Arts funding – what it does, and why it matters

Will Gompertz raised vital issues in his "Today" programme coverage, but the reality is more complicated than it seems

It set the twittersphere alight – or at least that tiny corner of it concerned with the arts. Will Gompertz proposed on Tuesday’s Today programme that subsidising the arts doesn’t work because only 8 per cent of people in this country go to opera, ballet and classical concerts, and because they’re all sewn-up inside imposing London buildings. All nice and easy – a provocative headline and a stinging statistic in one fell swoop. But the truth is a little more complicated than that – and marginally more positive, too.

Two points to begin. If Gompertz’s interview subject speaking for London youth Fady Elsayed has "never seen one advert" for theatre or opera in the city, he either doesn’t use public transport or he should have gone to Specsavers. Adverts from Covent Garden, English National Opera, the Barbican et al might have varying degrees of communicative nous, but they exist –they’re commonplace and they’re big.

Secondly, the figures are skewed. Far more than 8 per cent of people in this country experience live opera, ballet and classical music. Many experience the arts as "a living element…[in] their upbringing" as John Maynard Keynes said they should when he founded the Arts Council. But their details don’t show up on box office receipts because they’re given free tickets or they are single, anonymous elements in large group bookings made by schools and colleges. After school, thousands of higher education students from varied backgrounds attend orchestral concerts; they’re contacted, welcomed, encouraged, talked-to and offered discounted tickets by marketing staff working for state-subsidised orchestras.

Theatre companies, opera companies and orchestras in this country present numerous performances for schools, families and community groups, some of them for free. That was consolidated in 2007 when the non-BBC symphony orchestras in the UK collectively promised to offer every schoolchild the chance to hear a live performance. However that bold promise is shaping up – it’s been dented but not extinguished by the most recent round of funding cuts – the very fact it was made underlines the single and most salient difference between subsidised and commercial art.

It’s interesting that Gompertz and Elsayed homed-in on buildings and the creatures who inhabit them as being the main sources of intimidation for people attending opera – I agree with the latter element wholeheartedly, as I’ve argued before. But it’s hard to play the architecture card when you consider that there are only three purpose-built opera houses in the United Kingdom operating as such, and one of them receives no subsidy. 

I spent the last week in Plymouth, watching operas and plays at the Theatre Royal where the concurrent visit from Glyndebourne On Tour and Flemish theatre collective Ontroerend Goed came between Marti Pellow in Blood Brothers and Christopher Biggins in the Christmas pantomime. The latter shows sold/will sell well; nobody can argue about architecture putting people off there. It’s not that the building isn’t beautiful – it is, and it’s about to get even more so (and more welcoming) thanks to an Arts Council redevelopment grant.  You might say it’s intimidating in its creative peacefulness, but that doesn’t stop people coming through the door to musicals, pantomime and comedy.

Opera North, English Touring Opera, Welsh National Opera and Glyndebourne spend much of the year travelling to theatres (not opera houses) like these to deliver first-class performances of great works old and new. The Glyndebourne offerings are sometimes even more focused and slick than they are at the summer festival. Top-price tickets are only marginally more expensive than those for the blockbuster shows, but government subsidy means there are hundreds of seats available for less than twenty quid.

And who’s sat in them? On Thursday night’s Le nozze di Figaro in Plymouth there were dozens of schoolchildren, plenty of pensioners and a good deal who would fall in between – a far more diverse audience than your average pop gig attracts. We’d all like to see a broader cross section of our society watching plays, operas and concerts, and we’re making progress on that front. But I’m a Plymothian, and I felt as though my home city was probably better represented in those performances at the Theatre Royal than my "residing" city (London) is at Covent Garden. On Friday afternoon in Plymouth, the company performed Rusalka for an audience of schoolchildren and families.

Without arts subsidy Glyndebourne wouldn’t even have been in Plymouth. The schoolchildren – who mostly sat interested and surprised by Glyndebourne’s relevant, vivid and beautifully played Figaro – would probably have been engaging in something a good deal less wonderful and mind-expanding. That means nobody to develop an interest in the art form, grow up, earn a living, become a ticket-buyer and help increase that percentage figure Gompertz was touting. Which in turn means further exclusion, further intimidation and considerable embarrassment in the face of our European counterparts who are proving that increased subsidy of the arts aids society and contributes to the exchequer.

Figaro (Vito Priarte) and Susanna (Lydia Teuscher) star in Glyndebourne's 'Le Nozze di Figaro' (Photo credit: Alastair Muir)
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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis