Puccini's La bohème, performed by members of English National Opera (ENO) as Europe's first live drive-in opera production (Photo by Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Opera is not elitist

Tired stereotypes enable philistine governance

The recent reallocation of arts funding announced by Arts Council England is being heavily spun as good news. More money, the body claims, will be spent on taking art to different parts of the country, ending a supposed southern, metropolitan bias. This apparently laudable ambition does not stand up to scrutiny. Among the organisations that are to lose their funding are Psappha, a Manchester-based ensemble that takes new music to audiences in the North West, and the Britten Sinfonia, an orchestra serving the East of England — hardly an area brimming with cultural investment.

The axe has come down particularly heavily on opera. Again, the “levelling up” rationale makes no sense. Welsh National Opera, which will lose a third of its funding, tours to venues from Southampton to Llandudno. Glamorous Glyndebourne might seem an obvious target, except that the summer Festival receives no public funding and the cuts will fall upon the company’s touring outfit, which puts on more affordable opera in Milton Keynes, Canterbury, Norwich and Liverpool. One can’t help wondering if the decision makers at ACE are rather ill-informed about what these arts organisations actually do.

In the case of English National Opera, the news is not just bad but catastrophic, with the company’s entire annual grant of £12.6m disappearing. A one-off sum of £17m across three years has been offered to facilitate relocation to the north, but the pill remains extremely bitter for ENO’s chorus, orchestra, administrative staff and audience. Manchester has been mooted as ENO’s new home. Questions have to be asked about whether any feasibility study has actually been conducted, particularly as Greater Manchester already receives regular visits from Opera North, a company that was itself originally an offshoot of ENO. 

ENO’s current operation provides reasonably priced, year-round opera for countless millions of people in London, the South East and beyond. Where is this large and by no means necessarily privileged audience to go now, if it wants to see an opera? Probably not to Covent Garden, whose brand of “international” opera is a different beast entirely, and whose auditorium could never accommodate the additional numbers from the Coliseum, the largest theatre in London. 

ACE ought to be doing everything it can to fight for ENO

Since the ACE decisions defy all logic, it is tempting to conclude they are underpinned by something else: jitters about classical music’s supposed “elitism”. The word elitism first 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 virtually synonymous. As my research into the history of the stereotype reveals, the notion of “elitism” is a construct, endlessly recycled by the media but with little basis in actual fact. There has been a long and rich history of popular opera going in this country — we just happen to have forgotten about it. ENO embodies this history of “opera for the people”. In the 1920s, the philanthropist Lilian Baylis started putting on opera at the Old Vic for the benefit of the poor of South London. A decade later, she established Sadler’s Wells in Islington and successfully attracted the north-London working classes. That company transferred its operation to the Coliseum in 1968 and subsequently renamed itself ENO.

The Daily Mirror rejoiced in the fact that the move would “give more people an opportunity to see good opera” and the company’s managing director, Stephen Arlen, wrote of hoping to attract carpenters and motor mechanics to come and see opera. Today, as well as putting on critically acclaimed, artistically adventurous productions, ENO undertakes extensive educational work and helps long-Covid sufferers via its “Breathe” programme. In other words, ENO does everything a government aspiring to “democratise” the arts — though how many believe that that is really the agenda behind these cuts? — could wish for. 

By rights, ACE ought to be doing everything it can to fight for ENO. Founded in the optimistic post-war years, the Arts Council was committed to disseminating high art to wide audiences, encapsulated in the slogan “the best for the most”. John Maynard Keynes, the funding body’s first Chair, never neglected the importance of the capital, however, stating that “it is … our business to make London a great artistic metropolis, a place to visit and to wonder at”. 

From the 1970s onwards the Arts Council began to question its traditional remit. Jaw-droppingly it 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 DCMS to drive money out of London and away from core arts organisations, but in demonstrating squeamishness about the high arts it has contributed to laying the intellectual foundations for such cuts.

Calling opera elitist doesn’t make it more accessible to anybody

Figures from across the political spectrum have fuelled the elitism narrative that undermines all the good work arts organisations seek to do. Although many moons ago Ted Heath actually increased arts subsidy, the current Tories are going all-out to court the populist vote by recycling every cliché in the book about the elitism and frivolity of high culture. Jake Berry, in a debate about economic support for the north during the pandemic, splurged out nonsense about opera and ballet being for southerners and football for northerners. Clichés about Glyndebourne-goers even got dragged into parliamentary debates about Brexit.

The left plays the game, too. The Blair administration, high on the idea of Cool Britannia, championed the money-making “creative industries” and made opposition to “elitist” opera a government policy. More recently, Harriet Harman angered opera fans by stating that when she went to Covent Garden, she couldn’t see anyone in the audience who wasn’t “white, metropolitan and middle class”. No more helpful are those in academia and the arts who have become obsessed with the way in which classical music is historically bound up with power structures, dragging opera into angry debates about identity politics, social justice and “problematic” canons.

Calling opera elitist doesn’t make it more accessible to anybody. It’s a terrible sales pitch: how many people would be tempted to explore an art form they had been constantly told was elitist? Describing classical music in these terms plays straight into the hands of anyone looking for an excuse to cut school music lessons, reduce the amount of opera on TV or, yes, remove subsidies from arts organisations that bring joy to people’s lives and do a lot of social good. There is no question that the blame for these cuts lies four-square with the government and ACE. Those of us who care about the arts would do well to think carefully about how we talk about them, however, for lazy stereotypes have real-life ramifications.

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