David Butt Philip is genuinely world beating. He is a superb tenor and well on course to establishing himself as one of the best opera singers on the circuit. His voice is resonant but supple, straightforwardly beautiful, sophisticated, textured and yet secure. His acting is tasteful and well-judged. His phrasing is impeccable. And he has a fine musical intelligence that he deploys with charm and conviviality. He is also one of the last great British singers to have established himself before Brexit restricted so many of our artists from the chance to flourish and become ambassadors for the country.
His case is illustrative. Butt Philip is 43 and the burgeoning of his international career coincided with the referendum. He had started working abroad regularly in 2016 and – “very luckily” as he says – had just about got the required toe-hold when the Brexit transition period ended. He has now sung Walther in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger in Vienna, Bacchus in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos in Edinburgh, Don José in Bizet’s Carmen back in Vienna, Grigory in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov at the Metropolitan in New York. He is in demand all over Europe and constantly travelling – Lille, Madrid, Prague and so on. As we speak, he is about to sing Apollo in Strauss’s Daphne at the State Opera in Berlin. The reason he considers himself “lucky” is that the big opera houses are prepared to deal with the hideous amount of bureaucracy now involved in his working in Europe for the lengths of time that these serious roles in big productions require.
The problems are logistical, he explains. “We are constantly requiring paperwork and visas. You end up having to get a duplicate passport. But seriously, I am one of the fortunate ones. I am actually happy to have these problems. My concern is for the generation below. Obviously, you have to start small in order to get an international career going, but too many of the smaller and more approachable opera companies abroad will tell you that there is no point applying unless you already have the right to work outside the UK. Catch 22. They have plenty of applicants – so they simply exclude British singers.”
The only way round this is for younger artists to abandon Britain altogether and set up as students abroad. You look at the next generation and find that some of our best talent has left the UK to work around the obstructions: Ted Black (tenor) and Davidona Pittock (a fantastic Scottish soprano) have gone to Vienna; Tom Mole (baritone) and Robyn Parton (soprano) are in Munich. Once they are affiliated as some form of student, they can get smaller parts and hope to progress enough for someone to hire them despite the extra administration.
You might well ask, why not just work in the UK? The answer is that therere are very few places left in Britain where a young singer can hope to make even an embarrassingly meagre living while building a career. Successive Conservative governments have cut funding to classical music; rather than “level up”, they have in truth “levelled down”. The English National Opera (ENO), for example, has been told to leave its century old base in London, and has decided to move to Manchester. But the suspicion is that this is being imposed not to help disperse opera around the country, but instead as an excuse to make all of the ENO’s chorus, orchestra and music staff redundant and then re-employed for six months – thus cutting pay by 40 per cent and employing some people on an ad hoc freelance basis only. The Welsh National Opera, meanwhile, had its annual allowance from Arts Council England, which forms a large part of its overall funding, cut by a third to £4m in 2022. And so on.
Boris Johnson’s oafish cavort across the national stage diminished everything, but it was the otiose Brexit “deal” (struck by the lumpen Lord Frost) that is now really starting to asphyxiate the putative careers of younger artists. Frost more or less admitted that he had made a mess of things: “We should take another look at mobility issues,” he said, a year after it was revealed that he himself turned down a standard proposal from the EU to exempt performers from the huge cost and bureaucracy around visas. “There is a whole set of problems here that is making life difficult [for] … movement of specialists like musicians and artists.”
The issues run much deeper though. “The depressing fact,” Butt Philip says, “is that music education has been eroded beyond all recognition since I was a child. I was at a state primary and I only really got the bug for singing because a choral animateur came into my school – giving workshops and getting people involved in singing. Those services don’t exist any more. So only kids whose parents seek out opportunities have any hope of progression.”
When Butt Philip was growing up, all the singers he most idolised were from working-class or community backgrounds: John Tomlinson, Thomas Allen, Graham Clark, Susan Bullock. “There was the tradition of singing as a community activity,” he says. “But this is where we come back to the Conservative dictum: if it doesn’t pay for itself, then how can it have a value?”
The net result is that wealthier students are the only ones who survive – and so the art form shrinks in its reach and appeal and compass. But the truth is that the manufacture, intent and performance of all art worthy of the name is to communicate human-to-human, and bypass gender, class, religion, status and financial circumstance. Classical music should defy these limitations. And this comes down to education and access. You give a group of people the information and they start to understand what they are watching. If you don’t, they can’t and they won’t.
Take an example from Butt Philip’s much-praised performance as Walther in Die Meistersinger. At the end of Act One, there is a scene in which he is attempting to impress the judges of the singing competition. He is an outsider. He sings his backstory but is then criticised for his level of musical education, his phrasing, his breaking of the rules. By way of counterstrike, he begins to improvise this extraordinary over-the-top rhapsodic outpouring of emotion. This shocks the gatekeepers but it is truly mesmerising and transportive for the audience to hear.
Now, you don’t have to know all this to watch it. But, if you do, you realise that what you are watching and seeing is a staging of The X Factor. And understanding this is nothing to do with class or anything else – it’s not even got anything to do with intelligence. Simply, you have the information to better enjoy the experience. Here is a man who has been mocked and chided by pious judges who think they know what music is about and – listen! – watch! – he’s going to tell them exactly where to get off. How? By singing so much more beautifully then they could ever imagine.
[See also: Tristram Hillier, England’s quiet surrealist]
This article appears in the 07 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Who runs Labour?