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Arts Council England (ACE) appears determined to mark the hundredth anniversary of Franz Kafka’s death by upholding a series of maddening decisions about the future funding of opera.

The Prague-born writer, famed for his tales of profound human fears and insecurities, would have struggled to invent a scenario more bizarre than ACE’s strategy for the artform.

On the one hand, the national arts funding body is pressing the sector to broaden its reach, its relevance and the range of its ‘offer’; on the other, it has imposed draconian funding cuts on companies operating across the UK, often in places identified by the last government as priority areas for levelling-up investment. Those same cuts carry serious, career-defining, livelihood diminishing consequences for musicians.

Cuts at Welsh National Opera

Welsh National Opera (WNO) has been hit by the loss of 11.8% in core funding from the Arts Council of Wales, and a further 35% reduction in the money it receives from ACE to tour in England.

The company initially responded to the shortfall in its 2024-27 budget by removing Llandudno and Bristol from next year’s spring tour itinerary. It has since proposed that members of its orchestra should take a 15% pay cut and exchange full-time employment for a contract that comprises 45 weeks’ work a year.

The lowest salary paid to a WNO player would consequently fall below the £30,000 Tutti salary threshold established by the Musicians’ Union (MU) in its negotiations with the company in 2019.

A survey of players undertaken by WNO’s Orchestral Committee revealed that 86% of respondents were ‘strongly against’ accepting a reduced contract, with a further 11% stating that they were ‘against’ the proposal; all agreed that the cut to the number of working weeks would have a negative effect on the orchestra.

Six out of ten respondents stated that they were considering leaving WNO, while an alarming 40% reported that they were thinking about quitting the sector.

Over three-quarters of respondents felt that the proposed cuts would have ‘a significant impact on them’, adding to the pressures caused by their historically low salaries and the high cost of living.

The Musicians’ Union is currently balloting members of the orchestra for industrial action as it is felt there is no other way to highlight the extreme impact of the proposed cuts.

Fighting for full time contracts at English National Opera

Welsh National Opera’s musicians are not alone in having their working terms and future prospects undermined by funding-body spending decisions.

The chorus and orchestra of English National Opera have been profoundly affected by ACE’s ultimatum that the company would need to relocate from London to guarantee its long-term funding.

The Musicians’ Union, along with Equity and BECTU, has lobbied and negotiated hard to preserve as much work for ENO’s musicians and production staff as possible.

The MU team and activists are determined to see a return to full-time employment for the company’s orchestra with as much work as possible remaining at the Coliseum, ENO’s long-established home.

Government has not given ACE enough money to do what they need to do

Arts Council England’s budget reductions for opera companies in its national portfolio organisation (NPO) funding round for 2022-26, meanwhile, have seen a corresponding reduction in the number of places served by opera touring circuits, including the cancellation of Glyndebourne Touring Opera’s regular season.

While MU General Secretary Naomi Pohl welcomes ACE’s determination to see a more diverse and inclusive workforce and audience for opera, she believes the funder’s approach to realising meaningful change within the sector is fundamentally flawed.

“The main problem with Arts Council England is that the recent Government has not given them enough money to do what they need to do,” she observes. “And they’ve been given too much direct instruction. They’re supposed to be completely independent, working at arm’s length. But the impact of redistributing £24 million from London to other parts of England, as they were instructed to do in early 2022 by the then Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, was always obvious”.

You don’t improve diversity and inclusion in a sector by cutting funding and undermining decent jobs, pay and conditions. 

She adds, "It is also ironic that companies are being forced to reduce their output and particularly their touring when there’s been so much talk of levelling up and increasing access.”

‘Difficult choices’ have real-world consequences

The Musicians’ Union has been told by ACE that it was required to make ‘difficult choices’ because of its greatly reduced grant-in-aid budget from the Government.

Llinos Owen, a member of the Welsh National Opera Orchestra, notes how such choices have serious real-world consequences.

The bassoonist returned to her homeland after decades of study and professional work in England, latterly with the orchestra of Birmingham Royal Ballet. “I thought the chances of getting work in Wales were too much to hope for, given that there are only two full-time orchestras there,” she notes.

“I was so pleased to get a job that meant I could be closer to my family in Cardiff and live more of my social life in Welsh. And it was great to become a member of this world-class company. It’s bonkers for this to be put under threat by what seem like short-sighted, lazy and ideological public funding cuts.”

Llinos adds that she and her colleagues are considering their options, although precious few are likely to find like-for-like orchestral jobs elsewhere.

Some are looking to take on part-time delivery driving work, if the proposed 45-week contract is imposed on WNO’s musicians; others will be forced to quit the profession for good.

These funding decisions have a real impact on musicians’ lives. We’re ordinary people in high-skilled work.

"If we have to accept this contract, our Tutti string players will receive less than £30,000 a year. That’s not a fortune, especially in this cost-of-living crisis. This is an orchestra to treasure, not pull apart.”

The wider company, she adds, works across the community in Wales. Current examples include, among many others: projects touching people in three Welsh towns living with dementia; health and wellbeing projects in all seven NHS Wales health boards; a new community engagement project in Ely and Caerau with BAFTA award-winning actress Rakie Ayola; projects with refugees, and Three Letters, a project designed to raise awareness and tackle stigma surrounding HIV.

Cuts risk an exodus of experienced musicians

Welsh National Opera has called on its orchestra to make savings of £300,000 a year and its chorus to trim £150,000 from its annual budget.

Beyond risking an exodus of experienced musicians from the company, the cutbacks are sure to reduce freelance orchestral work at WNO and have knock-on consequences for the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, which draws from the same pool of local players as the nation’s opera company.

Llinos Owen notes how WNO’s reduced funding from ACE and the Arts Council of Wales threatens its status as a national company with a worldwide reputation for artistic excellence.

“We’re producing less for the public now and can’t even afford to tour to Llandudno this coming spring. We can no longer go to the only other main-scale venue in Wales outside Cardiff! And that comes after we stopped touring to Liverpool two years ago. I want the Welsh government and the Arts Council to ask themselves if this is what Wales and our audiences deserve.”

Let’s Create: Opera and Music Theatre Analysis, a report by ACE

The matter of opera audiences and their demography is explored in Let’s Create: Opera and Music Theatre Analysis, a 113-page document commissioned by ACE from policy, research and communication specialists DHA and the Audience Agency.

The report, published in March, surveyed the sector in fine detail, compiling data on everything from the geographical spread of opera and music theatre in England and Wales and the artform’s repertoire to current funding models, audience and workforce diversity, and the ‘contemporary relevance’ and ‘discoverability’ of opera to audiences old and new.

Repertoire report analysis

For all its valuable statistical work, the report displays a remarkable degree of unconscious bias against works from the distant past, no matter how popular or successful they are at the box office and the homogeneity of the audience for them.

The UK’s main operatic repertoire, it observes, depends on works ‘which are all over 100 years old’. Nobody could accuse Welsh National Opera, however, of lacking ambition in the repertoire-renewing department.

Within the past two years, the company has given the world premieres of Will Todd’s Migrations, Blaze of Glory!, a contemporary evocation of the culture of 1950s Welsh mining communities, and The Shoemaker, a collaborative work devised in partnership with refugees and asylum seekers in Cardiff.

It has also taken Play Opera to schools in Wales and England, staged Leonard Bernstein’s Candide (1956), Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar (2003), an Opera Favourites programme tailored to attracted newcomers to the artform, and a critically acclaimed run of Death in Venice (1973) - the Welsh premiere of Britten’s final opera, effectively shifting the repertoire balance for the period from 19th-century warhorses, in favour of 20th- and 21st-century works.

Let’s Create: Opera and Music Theatre Analysis reported that audiences for productions staged by regularly funded organisations ‘were less diverse than their local populations, with a range of 75% to 94% White audiences (compared to 82% in the England and Wales population as a whole, according to the 2021 Census)’, and that initiatives to develop and diversify the audience were being hampered by the artform’s perceived elitism.

Report conclusions

‘As a result of its limited engagement with the creation of new work, opera and music theatre may find it harder to make an argument for its continued evolution as a cultural practice,’ write authors Tamsin Cox and Oliver Mantell.

Their conclusion is ominous, given that the report’s findings were intended, in part, to help measure how opera companies are performing in line with ACE’s three Outcomes and the preordained Investment Principles governing its Let’s Create funding strategy for 2020-2030.

The report also raises concerns about terms such as ‘excellence’ and ‘quality’ and the hierarchy of values associated with them by opera professionals, and finds that the ‘relative narrowness of the mainstream repertoire’ stems from ‘the prevalence of classical music paradigms in opera and music theatre’.

In short, it suggests that a large part of the sector appears to be stuck in a monocultural time-warp, more concerned with the pursuit of excellence than the pursuit of new, more diverse audiences.

Working tirelessly to expand audience reach, despite cuts

Richard Davidson-Houston, Managing Director of Glyndebourne, tells the MU that he and his colleagues across the sector are working tirelessly to expand opera’s audience reach and have been for many years.

“We’re doing that not for political reasons but for practical, commercial reasons, to make sure that we’re creating pathways for people into the artform. We think that’s extremely important, and I’m sure the Arts Council would agree.”

Perhaps they would. Yet they also chose to reduce Glyndebourne’s annual funding from just over £1.65 million in 2023 to £800,000 for 2023-26, prompting the company to axe its tour. “The word I’d choose for that is ‘baffling’,” notes Richard.

“I’ve said before that [the cut] was either callous or inadvertent, and presume therefore that it must have been inadvertent.

It was entirely predictable and knowable that a 52% cut [to Glyndebourne’s funding], with not even a season’s notice, would result in the abandonment of the tour.

“It seems to me as a layperson, politically speaking, that the absence of inspiring performance at the very highest level from the regions is detrimental to the cultural experience of the people who live and work in those regions.

“It’s hard to understand and very sad, not only for the audiences but also for the venues and especially for the musicians, technical and production staff for whom work has been lost. Even if the institutions have the resilience to be able to adapt, individuals may not be able to do the same. That’s a very direct consequence of these [funding] decisions.”

Underfunding opera won’t deliver diversity or new repertoire

Naomi Pohl is adamant that underfunding opera companies is not going to deliver a more diverse workforce and audience or a flood of new repertoire.

“Welsh National Opera and English National Opera are focused on survival at the moment,” she comments. “They’re having to produce less because of funding cuts. They’re not funded well enough to do their core work, which affects our members and will have an impact on audiences.

“We’ve got to stay positive and take heart from the prospect of Labour winning the election and coming in with a culture team that’s passionate about the arts and music. Even if the money is not there on day one of a Labour government, the will to find it certainly will be.”

Photo ofAndrew Stewart
Thanks to

Andrew Stewart

Andrew Stewart writes about classical music. He is also co-author of the Boutiques trilogy and Suzanne Cooper: Paintings Under the Spare-Room Bed (Mainstone Press).

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