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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

A Revolution in the Stalls

By Norman Lebrecht / April 16, 2004

Something happened last night, perhaps the biggest thing to happen at the Savoy since March 1896 when W. S. Gilbert had his final bust-up with Arthur Sullivan, clearing the path for England to get serious, at last, about opera.

Last night was, to the spectator's eye, nothing out of the ordinary. A new production of Rossini's Barber of Seville, sung in English by an unstarry cast. The revolution was, unseen, in the bottom line. This was opera without subsidy, opera with an entrepreneurial spirit - opera as it used to be, organised by resourceful enthusiasts for an audience that consisted not of bow-tied aesthetes and glams in gowns but, in the main, of working men and women who might otherwise have been watching farce in Whitehall, a musical on Shaftesbury Avenue or a DVD at home.

After sixty years of public support for the arts and a general recognition that they are a jolly good thing, here was a genuine attempt to test the market and see what sort of people, and how many of them, might go to the opera if it was brought to them at a guaranteed professional standard (unlike touring Balkan companies) and at a reasonable price of between £10 and £50.

The answers to this impromptu survey will come trickling in over the next few weeks. They will be watched through wary opera glasses by Covent Garden and English National Opera, as well as by some of our more thoughtful politicians who have lost track of what arts subsidy is for and where it is heading. Examples abound of current confusions.

Wealthy theatre owners and promoters of such Disney bankrollers as The Lion King are lobbying for a wad of public cash to repair long-neglected Victorian buildings. A matter of public interest, or merely a nice try-on?

Sir Peter Hall, once the nation's biggest subsidy-guzzler when he headed the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, now runs a private repertory company without a penny of public cash. Next year he is opening a splendid new classical theatre in Kingston upon Thames to serve arts starced suburbia and, perhaps, the boating classes. Sir Peter remains a stout believer in the principle of subsidy, though he receives none.

Then we have the Tate and Hayward Galleries, under eye-catching competition from Charles Saatchi. The Saatchi Gallery drew 600,000 paying visitors in its first year, many more than the paid admission to any major exhibition at any subsidised gallery. Saatchi, like the Savoy Opera, has flung down a gauntlet to the official arts, declaring, in effect: justify thyself. It is game-on in the subsidy debate.

The core purpose of state funding was defined by the great economist Maynard Keynes in May 1945, at a time when Britain was bankrupt and needed to tap its creative resources. 'We look forward to a time,' said Keynes, 'when the theatre and the concert hall and the gallery are will be a living element in everyone's upbringing, and regular attendance at the theatre and at concerts a part of organised education.'

If those were the aims, they have miserably failed. Public television, which once brought arts to every living room, has replaced them with celebrity culture. The education system has reduced arts teaching and placed it, all too often, in the hands of unqualified instructors. Why would anyone wish to discover music when their school introduction comes from a gym or French teacher? 'Regular attendance' by schools at high-quality at arts events remains beyond the wit and means of our education industry.

New Labour and its yapdog Arts Council has redefined arts subsidy as a reward for delivering sectarian policy targets - social inclusion, multiculturalism, equality at any price. This, too, has failed. Contrary to the well-modulated results of Arts Council surveys, there has been no rush of Somali immigrants to Mozart concerts, no respite for drug addiction in sink estate visits by the Royal Ballet.

So what is subsidy there for, apart from protecting jobs and morale in an industry whose hidden earnings in tourism and international prestige far outweigh the modest state investment? The prime justification is the protection of standards. Without an ROH and ENO firing on all cylinders, without a well-curated Tate, there would be no Savoy Opera or Saatchi Gallery above the level of semi-amateurism that prevailed before the War.

In the newly remixed economy, however, subsidised companies must do more. They must push out the walls of their art form, as Nicholas Hytner has so dazzlingly done at the National Theatre. They must invest in new repertoire, as the ROH does once a season - strikingly with The Tempest by Thomas Ades, limply with Nicholas Maw's Sophie's Choice.

Above all, they must engage with market realities. The looming of Savoy Opera focussed Covent Garden on a £10 ticket scheme. Faint hearts condemn the Savoy enterprise as a 'threat' to ENO, a company whose troubles are both of its own making and of Arts Council meddling. But ENO should not fear.

This ought to be seen as the ultimate opportunity, a chance for ailing state companies to shed their baggage of armlock union agreements and outworn repertoire and break into new songs for a new century. There are stirrings afoot. Both the ROH and ENO have loaned the Savoy bright young singers whom they cannot employ in lead roles and who might otherwise have to seek their fortunes abroad. There is discreet dialogue on schedule clashes - no one, after all, wants two Carmens in London on the same night.

The success of Savoy can only benefit the state sector, just as Saatchi's has smartened up the Tate's thinking. Make or break, this is the biggest shake-up the subsidised arts have ever faced. There may be casualties and fall-out, but for the average goer-out, the outlook in London has never been more bountiful. Who would dare to stay home of a night for fear of what they might miss?

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001