LSM-ONLINE-LOGO2JPG.jpg (4855 bytes)

Back Issues
LSM Issues
LSV Issues
Throat Doctor
Concert Reviews
CD Critics
Books Reviews
PDF Files

About LSM
LSM News
Guest Book
Contact Us
Site Search
Web Search
The Lebrecht Weekly


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

British Opera's Ring of woes

By Norman Lebrecht / December 8, 2004


Future historians who study the fate of British arts under New Labour will start with the collapse of our national opera companies, the pride of post war enlightenment. As of last week, Scottish Opera, Welsh and ENO find themselves without effective musical leadership, or much hope of renewal.

In Scotland, Sir Richard Armstrong resigned as music director in the face of savage job cuts and the reduction of his company to part-time operation. Most regard his leap as too little, too late. Thedemolition of Scottish Opera has been a long-planned joint production by a barbarous Scottish Executive and a clueless Arts Council – chaired until recently by ex-BBC Radio 4 boss James Boyle, who now heads the Cultural Commission which is supplying the excuses for his country's return to the dark ages.

Had Armstrong quit when the clouds gathered two years ago he might have rallied enough of a public outcry to stem the philistine tide. But the music director was then immersed in a giant Ring cycle which redeemed the official part of the 2003 Edinburgh Festival but spent Scottish Opera into near insolvency. His current season is dominated by a Schoenberg-Bartok double bill and The Knot Garden by Michael Tippett, bold works which are unlikely to create a miracle in the Gorbals.

Armstrong is a good conductor and a self-contained man, myopic by design. He survived 12 years at Scottish Opera (and before that a decade at WNO) by ignoring external pressures. Now the political lapdogs are yapping and Scotland is soon to be a land without opera. Many of its orchestral musicians are busy auditioning down south.

The Welsh are in less trouble, though unsettled. Last summer Tugan Sokhiev, the brash twenty-something music director, walked out on Welsh National Opera leaving no forwarding address. He was swiftly replaced by his predecessor, Carlo Rizzi, who happened to be 'available'. Rizzi's return spared a lot of blushes at the opening of the Millennium Centre in Cardiff, but his appointment is a regressive move that dents the company's record for discovering and nurturing new talent.

The boss, Anthony Freud, has bigger matters on his mind. Last week, in a locally-trumpeted 'bonfire of quangos', the Welsh First Minister Rhoddri Morgan abolished Arts Council control over six leading institutions, placing them under the rod of the Welsh Assembly. This looks, in principle, to be a step in the right direction. Many in London would agree that arts councils have outlived their usefulness and that elected politicians should be held accountable for funding, or starving, the arts.

But Wales, since devolution, has got its arts in a sling. Thestone-faced £110 million Millennium Centre, symbol of national resurgence, is playing a bill of popular fare from Miss Saigon to Sleeping Beauty on Ice. It can just about spare 30 nights a year for opera. The rest of the time WNO plays away to the English, as far east as Oxford and Southampton. Sixty percent of its funding – some £5.7 million – comes from Arts Council England. Newly renationalised by the rumbustious First Minister, WNO will now be trapped in a funding vice between Cardiff politicians and London penpushers, an unenviable torment that portends an unviable future.

Which brings us wanly to English National Opera where the search for a music director to replace Paul Daniel – who resigned when it was indicated that his contract would not be renewed – is mired in mediocrity. Good conductors cross the road before they reach the Coliseum. One British baton made it clear that he would let his name be short-listed only on a written assurance that Sean Doran, ENO's artistic director, will be removed. Doran is due to reveal his creative vision next month but the auguries are unencouraging. So far we have been promised an Irish-funded lesbian opera and a Bernstein musical sung by miked-up West End stars.

Internal tensions have resulted in sections of the orchestra downing instruments during a public dress rehearsal and walking out after Doran exchanged words with their shop steward. The critical acclaim for Siegfried has stabilised a jittery Ring, but ENO's purpose has never been so blurred, its identity so uncertain.

Against this woebegone backdrop, Covent Garden is riding high on quality and confidence and Opera North, having replaced a music director without ructions, is putting on unamplified the first British staging of Kurt Weill's Broadway show, One Touch of Venus. Opera can still be done in Britain gloriously and without tears.

But one cannot ignore the woes of three national companies, or their common origin. Devolution, the 1997 mantra of victorious New Labour, has reverted large parts of the island to a dreary provincialism where parish pump functionaries lord it over public entertainments. Anti-elitism, the lip service that Labour rulers pay to their grass roots, has fostered a class war against high culture. And the disavowing of responsibility that is the hallmark of this governmenthas allowed successive culture secretaries and arts council chairmen to escape Scot-free – in the Caledonian sense – for demolishing two generations' worth of artistic growth in the very regions where it was most needed.

Bad is about to get worse. This week, Tessa Jowell will declare allocations for the coming year. Having promised a boost to museums and galleries, and needing to find extra cash to pay for her contentious gambling commission, it looks as if the performing arts must receive a grant below inflation levels. And when the cake gets cut at the various arts councils you can bet your bottom b-flat that 'elitist' opera will come out with the slimmest increase.

Not that there is anyone at home to take a professional decision. The ACE's chief executive, Peter Hewitt, has been given three months' study leave to look, in his chairman's words, 'at the latest thinking about how arts organisations are managed' (one thought that was part of his day job). The senior official in the ACE music department has taken a year off. Should ENO hit the rocks, there will be no-one in the lighthouse to respond to its mayday call – a nautical allegory which accurately reflects the state of the lyric arts after 90 months of New Labour. They are, in a phrase, all at sea and sinking fast.

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001