Opera is not elitist | Alexandra Wilson
Jhe recent reallocation of arts funding announced by Arts Council England is strongly touted as good news. More money, the body says, will be spent on bringing the art to different parts of the country, ending an alleged southern metropolitan bias. This seemingly laudable ambition does not stand up to scrutiny. Among the organizations that are to lose their funding are Psappha, a Manchester-based ensemble bringing new music to North West audiencesand the Britten Sinfonia, an orchestra serving the East of England – hardly a region brimming with cultural investment.
The ax fell particularly on the opera. Again, the “race to the top” logic makes no sense. The Welsh National Opera, which will lose a third of its funding, is touring venues from Southampton to Llandudno. Glamorous Glyndebourne might seem like an obvious target, except the summer festival receives no public funding and the cuts will fall on the company’s touring outfit, which offers more affordable operas in Milton Keynes, Canterbury, Norwich and Liverpool. One can’t help but wonder if the decision-makers at ACE are rather uninformed about what these arts organizations are actually doing.
In the case of English National Opera, the news is not just bad but catastrophic, with the entire £12.6 million annual grant from the society gone. A one-time sum of £17million over three years has been offered to facilitate the relocation north, but the pill remains extremely bitter for ENO’s choir, orchestra and administrative staff. and spectators. Manchester has been mooted as ENO’s new home. Questions have ask if a feasibility study has indeed been carried out, especially as Greater Manchester already receives regular visits from Opera North, a company that was itself originally an offshoot of ENO.
ENO’s current operation brings operas at reasonable prices throughout the year to countless millions of people in London, the South East and beyond. Where can this large and by no means privileged audience go now, if it wants to see an opera? Probably not in Covent Garden, whose brand of “international” opera is a whole other beastand whose auditorium could never accommodate the extra numbers of the Coliseum, London’s largest theatre.
ACE should do everything they can to fight for ENO
Since the decisions of the CAE defy all logic, it is tempting to conclude they are underpinned by something else: concerns about the supposed “elitism” of classical music”. The word elitism became a buzzword in the 1980s. By the 1990s it had become firmly attached to opera and nowadays the words ‘elitism’ and ‘opera’ have become almost synonymous. As revealed by my research on the history of the stereotype, the notion of “elitism” is a construct, constantly recycled by the media, but with little basis in fact. There has been a long and rich history of popular opera in this country – we happen to have forgot about it. ENO embodies this story of “opera for the people”. In the 1920s, philanthropist Lilian Baylis began staging an opera house at the Old Vic to benefit the poor in south London. A decade later, she founded Sadler’s Wells in Islington and successfully attracted the working classes of North London. This company transferred its operations to the Coliseum in 1968 and later renamed itself ENO.
The daily mirror rejoiced that the move would “give more people the opportunity to see good opera” and the company’s general manager, Stephen Arlen, wrote that he hoped to attract carpenters and car mechanics to come and see the opera. Today, in addition to putting on critically acclaimed, artistically advwalk inDuring our productions, ENO carries out important educational work and helps long-term Covid patients via its “Breathe” program. In other words, ENO is doing everything a government aspires to “democratize” the arts – although how many believe that’s really the agenda behind these cuts? – might wish.
By right, ACE should do everything they can to fight for ENO. Founded in the optimistic post-war years, the Arts Council is committed to bringing great art to a wide audience, summed up in the slogan “the best for the most”.”. John Maynard Keynes, the funding body’s first chairman, however, never overlooked the importance of the capital, stating that ‘it is… our job to make London a great artistic metropolis, a place to visit and to admire”.
From the 1970s, the Arts Council began to question its traditional remit. Jaw-droppingly he announced in 2020 that it would henceforth use the terms “culture” and “cultural content” because the word “arts” made people uncomfortable. ACE may be under pressure from the DCMS to get the money out of London and major arts organisations, but by demonstrating a sensitivity towards the cutting edge arts it has helped lay the intellectual groundwork for such cuts.
Calling opera elitist doesn’t make it more accessible to everyone
Personalities from all political persuasions have has fueled the narrative of elitism that undermines all the good work arts organizations seek to do. Although many moons ago Ted Heath actually increased arts grants, current Tories are thoroughly woo the populist vote by recycling every cliche from the book about high culture elitism and frivolity. Jack Berry, in a debate over economic support for the north during the pandemic, splurged on the fact that opera and ballet were for southerners and football for northerners. Clichés about Glyndebourne lovers have even been dragged into parliamentary debates over Brexit.
The left is also playing the game. The Blair administration, strong on the idea of Cool Britannia, has defended the lucrative “creative industry”s” and made opposition to ‘elitist’ opera government policy. More recently, Harriet Harman angered opera-goers by saying that when she went to Covent Garden she couldn’t see anyone in the audience who wasn’t “white, metropolitan, and middle classs”. No more useful are those in academia and the arts who have become obsessed with how classical music is historically tied to power structures, dragging opera into angry debates over identity politics, social justice and “problematic” guns.
Calling opera elitist doesn’t make it more accessible to anyone. It’s a terrible sales pitch: how many people would be tempted to explore an art form they or they had been constantly told was elitist? Describing classical music in these terms is right in the hands of anyone looking for an excuse to cut school music lessons, reduce the amount of opera on TV Where, yes, cut grants to arts organizations that bring joy to people’s lives and do a lot of social good. There is no doubt that the blame for these cuts lies with the government and the CAOT. Those of us who care about the arts would like do think carefully about how we talk about it, though, for lazy stereotypes have real-life ramifications.