When Arts Council England made its funding announcement earlier this month, the headlines were all about the withdrawal of funding (pending negotiation) from English National Opera. But ENO wasn’t the only opera company targeted: Welsh National Opera’s annual funding was cut by £2.2 million, over a third of their previous grant and the second largest cut of anyone still in the portfolio. The Council’s press statements made no mention of the WNO cut, so I was keen to speak to Aidan Lang, the company's General Director, to understand more. But there was a snag: Lang is as much in the dark as any of the rest of us.

Aidan Lang
© Gareth Iwan Jones

“We are none the wiser, absolutely none. There’s been no explanation given other than a pleading that it’s not an opera thing, it’s about levelling up or spreading culture and creativity to the regions. But that’s exactly what we do: within England, we perform in seven different cities. We just don’t get it. And before, when we asked ‘what is the strategy for opera’, no answer was forthcoming. We are completely in the dark as to the rationale for this decision. It makes no sense whatsoever.”

Asking Arts Council England’s regional offices has shed no further light. “We’ve been moved from the West Midlands Office to the South West; we’ve had meetings with the staff there and the director of music and we’re still none the wiser. The thing is, the assessment of our application was glowing. If you read the report, the recommendation was for the full amount that we had requested – which was a standstill, so we weren’t being greedy. And we were already projecting a change in our delivery model for year three to promote audience growth.”

In the past, WNO’s public funding was approximately 60% from Arts Council England and 40% from Arts Council Wales. “It’s a partnership,” Lang explains. “What it means is that both countries get the benefits of a full time opera company, but share the cost. It means that ACE get all the benefits of what we do, including all the engagement programmes we undertake in England, for around 60% of the cost it would be if we were sited over the border in, say, Bristol. So we represent tremendous value. Now, over the next three years, we are inevitably going to have to phase in a reduction in touring weeks in England – we’ve been told that is expected of us. We have already had to announce the loss of Liverpool this season, which we had to do quickly as the week is already on sale, and sales would be likely to build in the run-up to Christmas. In future, we will almost inevitably have to drop at least one title per season as well.”

“Down the track,” Lang continues, “there will be knock on effects of diminishing the output when you have a full time company of orchestral players, chorus and technicians. We are by far and away the major arts employer in Wales; the drip-on effect is that once the company begins to reduce its presence and its scope, work opportunities diminish and a career in the arts becomes a less attractive proposition. In other words, Wales will also suffer from this funding cut, as it has the potential to threaten the livelihoods of a full-time company who largely live and work in Cardiff. But as far as we can see, there was no consultation whatsoever between ACE and Arts Council Wales. So this actually amounts to a cut imposed by London on the flagship arts organisation of a devolved nation.”

“In these stones, horizons sing.” Wales Millennium Centre, WNO’s home in Cardiff.
© Lewis Clarke | Wikimedia Commons

What makes the situation particularly disappointing is that WNO has been forging ahead this season, both artistically and in terms of audience development. In September, when I discussed Lang’s plans for WNO, he told me that success in bringing in younger audiences was the achievement he was most proud of in his previous role, as General Director of Seattle Opera. “We shifted the age demographic hugely. From time immemorial, the under 50 component of the Seattle Opera audience was 25%. We lifted that from 25 to 49% in two years; I’m sure they tipped 50% in year I left. How did that happen? I’d love to say it was my marvellous programme, but no, it was something more interesting than that.”

“We looked at the city to see what makes it tick,” Lang continues, “and it seemed to be a city of values and ideas, a place with a mayor who was the first to ask the arts to take a lead on matters of diversity, with a clear directive to the arts community to say ‘we want our city to have equity, and you as presenters of ideas can really help me achieve the city’s objectives’. And that really gave us pause for thought, because opera is pregnant with ideas. We linked the work we were doing to contemporary issues, not by distorting the production to hammer home a point but by building a range of activities around it.”

The same approach is more difficult to replicate in a company which tours nine cities across the UK, but that’s not stopping WNO from trying: “We’ve already established a hub for engagement work in the West Midlands, which we’re morphing towards the Black Country as an underserved part of the country, and we’re developing our existing hub in North Wales. The idea is that in time, these are not just hubs for our engagement programmes, but places where we work with local people on bespoke programming, so that in those two areas, we become their opera company, rather than one that just visits from time to time.”

WNO’s 2022 production of The Makropoulos Affair
© Richard Hubert Smith

WNO has also been a standard-bearer abroad. Their first production of the season, Janáček’s The Makropoulos Affair, opened in Cardiff to general critical acclaim – but the real eye-opener has been the reception it received earlier this month at the Janáček Festival in Brno, together with a concert which received huge standing ovations. “It was an astonishing thing because the audience connected instantly with what we were presenting – and we were doing Janáček in his home town, in Czech. The point was not just the incredible performances – if only the Arts Council had been there to witness them – but the way the town connected with the culture. After the concert, the word went round about how amazing it was, and the remaining seats for Makropoulos filled up instantly. It’s a city where high art is important to people.”

ACE’s protestations that “it’s not about opera, it’s about levelling up” are at odds with the numbers. Separating out the figures for opera (with the assumption that the Royal Opera House is two thirds opera and one third dance), the latest funding round cuts opera by 32% and museums by 1%. Every other sector gets an increase, in an overall budget that is up 7%. Even removing the effect of ENO’s reduction, the cut to opera is still 10%. The two biggest percentage cuts – to WNO and to Glyndebourne Productions – are to companies who tour the country and bring opera to places which it would not otherwise reach, so it’s equally hard to argue that they constitute “levelling up” in any shape or form.

So does ACE think opera in general is overfunded? “This is a question we want to ask,” Lang says. He continues “I would make one observation that people don’t think about: we’re always classified as a music organisation. Of course, music drives opera, but in terms of our delivery mechanisms and therefore our forms of revenue and expenditure, we’re actually a large scale theatre company. So grouping us within the music sector misses the point. And all the talk about opera in pubs and car parks ignores the fact that far more work is involved in mounting an opera production of any size than is needed to put on a concert: the nuts and bolts are much more complex to operate than people think. And I ask the question: who is the champion for opera at the Arts Council table? I don’t think there is one.”

WNO’s Cradle Choir, for people living with dementia, launched in 2019
© Kirsten McTernan

Does this mean that opera has an image problem with the UK government – assuming that ACE are strongly influenced by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, even if they’re not micromanaged in every detail? “It probably does. But it’s an image problem based on not really understanding the multitude of ways to engage with the art form, including in care homes, with our dementia choir, and others: it doesn’t have to be just on the main stage. And we all know that when people who said ‘no, they couldn’t possibly’ actually go and watch a performance, 99% of them are blown away by what they experience. So yes, opera does have an image problem, and maybe the sector as a whole has not been very good at addressing that image problem in an overt way. But I expect arts councils to look deeper than image problems – isn’t that their function?”