ten years, she was faced with the withdrawal of Art Council funding in 1993, and she tells me she made about 40 appeals to the public asking them to write to the Arts Council. On Christmas Eve of that year, the ACE called her to say she had won. What changed?
“The politics in those days was completely different – the understanding of classical culture and art was much greater than it is today. People really cared.”
Since then, the ACE has been busy focusing on audience differentiation across all art forms – but has shown little interest in nurturing excellence in those art forms. His latest funding announcement is characterized by a massive jump in the number of organizations funded – 276 added (bringing the total to 990) – and cutbacks to older music-making organizations (and indeed other top-level arts).
While the benefits of touring in terms of accessibility are perhaps obvious, touring is also critical to the country’s opera ecosystem. This is where young singers who have graduated from our great conservatories – the Royal Academy, the Royal College of Music and the Guildhall – polish their professional teeth. Great talent will already be performing at a level too sophisticated to sing for the small number of opera “grassroots” organizations that the ACE recently funded in its latest announcement – they need full-scale productions that ensure larger tours.
As de Niese says of the Glyndebourne tour, “It’s a place where young singers with little experience can debut, and they do so in an environment of excellence. Critics will come to tour as well, and so will a lot of people from the industry, so all the eyes of the world will be on you. It’s a huge exposure.”
Certainly the Glyndebourne Tour is in shape when it comes to spotting star potential. Playfair recalls how baritone Simon Keenlyside had the opportunity to play his first Don Giovanni on tour in the early 1990s.
So where will the talents go? There was a lot of talk (if the visa situation allows it) about the draining of talent from Europe. Playfair admits that: “If you are at the highest level, you can get into the opera studio in Munich, a few went to Valencia and a select few went to the Dutch National Opera Studio in Amsterdam, as well as other European young artist programs. De Niese talks about Fest, which operates in Germany, Austria and Switzerland and offers a two-year fixed-term contract where you are a salaried employee, but warns: “There are no infinite positions. A UK graduate may need more experience before he or she is ready for a place like Munich. That’s where the Glyndebourne Tour was so important.”
Not only for singers, the end of the Glyndebourne Tour is a punch in the stomach. It also has its own orchestra (formed in 1990) for the fall season, meaning now many talented musicians have been deprived of part of their yearly livelihood.
It should be noted that our cousins in France, Italy, Germany and Spain never tour because opera is so firmly embedded in many of their cities. There are 80 different opera houses in Germany alone. The tour is therefore a unique British experience when it comes to opera.
It is also very costly. Richard Mantle, CEO of Opera North, talks about rising costs, huge diesel-powered trailers and “needing refueling in the face of rising petrol prices”. Added to this are “living costs – we don’t put our company in hotels, it finds accommodation itself – and rail costs, which are linked to inflation.”
There is also work. “If you’re in repertoire, you have to change the scenery every night and you’re working on a 24-hour clock. It’s an expensive art form. There is a live orchestra of 50 or 60 people and a choir of up to 40 people. It’s very different from staging a play with six people.”
Those who carve that opera should be able to wash their face will sadly always do so because it is such an expensive art form that simply cannot be moved from the page to the stage without a grant, be it private or public. Ticket prices cannot cover the cost of paying for singers, staging and orchestras in-house, and state support is needed to survive if costs are to be sufficiently controlled to be affordable to the wider population. Otherwise, the masterpieces of Wagner, Verdi and others become unperformable, at least within the framework where their performers have steady, secure jobs that can provide a reliable enough income to make working in opera a viable career choice.
There is also the point of Glyndebourne staff that tour companies bring community involvement to the regions they visit, from workshops to performances for schools, as well as working with smaller production teams. ENO, the biggest victim of the ACE’s changes when it comes to opera, is partnering with companies like Streetwise, a company dedicated to homeless opera singers, to expand the field of the art. As big fish are affected, fish also suffer, even if funding for fish has not been cut.
ACE’s cuts to opera hit its ability to thrive in this country so clearly that it’s hard to believe that ACE head Nicholas Serota and his policy makers understood the art form’s structure. When I contacted the organization for comment, a spokesperson replied:
“It was our most competitive round to date and we had to make some tough decisions; we have a support package available to organizations that we offer reduced levels of funding to help them adapt. In this round, we have increased investment in small and medium scale opera tours by funding organizations such as English Touring Opera and OperaUpClose, and opera will continue to receive 40 per cent of our overall investment in music.
“In total, under the new portfolio, nearly 1,000 organizations will receive a share of £446 million each year, creating a fairer distribution of cultural investment across a wider range of works across the country, to the benefit of more people.”
“I don’t envy their position,” says de Niese, “but it’s never too late for people to reconsider, and there’s no greater deed than being humble enough to say, ‘we’ve gone this way, we understand how people feel about this. think and we learned more about it. I pray the ACE will say we need to set up funds differently so we don’t cut off the blood supply to the main organs of the company.”