Does UK opera have a future to sing about?

Nestled deep in the Sussex countryside, Glyndebourne has been attracting opera fans for almost a century. This year, its flagship summer festival coincides with a celebration of the company’s 90th anniversary. This is no small feat, given the harsh economic climate and challenges UK opera companies face to keep the art form relevant for existing enthusiasts and attract younger generations of opera goers.

Only five years ago, there were hopeful signs of investment and growth in opera. Glyndebourne opened its state-of-the-art production hub in 2019, the year after the Royal Opera House completed the renovation of its main entrance, costing a whopping £50 million that was sourced entirely from private funds.

Fast forward to 2024, one Brexit vote and a global pandemic later, and opera companies are facing relentless budget cuts and declining public popularity. The ripple effects are widespread geographically, affecting both the centre and periphery of different UK regions.

Glyndebourne was unable to tour in 2023 due to funding cuts by Arts Council England, meaning that the company’s operas could not reach audiences as widely across England. The English National Opera (ENO) was also hit particularly hard when its annual £12 million budget was halved by Arts Council England in 2022.

In a plan to implement the government’s levelling-up agenda, the company was told to move out of its London Coliseum headquarters, with Manchester suggested as the alternative location. The decision spurred controversy between state funders and the ENO and its public supporters, many of whom backed the #LoveENO campaign.

In another overhaul of funding in Wales, the Arts Council of Wales announced budget cuts for the Welsh National Opera (WNO) of just over £500,000, from the £4.65 million it received in 2022-23 to £4.1 million a year.

The WNO is having to cut back its 2025 tour and could even be forced to make its orchestra and chorus part-time. A protest letter, signed by eminent Welsh classical singers including Sir Bryn Terfel, Katherine Jenkins and Aled Jones and addressed to the first minister, Vaughan Gething, condemns the cuts and the damage inflicted on one of Wales’s most cherished national institutions.

In June, the Musicians’ Union (MU) said it would ballot its members at the WNO on industrial action in response to devastating budget cuts that could see their pay reduced by 15% and the orchestra going part-time.

Scottish Opera has also been experiencing a budget squeeze, although not directly from severe funding cuts. As outlined in the company’s 60th-anniversary report, the rising cost of doing business puts pressure on the volume of activity that can be sustained.

According to the Scottish government’s budget for culture 2024-25, support for national performing companies, including Scottish Opera, is set to increase by £700,000 for 2024-25. However, funding for Scotland’s national performing companies has remained flat over the past few years, representing a real-terms cut because of rising inflation.

Still, Scottish Opera’s season for 2024-25 looks packed with world premieres, performances at the Edinburgh festival, touring varieties such as pop-up opera and “opera highlights”, and an enticing programme of outreach activities.

Facing the challenges

A recent survey in The Times questioned 4,000 people and painted a grim picture on public opinion about opera, stating that “half of the UK wouldn’t notice if all opera houses were shut down”.

Although for many the high cost of tickets remains a barrier to accessing opera, 44% of those questioned still supported that opera should receive state subsidy. The survey’s findings also offer optimistic indications that younger people are engaging more with opera.

The Arts Council England’s recently published report Let’s Create: Opera and Music Theatre Analysis is another hard blow for opera. Its damning findings say opera needs to be more relevant, diversify its repertoire and workforce, and speak to a wider audience. But while there is ample scope for revamping the sector in these and other ways, ultimately investment and education are needed to ensure sustainable regeneration.

Opera companies have been responding creatively and innovatively to the new challenges. Competitive ticket schemes offer more choice to suit different budgets and age groups. For example, London’s Royal Ballet and Opera runs a youth ticket scheme, and more than 100,000 young people have signed up for the 2024-25 season.

Friday Rush seats can cost as little as £8 for opera at Covent Garden. Free tickets for under-21s and “substantial discounts for under-35s” are also advertised on the ENO website, emphasising the company’s aim to make opera more accessible.

In terms of nurturing new emerging talent, opera companies across the UK are also investing in their development and outreach programmes. In Northern Ireland Opera’s new visually sumptuous production of Phillip Glass’s eerie chamber opera, The Juniper Tree, most of the cast and creative team were drawn from NI Opera’s chorus and artist development programmes.

The 2024 production was principally funded by Arts Council of Northern Ireland and marked an important initiative to widen the access to career development for young local artists. NI Opera’s 2024-25 season also offers a series of free music and creative skills workshops for older schoolchildren to discover opera through works by Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Puccini, Bizet, Humperdinck, Verdi and Britten.

Other attempts at diversifying opera include some intercultural artistic mergers. The Brixton-based Pegasus Opera Company, for example, advocates “harmony in diversity” by exclusively promoting artists of African and Asian heritage. Its mission is to celebrate the music of African, Asian and Caribbean diasporas using creativity to “challenge and advocate for positive change”.

If we want more youngsters from diverse backgrounds to be curious about opera, then we must nurture interest. There is so much to offer in opera’s timeless stories, captivating melodies and orchestration, evolving musical forms and cultural histories. We have a collective responsibility to invest seriously in accessible classical music education if opera is to flourish in the UK.

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