British director warns against privatised opera

British director warns against privatised opera


norman lebrecht

November 12, 2015

The distinguished opera director Graham Vick (l.), staging a contemporary piece at Covent Garden this weekend, is alarmed that companies are being pushed to rely more on private money than public subsidy.

‘Opera companies are [being] forced more and more to rely on any private money they can raise,’ he told the (public-funded) BBC. ‘Inevitably, a theatre like the Royal Opera House is able to raise more than smaller, less attractive companies. That’s why we’re seeing the extraordinary explosion of country house opera – Grange Park, Longborough, Glyndebourne and so on – and the shrinking of regional opera.

‘All our marvellous regional opera companies are in real trouble and struggling.’




  • Frankster says:

    He’s perfectly correct, of course, and it hits are the very heart of opera as art.

    • Una says:

      Absolutely so, and he’s such a nice guy as well as talented with his heart in the right place. I loved working with him as a soloist in some of his productions.

  • Eddie Mars says:

    Graham Vick is the patron saint of British opera – moat of the big names of today have worked with him. But I doubt Gideon has a clue about who Vick is. Or about anything else.

    Birmingham Opera exists solely because Graham Vick made it happen…when he could have been lining his pockets in Verona or New York. Gideon wouldn’t understand that.

    • Furzwängler says:

      Err….I doubt if our American and other friends abroad understand whom you are referring to by “Gideon”. You and I know of course that you are speaking of taxman George, the colleague of the great Cameroon.

      • John says:

        Don’t worry: Eddie is just being petulant because he does not like a politician.

        • Halldor says:

          The politician in question is probably one of the biggest opera buffs in UK politics in recent years, a committed Wagnerite and supporter both of the publicly-funded Royal Opera and the privately-funded Longorough Festival. He’s almost certainly well aware of Vick’s work, but it suits those who dislike him on partisan grounds to pretend he’s a philistine. Just as it suits them to refer to him as ‘Gideon’: a name he legally ceased using at an early age. Reflection on why they insist on using that particular name -subconsciously or otherwise – leads to some unpleasant and troubling conclusions about the prejudices of the British far-left.

      • Una says:

        I’m not American, and I haven’t a clue who Gideon is, except for a rather prominent vicar in London!

  • Anon says:

    I don’t quite understand – he says that “a theatre like the Royal Opera House is able to raise more than smaller, less attractive company”, complains about the “shrinking of regional opera”; and in the same breath references the “extraordinary explosion of country house opera – Grange Park, Longborough, Glyndebourne and so on”, which is exactly the opposite. These opera festivals / companies -are- regional opera, and they are well supported, and getting better and more of them too. There might be a change of who is running an opera company in any given locality, but that’s better than stagnating organisations suckling the public teat for evermore, surely. What’s the problem here? Shouldn’t we be celebrating the growth in privately funded regional country house opera, rather than dismissing it?

    • Eddie Mars says:

      Are you aware of the ticket prices at Grange Park? It hardly qualifies as a ‘regional opera’ theatre. Except for stockbrokers, investment bankers, and their invited clients, of course.

      • Una says:

        Hardly regional opera when it’s a vehicle for corporate entertainment!! Thank God Kent Opera was never like that, and neither was Scottish, both of whom toured to the regions and also took centre stage in major venues in London and at the Edinburgh Festival.

  • Webster Young says:

    This is interesting. I see other reasons that new operas, at least, will be supported by an enlightened few, “out in the country”. Unworkable modernist productions have been foisted on audiences at great expense by well funded “regional” companies without much accountability. Those rare and truly good new operas that come along are probably, at present, more able to be supported by much smaller, but more perceptive, groups of people.

  • Dominic Stafford Uglow says:

    A catch-all response; but I’m guessing that many of the respondents here don’t actually work in this field.

    1) Graham Vick is right. Our regional companies need increased, and continuing, state funding.

    2) Despite the protestations of one poster, most productions at regional companies are inventive and of good quality, but reasonably conservative and are constructed in such a way as to be capable of touring. Regional companies, unlike ‘Country House’ companies, tour and perform, to all intents and purposes, all year round and aim to offer the audience a quality performance at a reasonable price.

    3) The gradual increase in Country House opera (it is far from being an explosion) is to be welcomed. These festivals fill the gap for professional musicians in a period when many would not be able to find work (most opera houses, for obvious reasons, close down during the hottest part of the summer). However, they perform in one distinct part of the year, do not tour, and their pricing structure and location put them out of the reach of many patrons of the regional companies. The cannot be seen as an adequate replacement. Two honourable mentions here: Glyndebourne does, of course, tour. Opera Holland Park continue to produce miracles in the centre of London.

    3) Private investment in opera is always welcome; but it cannot be a replacement for adequate state funding. Quite apart from the ‘pay to play’ implications (that have so far not intruded too greatly, but will if the balance shifts and private funding becomes the greater of the two sources of income), a company grows over the years and becomes a fund of collective knowledge and experience. Sustained funding is necessary for this to happen.

    4) I am continually reminded, when reading comments on this blog, that many are completely ignorant of how how little even well-known musicians make. Fees have fallen well behind inflation, and this over a period of 30 years. A principal singer at a regional company earns, in real terms, less than half what they did in the mid-eighties. Expenses, at the same time, have risen in line with, and sometimes beyond, inflation. Many young singers at established companies might well be earning less, at the final account, than the person who cleans your house.

    5) It is a statistically well-proven assertion that the performing arts bring a great deal of income into the economy. Government investment will maximise this. For every pound the Government puts into the arts, they will see a profit. Most regional companies do very well with very small budgets. Their administrations are small, enthusiastic and engaged – though not, in general, very well paid for their long hours.

    6) Audiences for opera in the regions remain strong. For all the crowing of the death of an art form, attendances remain high. All regional companies, further, engage with their communities. They have performances for schools and outreach programs that cannot be publicly funded.

    7) To argue for state funding is not solely the position of the Far Left. It is to recognise the intrinsic good of the performing arts, and their utility: their ability to provide a social well-being.

    8) Why do people call George Osborne Gideon? Well, I suppose it is so they don’t have to call him something far, far worse!

    • Una says:

      I worked with Graham Vick in both Kent Opera and Scottish Opera when I was a full-time singer, and he was fantastic. He has been consistently good and fighting for opera as well. Great guy.

      When you get public funding, it gives you the chance to be creative. Private funding and the sponsors call the shots. You only have to look at last week’s relay from the Met of Tannhauser. Wonderful singing but so date a production … and all those stupid harps!

  • Ellingtonia says:

    Opera is a minority interest (I speak as one who went to see Jenufa in Leeds recently in a half empty house and at extremely high prices) but seems to think it should get state funding to ensure its future existence. I don’t recall any other genre of music getting state funding at the level of opera, and they are just as valid artistically (despite what our Dutch friend screams about artistic and intellectual aspirations).
    Ask which will be remembered in 100 years time, The Minotaur or Sergeant Pepper?

    • Una says:

      I went to that Jenufa in Leeds, and I paid £12.75 for my ticket in the balcony where I heard and saw everything. I didn’t find that expensive when my Indian meal without wine this evening came £14!!

    • Dominic Stafford Uglow says:

      I’m sorry to sound bullish; but this shows a considerable ignorance of how the music industry works.

      If you think that the pop music industry isn’t state supported, then you aren’t paying attention. Major record labels get very considerable tax advantages, in the same way that the film industry does. In essence, the only difference between them and a regional opera company is that one has the money loaded up front, the other claims the money back.

      And to compare Sergeant Pepper to the Minotaur? Again, this is very convenient, but only to bolster a false argument. Even if you could compare apples with oranges, how about you place two pieces of equal quality against each other? What about Sergeant Pepper against Peter Grimes? How about that as a match up? I’m pretty sure both will be around in 100 years time.

      • Ellingtonia says:

        I am, also prepared to be a bit bullish and state that it is you who havn’t worked out or understood the concept of “subsidy”
        Major record labels get tax advantages because they bring in shedloads of money to the government, these days mainly via downloads. I don’t see the world of opera bringing in such amounts of money either directly or indirectly e.g. the number of records / downloads of opera recordings can probably be counted on the fingers of two hands.
        As regards the facile argument that it enhances the tourist attraction of London……….really?
        Please explain why my comparison between the Minotaur and Sgt Pepper is a false argument?. I grant you the Minotaur will be referenced in the occasional musical history book in the future, whilst Sgt Pepper will still be played.
        As regards Peter Grimes, it is hardly high on the list of productions of most opera houses and the English do have a tendency to wax lyrical about average composers such as Britten, although I do grant you that his Sinfonia da Requiem is rather wonderful.
        I embrace all genres of music from jazz to world music taking in opera and folk, I just get a bit fed up of the “luvvies” asking for shedloads of money for a minority interest.

        • Dominic Stafford Uglow says:

          Your answer is deliberately obtuse.

          I’ve worked extensively both in opera houses and with record companies. I know more than a bit about this industry.

          Record sales in ANY field are not what you think they are. They are far lower than you imagine. High production costs frequently offer low yields to record companies. For every Adele, there are hundreds of other acts that do not break even, let alone make a profit. If this were not the case, then the contracts offered to artists by record companies would be far more beneficial to the artist. If this were not the case, then the Government would not have to offer tax breaks to record companies in the first place.

          Regional theatre and opera bring large benefits to their local economies. Though tourism is often cited, it forms only part of the equation…

          1) Staff and performers pay tax upon their earnings.
          2) Theatres generate income in a multitude of ways on which VAT is paid.
          3) Local services and businesses benefit greatly from the influx of patrons into the specific area of the house.

          The evidence of this is far from being anecdotal. It’s been quite thoroughly calculated. If you have a cultural life of depth, as well as breadth, then your economy benefits in turn, as well as your society.

          In terms of comparison, I simply picked an opera that was of high quality (and it is, regardless of what you think, of very high quality) that was relatively contemporaneous to Sergeant Pepper. But let’s try a like for like comparison in terms of popularity and quality. There will be 410 performances of La Boheme this year. More than 100 years after it was composed. And almost all of these performance will be full.

          • Ellingtonia says:

            It is you who is being obtuse.
            I made no mention of record sales but talked about downloads which are a much more cost effective way of “selling” music.
            And yes for every Adele there are hundreds of wannabees who will not make it, but what they don’t do is go screaming to the government demanding “artistic subsidies” to keep them afloat.
            I rather think you overestimate the contribution of regional theatre / opera to the local economy. When I went to see Jenufa in Leeds the bars, pubs and restaurants were full of non theatre goers of if they were, they were wearing some very interesting outfits and the
            under 25s had suddenly taken an interest in opera.
            You mention that there will be 410 performances of La Boheme this year to full houses (any supporting evidence?) whilst thousands will purchase Sergeant Pepper 50 years after its release, many of whom were not even born when it was originally released.
            Hundreds of thousands will go to watch U2, Springsteen, The Stones, Leonard Cohen this year and they don’t get any subsidies.
            What is it about opera performers / directors / producers that they consider themselves so “special” and deserving of amounts of money not made available to genres of music.
            I support and listen to all kinds of music but I just do not get this reverential approach to classical music and opera!