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‘Whose Opera is it Anyway?’

Composer Howard Goodall unpicks Art Council England’s announcement that it will be redistributing £50 million of funding for the English National Opera outside of London and the south-east

‘Madam Butterfly’ performed by the English National Opera at the London Coliseum in 2016. Photo: Eric Chan/Alamy

Whose Opera is it Anyway?

Composer Howard Goodall unpicks Art Council England’s announcement that it will be redistributing £50 million of funding for the English National Opera outside of London and the south-east

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The apparently unexpected and – from a public relations standpoint if nothing else – clumsy announcement last week by Arts Council England that it is fulfilling the Government’s demand to ‘level up’ funding for arts organisations in the Midlands and the north by de-funding English National Opera (ENO) and other client companies in London and the south-east to the tune of a £50 million redistribution has not been its finest hour.

Bowing to ministerial pressure isn’t really how the Arts Council was intended to operate. If these cuts were going to be ‘painful’ for its board to administer, why didn’t it tell the Secretary of State who ordered the redistribution that such a demand was not in the spirit of an ‘arm’s length approach to arts funding’ and resign rather than do her bidding?

If saving £50 million in the capital is required to help under-represented areas of the country, why did the Vote Leave Government waste £120 million on the ‘Festival of Brexit’ – an amount that could have doubled help to regional arts at a stroke and not caused massive disruption and multiple job losses in the capital at the same time? 

All countries create creative hubs of excellence and abundance in their capital cities, in part to attract visitors from overseas. Why damage that in-bound tourism at a time when it is a sector already in deep trouble, post-pandemic, post-Brexit?

Does the ill-thought-through ‘levelling up’ mantra take into account that overseas visitors will be much less likely to visit Halifax, Hull or Howarth as their first port of call in England but that they well might visit them as part of a trip that begins in London?

Do proponents of this policy really think that reducing London’s lure for tourists will increase visitors to other parts of the country?

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Even those who travel from beyond our shores to see the RSC at Shakespeare’s home in Stratford-on-Avon generally include it in an itinerary that involves London. The RSC’s work is seen by millions of people in London who might not have made the journey to the Midlands to see it in Stratford.

The reduction of funding to the capital ignores another reality – that its audiences are derived from many visitors from within the UK and its leading arts companies tour to those other regions as well. 

‘Levelling up’ feels like a policy in need of some better thinking and strategy, not just a mish-mash of tabloidy spite towards the kind of people – creatively-speaking – who make world-class entertainment in the capital.

When Britain was in the EU Single Market, London became a cultural hub for the entire continent – with a ‘domestic’ talent pool and market of 400 million people. The huge benefits we once enjoyed for our capital city, and the economic rewards earned for the whole country, have been stripped away by our withdrawal from the EU. Is the idea now that London should be yet further diminished as some kind of petty revenge for not welcoming the destructive deadhand of Brexit?

It’s for others to defend the Arts Council’s decision and to make good on its stated aim that the expulsion of the ENO from the West End to a city that wasn’t even consulted on whether it wanted to host another opera company is all about ‘rethinking opera’ for the future. I wonder though what I’d do to reboot an English opera company based in London or anywhere else, if it were up to me. Here goes.

I’d start with a big question: what would the form need? What might the ENO offer to audiences that isn’t currently available elsewhere and which might actually propel the concept of sung theatre forwards?

Some would say that they have been re-visiting operas with fresh eyes, so to speak, for decades, in translation, commissioning new ones and bringing to the UK co-productions that would struggle to find a home in any of our other big music theatre houses. All this is true, even if performing in English is nowadays not quite the big win that it was before surtitles made all opera, everywhere, intelligible, including sometimes even operas in English.

Personally I much prefer the Coliseum as a communal experience, seeing opera with the kind of audience you might expect to sit next to on the Tube, but let’s say you don’t care either way about all those trappings that infuriate some and delight others, and you simply want to see musical theatre brilliantly executed. What isn’t being offered at the moment that could be? What sung theatre is having an almighty struggle to get to you, the audience, which at the moment is stuck behind a firewall? What is that firewall? 

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It’s modern musical theatre – musicals – that are being written and produced prolifically across our country but can only afford to be seen in tiny fringe theatres, with pared-to-the-bone sets, bands and casts, performed by people with outstanding talents who are either doing it for nothing or being paid less than the minimum wage to do so.

It’s musicals that aren’t necessarily glitzy and foot-tapping, which don’t rely on songs you already know or pop stars in the credit list to get an audience. It’s musicals that challenge and thrill and move in many ways, some unorthodox and experimental, some sincere, earthy or deeply personal, and do so, at the moment, with modest resources and little hope of reaching wider audiences.

This is why you don’t know the creators and pieces I’m referring to – not because they aren’t going to show you a contemporary sung theatre experience that you’d love every bit as much as the ENO reviving Gilbert & Sullivan or bringing Philip Glass to us from Houston. Getting a new musical on, these days, is an Everest of all-but-insurmountable barriers. This is the first firewall.

Regional theatres find them prohibitively expensive to mount, though do from time to time take enormous risk so to do, and often require commercial producing partners to help them, with the hope of a future life of the show being something they can develop and even one day profit from, if they’re lucky.

Commercial producers, even the most philanthropically-minded, are bound to favour those new musical projects that have something familiar already embedded in their DNA in the hope of attracting big audiences – whether the property carries a big name with it either side of the footlights, or it’s a well-loved film being adapted, or its ‘score’ is comprised of a back-catalogue of already-popular songs, and so on. This is the second firewall.

I don’t blame commercial producers for minimising their risk, it’s just that minimising risk means minimising the type of show, the type of story, the type of musical genre, the type of voice to be heard that might flow down that river towards an audience. 

The model already exists in spoken drama. Every playhouse in the land believes it is its job to nurture, develop and take risks on the performance of new plays – whoever they’re by, whatever their provenance – for the sheer artistic endeavour of it. Some of these new plays come and go but some, very occasionally, hit the jackpot. War Horse at the National Theatre is an example. The crucial thing, though, is that putting on a new play for the sake of putting on a new play is what every artistic director of every theatre thinks is an important part of their job. That the new play doesn’t necessarily turn into the commercial success of War Horse doesn’t lead them to conclude ‘oh, well we’ll give up this new play business’. 

New musicals are not treated this way in our theatre world. New musicals, by and large, are commissioned and produced with the express hope of making money at the box office, getting a national tour or West End hit out of it, or – even better – the ultimate jackpot of Broadway for the very select few. This is as true for subsidised theatres as it is for commercial producers. I do know producers who have put on new musicals simply because they believe in the quality of the work, and they are brave and admirable when they do so. But the ecosystem of our theatre makes this no one’s actual job and no organisation’s actual reason to exist.

So what I’d do is turn the ENO into MTE (Musical Theatre England) and I’d make its reason to exist to bring before audiences new pieces of musical theatre that it has cherished and polished – some newly written, some re-interpretations of prior repertoire, some that might call themselves ‘musicals’, some that might call themselves ‘operas’. But, either way, they would be pieces that currently have no other natural home.

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The building would exist to let the form dictate the content. I have mainly written musicals in my career but I have learned so much along the way from the techniques and musical riches of opera. In an ideal world, these two close relatives would co-habit the space, as would its performers and writers.

All those musical theatre writers currently working with a borrowed electric piano and a pal on cello would have an orchestra and a chorus at their disposal. Just think what they might conjure up with these resources or what they might learn from hearing how Handel balances his voices in an acoustic space.

Opera composers might be asked to adopt the concepts of the rewrite and the edit with the resigned aplomb that their counterparts in musicals do. Just think how much sooner you’d be on the train home. The choice of repertoire would be an artistic one – not whether it could one day transfer to Broadway and pay back its investment. That’s the whole point of subsidy, isn’t it? To enable something to happen that couldn’t, on its own, reach an audience, at least not until it has found them, and maybe delighted them, and it can sail off under its own steam thereafter?

I know, it’s a crazy pipedream. I know the Coliseum’s almost certainly too big in its current, Grade II Listed state for this kind of work to flourish. I imagine there are countless wonderful pieces already written that the current management of the ENO would love to do, and can’t, never mind developing brand new pieces of our time. The whole endeavour is a tightrope balance between heritage and the future, and audience members often identify with one more than the other.

Let’s remind ourselves, though, that opera began back in the sunset embers of the 16th Century in Italy with a small group of people imagining what a form of sung theatre incorporating dance would be like. It didn’t exist so they tried to create it. Within just 50 years, there were hundreds of purpose-built opera houses in Italian cities. The (new) form dictated what these buildings needed to be, look like, sound like, and to whom they were reaching out.

Sometimes you just have to ask the question: what if?

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