The Times gets its opera sums wrong (again)

Richard Morrison, the Times music critic, has been polemicising again for English National Opera to slim down or shut down.  Some of his arguments may be valid, but today he draws a false account of subsidy inflation.

In 1952, he writes, (Sadlers Wells) staged no fewer than 26 different operas… I looked up the company’s Arts Council grant for 1952. It was £60,000 — the equivalent of between £1.8 million and £5.9 million now, depending on whether you do the calculation based on retail prices, incomes or property values.

Compare that with today. Next season ENO will get £12 million in subsidy, for which it will deliver just 11 or possibly 12 productions. In real terms that’s two or three times the subsidy it received in 1952 for fewer than half the number of shows.

Wrong, wrong and wrong again. Let me offer a parallel comparison.

In 1949, the London Symphony Orchestra obtained its first Arts Council subsidy. The amount was £2,000 per annum – equivalent to £60,000 or £190,000 in current values, depending on how you calculate them.

Today, the LSO receives over £2.5 million in funding from ACE and the City of London, well over 1,000 times its original subsidy and for playing no more UK concerts than it did in 1949.

Morrison is the LSO’s official historian. He ought to know these things.

He should also know that an opera orchestra and chorus costs far more than a freelance symphony orchestra. In 1949, when £2,000 covered the LSO’s bare patches, the Covent Garden orchestra cost £70,000.

Morrison founds his false argument on wrong numbers and rank amnesia.

coliseum eno

share this

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on google
  • I don’t see how your comparison makes Monsignor Morrison “wrong, wrong and wrong again”. Shelve the comparison and just explain why he’s wrong. He may well be but your post doesn’t really say why.

    • He claims that ENO receives more subsidy for less work (which is untrue) while ignoring the vastly increased subsidy for less work at the LSO, whose half-billion hall he keeps backing. It’s myopia, upon amnesia, upon diddled statistics.

      • For the laggards (like me): how is it untrue?

        I’m not interested in comparing with LSO. I’m just interested to know how his sums, which seem quite compelling, are wrong.

        May well be that there has been huge inflation in theatrical productions c.w. other inflation. Maybe it’s simply the productions are way more elaborate than in days gone by. I’m sure there are many explanations but just saying he’s wrong and I don’t like him doesn’t really help.

        Fully understand if you’re not trying to help and are too busy to do the spade work.

      • I think that Mr Morrison’s argument is simplistic in three areas.
        1) he assumes the quoted subsidy was adequate. It was not and the company deficit was rising year on year (£28,000 in 1952 to £130,000 in 1955).
        2) additionally all kinds of management fudges (pre-spending budgets; diverting special funds) were employed to give the impression of a viable organisation. In fact they only averted bankruptcy with a very successful (in an ACE-approved bums on seats way) production of The Merry Widow and the eventual takeover of Carl Rosa Opera. None of which, of course, solved anything much as ACE believed that opera took too much of its budget. This ought to sound familiar!
        3) the present company is more complex, with more elements to the organisation; Outreach and Education spring to mind.

  • I find RM’s argument full of holes. First, you can skew statistics any way you want depending on the period you select for comparison. If you choose to start with a year in which the nation was still in a period of post-war austerity, you are off on the wrong foot. Second, Sadler’s Wells Opera was operating in a relatively small theatre with for the most part what would now be considered as pretty basic cloth sets. The stage in the Coliseum must be at least 3 times the size of its Rosebery Avenue counterpart – if not considerably larger. Staging costs can therefore not be compared. Third, with scenery and lighting now far more complex, and therefore much more expensive, than ever was envisioned in 1952, comparisons become even less valid.

    Then there is the issue of a greater general inflation in the performing arts compared to the government’s official inflation figures. For example, I can recall at the start of the 1970s when the touring allowance for touring companies was £11 per week. But then these were the days when many theatre and opera companies toured, the days of theatrical digs where artists could actually find accommodation and more for that amount. A year or so later after the rate had risen to £14 – and, to be fair, the number of touring companies was obviously getting smaller – Equity put in a demand for the rate to go up to £28 to allow its members to move into cheap hotels instead. The following year it rose to £21 and the year after to £28. So 100% inflation over two years!

    None of the above is an excuse for the ENO overspending its budget with obvious regularity. But I maintain it does help to prove that RM’s conclusions are incorrect.

  • One might say that all conditions in the music and opera world today conspire to make productions much more expensive – and a lot of the process needs to be reformed inside and outside of music organizations. However, this does not mean that organizations, and the music world in general, should accept all these high costs rather than reforming the system so that it is more viable.

    Several critics have observed (this is just one point) that new operas don’t have great new arias and melodies. These would be sellable if they existed, improve the opera economic system, return the interest to the music and not spectacle, and generally be more healthy.

    • Amen to returning to the music.

      I’m going, with a little trepidation, to Lucia at ROH. Not just because I don’treally fancy explicit sex and violence but also because the whole production conceit sounds as though it will take away from the dots on the page – which is why I go.

      In that regard I thought the Puccini triple bill was perfect. Good looking sets but the music came first. I fear we are straying off topic here so I’ll stop now and take the dog out.

      • Thanks for sharing the aria – I never would have heard it otherwise.

        I have not heard of it published, on the radio, or praised by singers that I know.

        This is a relatively unaccomplished song form with confusing harmony that does not support he melody, and it is far from a great melody or great aria that shows off the voice to maximum potential. This level of accomplishment will never compete, in recordings or in the public’s mind. with the truly great arias.

          • Your comment is greatly misplaced. I am composer of 158 works and six operas. I only cite critics because I think it is good for people to know that many others besides myself share a critique.

            By the way, your rudeness and lack of ability to hold a true debate have no usefulness.

          • Well, I wish you the very best of luck trying to get your work staged.

            Your grotesque rudeness ain’t gonna help – that’s a hint.

          • You see, Mr Webster, I put up that aria link for a purpose. “Dr Atomic”, about which you are so rudely ungracious, has been staged at English National Opera – the topic of this discussion. It was a sell-out, and rightly so.

            It’s been a sell-out everywhere it has been staged. Including the Netherlands Opera, the Met, and other international opera houses.

            But of course *you* know better than hundreds of thousands of opera-goers all over the world.

            So your comments “This level of accomplishment will never compete, in recordings or in the public’s mind ” are truly not worth $0.02.

            I frankly recommend that you change your radio channel. If you have never heard of John Adams’s work, you must be living in the 18th century. I don’t insist that you admire it. But to remain in utter ignorance, yet pass judgement, is really inexcusable.

  • >