Opera in the UK is in crisis. In the latest round of government funding allocated by The Arts Council England (ACE), many of the country’s largest opera institutions have had their budgets slashed. Receiving sufficient funding is crucial to the running of arts institutions in the UK, and ACE has faced immediate backlash since a pattern was identified in the most recent allocations towards the end of last year.
Sir Nick Serota, chair of Arts Council England, announced on a livestream: “The position was made relatively clear when the Secretary of State instructed us to take money out of London… and encouraged us to take money from central London to some parts of the city that haven’t previously had funding. It was almost inevitable that we would have to take some money away from some of the main theatres in London. We’ve simply had to make some very invidious choices.”
Following advice to prioritise financial backing to organisations outside the capital, ACE has begun to provide more funding to opera institutions in the North. While it is no secret that the UK’s capital dominates the cultural sector by a long shot, the redistribution has failed to strike a sensible balance. This has left several London-based organisations suddenly depleted of monetary support, among them many of the country’s major opera organisations.
One of the most prestigious UK opera companies is Glyndebourne, reaching around 150,000 people every year with over 120 live opera performances. In 1968 it founded the Glyndebourne Tour to take its operatic productions around the country at affordable prices, helping to make world-class opera accessible to people across the UK. “Glyndebourne has been offered annual funding of £800,000 per year between 2023 and 2026. Our annual funding from the Arts Council during the previous funding period was £1.6million per year,” the organisation explained in a press statement.
Having lost over half of its regular funding, Glyndebourne announced in January that it would have to cancel its 2023 tour to Liverpool, Norwich, Canterbury and Milton Keynes. The programme would have included various activities for families, singing workshops in schools, and music recitals in local care homes.
Welsh National Opera (WNO), based at the Wales Millenium Centre in Cardiff, has also suffered a 35% cut to its ACE grant. The company had already made its financial difficulties known in previous years. In 2020, it announced that it would be reducing its workforce by 16%, and in 2021 only three productions could be staged instead of the usual five or six due to financial constraints.
In the same year, WNO launched the fundraising campaign ‘Raise the Curtain’ to help mitigate the impact of funding cuts, and the company’s co-operation with the Birmingham Hippodrome aimed to reduce costs. Now, Welsh National Opera has already reduced its 2023 tour, cutting Liverpool from the list of destinations outside of Wales. Productions in Bristol, Birmingham, Southampton and Oxford now also hang in the balance.
The English National Opera (ENO), which is based at the London Coliseum near Covent Garden, faced an even more drastic situation after ACE threatened to axe its £12.6 million grant unless the company agreed to relocate. The ENO has now been given £11.5 million for the next financial year, which it says will give it “one year’s reprieve”, but “still leaves a huge amount of uncertainty regarding the ENO’s future”. The company has already had to postpone several of its upcoming productions, including part of Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
Opera companies appear to have been targeted in particular following accusations from ACE that opera is an “elitist” art form. Yet the work done by Glyndebourne and the English-language performances at ENO as well as its offering of free tickets for under 21s, heavily discounted tickets for under 35s and a base price of £10 for all seats suggests that a significant effort is continually being made to make opera available to everyone.
The ENO website also features a “Your first opera” page with information on what to expect, helpful introductions and plot outlines for their operas, and an underscoring that there is no set dress code. In a statement rejecting ACE’s claims of elitism and a lack of public engagement in opera, ENO revealed that last season’s audiences at the opera house were 51 percent first-time bookers.
Opera is also increasingly adopting new, more modern initiatives to tackle these allegations of elitism while also helping to raise vital funds. The Royal Opera House offers streaming subscriptions from £9.99 a month, starting with a 14-day free trial and offering unlimited access to a library of over 45 ballets and operas including behind-the-scenes features, interviews with the artists and creative insights. The company Rogue Opera aims to improve accessibility to operatic theatre by bringing performances to audiences to unexpected places – namely to pub gardens across the UK.
Opera organisations are also changing how they advertise, namely through taking advantage of the exposure offered by social media platforms. ENO now has a profile on TikTok as well as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, and the hashtag #operaisopen features heavily across social media to entice new audiences.
In Oxford, there are several ways for students to engage with and support the local opera scene. New Theatre Oxford, located on George Street, offers locals the chance to see top-class opera productions. The theatre will put on performances of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly on the 3rd of March 2023, and of Verdi’s Aida on the 4th of March. Both shows are produced by Ellen Kent and feature international soloists, highly-praised choruses and a full orchestra. The operas will be sung in Italian with English subtitles and tickets are available from £13.00.
Opera can also be accessed through cinema screenings, with Oxford’s picturehouses regularly showing recorded performances from the Royal Opera House. Both ODEON on George Street and CURZON, located in the Westgate Shopping Centre, will include performances of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Verdi’s Il Trovatore in April alongside their regular film schedules.
The award-winning Oxford Opera Company also offers locals the chance to become more directly involved with opera and places Oxfordshire residents at the heart of its vision. Recent productions include The Magic Flute, La Boheme, Carmen and Tosca, which were all staged at the Oxford Playhouse Theatre. The company delivers high-quality performances, showcasing the skills of the best professionals from the UK, while also providing opportunities for local young people to work in a professional setting in addition to its main-stage work.
The company offers educational and outreach workshops to people across the county, and their ‘restoration’ program in partnership with the Oxford Health NHS demonstrates their dedication to using music, theatre, and other creative disciplines to enhance the quality of life for all Oxford residents.
There are also several organisations and societies operating within the University. The New Chamber Opera specialises in baroque pieces, while The Oxford Contemporary Opera Society gives opportunity to budding composers by putting on student productions. The Young Oxford Opera Company carries out admirable outreach work, bringing together professional soloists together with local schools and student choirs.
Established in 1952, the Oxford Opera Society is a student-led organisation which encourages newcomer student audiences to operatic theatre, while also nurturing emerging talent across the student body and providing opportunities for students to get involved in all aspects of production in fully staged operas and opera scenes. The society also collaborates with professionals from the wider opera industry, providing members with valuable networking and career development opportunities.
Speaking to Cherwell, the society described how it acts “as a central hub with the aim of bringing all opera-related activity together.” From running trips to see operas at the Royal Opera House to organising talks and social events, the society is dedicated to promoting and producing opera within the university and beyond. This year, Oxford Opera Society is putting on a production of The Marriage of Figaro and is still looking for people to join the production crew.
The society is run by volunteers from across the University and City of Oxford, and makes an effort to make opera accessible to everyone. “We do our best to ensure that we include everyone who wants to be involved in our productions, and where possible keep ticket prices low to enable everyone to attend who wants to do so,” they said. “Last year, we ran a very successful series of Opera at the Pub in partnership with The Oxford Blue, which allowed people who have never seen any opera before to experience it at close quarters.”
However, the committee noted that “grassroots organisations like ours are limited in what we can do without donations and sponsorship, and struggle to cover the running costs despite occasional grants form various university bodies and depending on volunteers to run them.” Despite this hurdle, the society has been working to raise its profile and build relationships within the industry. This year, as part of the Student Union (SU) Arts week which will run from February 27th – March 5th, Oxford Opera Society will collaborate with the SU, New Theatre Oxford and the Oxford Italian Society. The support of the Italian Society has also enabled Oxford Opera Society to put on a free talk on Puccini with Oxford Brookes Professor Alexandra Wilson, together with a concert of arias at the New Theatre Piano Bar on Tuesday 28th February 2023.
When asked about the future of opera in Oxford, the society said that it looks “exciting, with new and innovative projects popping up all the time.” It attributed this to “the continuing hard work that we and our colleagues in other societies have been doing”, but underscored that “it is still not enough”. “Opera needs space, whereas Oxford does not have a purpose-built opera house and all of the local venues have their limitations, not least that hiring a big venue is a massive financial risk for a small society. We hope that the University, and every College with a music venue, consider relaxing their policies on room hire by students and not-for-profit societies to enable us to bring even more and better productions to the public”, it added.
Moreover, it seems that the impact of the Arts Council cuts has been felt across the city, too. “Despite our positive outlook for Oxford, we are devastated in solidarity with the English National Opera and other major companies who have suffered in the recent round of Arts Council cuts. We believe that it is an extremely short-sighted approach, because without their high-quality productions, smaller groups like ours have nothing to look up to,” the society said. “The new generations of artists are fleeing the UK, and the decision only serves to entrench the misguided stereotype that opera is only for the rich”.
The society’s advice for the bigger opera companies in the UK is “to resist the temptation to follow a policy of austerity, and focus on a few quality productions, rather than trying to churn out the same number of shows while stripping them down to their bare bones. “As an industry we need to double down on persuading the public and the government that opera is an art form worth saving”, it said.
While the future of opera in the UK remains uncertain, what is nonetheless clear is the nationwide dedication to creative initiatives for the development of operatic theatre, and to driving up engagement with new audiences. It is vital that government funding providers such as ACE realise that in defunding opera, the art form will only become more and more inaccessible and, in turn, “elitist”. If the continual work carried out by both major opera companies like ENO and Glyndebourne as well as smaller, grassroots organisations such as Oxford Opera Society can be better recognised and supported, then there is hope that opera might be able to overcome its current crisis.