ARTS COUNCIL ENGLAND FORCES WELSH NATIONAL OPERA TO CUT ITS TOURING SCHEDULE
By Christopher Morley
The Arts Council’s apparent vendetta against operatic excellence in England for not ticking this month’s trendy boxes has ramifications in other countries, too. Welsh National Opera has long been a touring presence the length and half the breadth of this country on our side of the Severn, but such long-cherished relationships are now in jeopardy.
It was recently announced that WNO will cease its Liverpool visits with immediate effect, leaving its phalanx of loyal supporters on Merseyside deprived of world-class grand opera. WNO General Director Aidan Lang tells me how difficult this decision was.
“It was indeed a heart-breaking decision but faced with such a significant and unexpected cut to our funding, we had no option but to act quickly. With a cut of this magnitude, Arts Council England obviously cannot imagine that we can carry on as if nothing has happened, and so they expect both a reduction in our touring weeks and for us to focus on certain areas of the country. The main reason why Liverpool was the first to be announced is that environmental responsibility is on ACE’s funding principles, and it is by some distance the furthest touring venue from Cardiff.
“I should stress that WNO is completely devastated by the decisions we have to take. We have been touring to Liverpool since 1968 and during those 54 years, have built up a considerable following. During the prolonged lockdown, people got out of the habit of going to the theatre and concerts. The same will undoubtedly apply in Liverpool with our termination of performances there. If opera does return to the city at some future date, it will take many years for audiences to return in full.”
One would have expected the experienced professionals who run the Arts Council to understand that performing organisations have to plan ahead over several years. The impact of the current funding cuts has implications stretching forward into at least the mid-20s, as Aidan explains.
“We feel it important to phase the reduction of our touring weeks over two to three years, as we carry many contractual responsibilities with artists that of course we will honour when performances are cancelled. We therefore needed to remove two venues form our schedule in the April-March funding year. Liverpool is the only venue that disappears from our current season, but a further venue will likely have to go from our autumn 2023 tour.”
I wonder whether this reduction in touring will have any impact on the salaries of WNO staff, backstage and out front? Aidan’s response ends chillingly.
“At the moment, no. A problem may arise further down the track, however, as our first looks at future scenarios by the third year of this funding cycle indicate that removing touring weeks alone will not be sufficient to stem a £2.2million shortfall. It is highly likely that we will have to drop a production from our planned schedule. How you staff an opera company is obviously dependent on how much you perform. My deepest worry is that if too much is removed, we cross the threshold that demands that WNO be a full-time opera company. It’s completely understandable that the perilous situation that English National Opera face has consumed the maximum media coverage. This cut to WNO’s funding is insidious in that its full effect is not going to be seen for a couple of years; but its eventual outcome will be every bit as damaging as the cut to ENO.”
Welsh National Opera have been favourite visitors to Birmingham for longer than the half-century I have been reviewing them for the Birmingham Post. I remember two-week residencies, but have seen those disappear, and the diluting of the summer season. Audience support remains loyal and strong (I once encountered a couple who regularly came down from the Potteries, 50 miles away). How long will WNO be able to continue its commitment to the Midlands? Aidan’s response could not be more immediate or vehement.
“I have a very strong personal connection with WNO in Birmingham, where I studied in the late 1970s. I was a regular attender at both ENO and the Royal Opera prior to university, but it was seeing the WNO productions at that time, that convinced me to pursue a career in opera.
“I will say straight up front that WNO is completely committed to Birmingham and see it as our second home. This view was certainly recently supported by ACE. Following their last review into opera and ballet, they stated ‘We support WNO’s desire to develop Birmingham into a second performance hub by performing there four weeks per year’.
“Since then, WNO has spent considerable time and resources investing in the area and in bringing this enhanced presence in Birmingham to fruition. We established a ‘hub’ in the city to create a permanent presence for the company for our wide range of engagement activities, working with a number of different age-groups and communities to make connections through opera that go far beyond our mainstage productions at the Hippodrome.
“Even prior to our funding submission to ACE we had identified the Black Country as an area that is underserved by arts provision and had committed to spread our wings to cover that area. We were therefore delighted when ACE also identified the Black Country as a ‘Priority Place’, as we are both in alignment. We have built considerable trust with the communities we have been working with, so it is essential that this work continues, and those people are not suddenly cut adrift. And as part of that funding submission, we also revealed plans to increase our touring weeks in Birmingham.”
Had Aidan had any prior warning about this devastating cut in Arts Council England funding to WNO?
“No. None at all. Given the current fiscal climate in the UK, we had been steeling ourselves for a possible small cut, but not for 35%. And we are still waiting for ACE to give us their rationale. If the Government’s levelling-up agenda is what has driven their overall approach to opera, we fail to understand why ACE would take funding away from a company that delivers opera so successfully to the very regions the levelling-up agenda is meant to serve.”
And Aidan concludes by addressing full-on my criticisms of the Arts Council’s (for whom I used to assess, until I was dropped for my strictures against the administration) current box-ticking requirements, which seem to be a moveable feast.
“The central issue here is the way that the ’arm’s length’ principle of arts funding has seemingly been jettisoned in favour of funding strategies being completely beholden to the dictates of the political party in power. Large arts organisations have hundreds of employees and work to far-reaching planning timelines. A touring company like WNO also holds long-term bookings with its touring venues. It therefore takes a very long time for them to respond to the seismic changes that new political directives or a significant funding cut brings about.”
And that puts it all into a nutshell.