Though the worst of the downpours have retreated for now, the sky is hardly Stanford blue for classical musicians in the UK. Recently, there has been retaliation to the difficulties imposed by the toxic cocktail of inflation, Brexit, COVID aftershocks and funding cuts to institutions: yesterday, the Royal Opera House orchestra voted overwhelmingly in favor of a strike after pay cuts made during the pandemic coincided with the current cost of living crisis to leave orchestra members 23 percent worse off (in real terms) than they were three years ago. After public indignation, the BBC Singers have been welcomed back into the fold at this summer’s flagship BBC Proms, after being threatened with closure months before. Talks between the BBC orchestras and the Musicians’ Union are ongoing towards finding a sustainable future. New BBC Radio 3 controller Sam Jackson this week talked of hopes for the “glory years” for classical music, though such confidence has generally been in short supply lately, as the ground we stand on turns, in a moment, to mush.
Much of the focus of recent media coverage on these circumstances has been on big institutions, creating a kind of reputational shrinkflation, where the social standing of an ensemble rises (“We love our ENO!”) as their creative footprint becomes slimmer and fainter. One wonders how many players will be left in, say, the BBC Concert Orchestra, before somebody important declares, rightly, that it’s one of our many national treasures.
But what of the smaller institutions, or the individuals working across multiple organizations: the ones who might actually close (like Psappha), or, like the third of UK musicians who considered leaving the profession in 2020, are having similar nagging thoughts this time around? I spoke to a cross-section of those away from the spotlight.
Joseph Middleton is a pianist and artistic director of Leeds Lieder.
Leeds Lieder is the only contact I have with the Arts Council. Most of my work is playing concerts; I just have the nice task of rocking up to do a gig, then going home again. It’s very easy compared to Leeds…
Leeds Lieder began in 2004. At that time, it was a group of friends who worked at Opera North who really loved song. I took over in 2014. During that time, it’s grown hugely, from what was a two-day event every other year to a nine-day festival with 40 events, a year-round schools program working with around 1,000 school kids each year, and we put on concerts throughout the year.
It’s a very small team. From our board, there’s a chair and a treasurer. I work one day a week, we’ve got a general manager (three days a week), a festival and concerts manager (two days a week), an education manager (one day a week, plus projects), a freelance fundraiser, and a freelance marketing and media manager.
In the past ten years, we’ve worked really hard to build so that we’re an organization that can plan with confidence, and that we’re not being reckless with the huge amount of philanthropic help that we get. Our budget each year is around £200,000, split roughly into five parts—box office, friends scheme, Arts Council, major sponsors, and grants or trusts. We wouldn’t plan the festival if we didn’t know that we could pay for it, so we’d obviously budgeted this knowing that we had built up for the last ten years.
If you take out a fifth of the annual budget, which is what we effectively did [Leeds Lieder lost the whole of their annual £60,000 Arts Council grant in June.—Ed.] it has a massive impact on next year, because then you have to use a vast swathe of your reserves to pay for that.
Going into next year, we either have to roll the dice and hope for the best, or do much less.
Having just gone through those nine days, it really works, we really know how to do it. And the number of audience members who were there for the very first time, who have never been to a single song gig—most of them haven’t even been inside any of the Leeds concert halls. To see them, have a drink with them at the bar, chat with them, and see them come back the next day? That is exactly what the Arts Council is trying to do. And I think it’s such a great thing to have as their main objective.
The biggest issue with the Arts Council is that basically, the place that we’ve ended up in is really thanks to them. They’ve been so great, over the last ten years, they’ve really worked hand-in-glove to help us expand, take risks, and prove ourselves over and over again.
It doesn’t make sense to me to stop funding an organization like us, who have proven ourselves and are really riding a crest of a wave, to fund something else instead that’s brand-new and never proven itself. And that’s the main issue I have: there’s no joined-up thinking or proper, long-term strategy. It just leaves organizations like ours clinging on from year to year, and that’s not a good way to work.
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Michael Betteridge is a freelance composer, working mostly with young people and communities to create community-driven pieces.
I had last-minute cuts to work—within my contract—that were due to cuts to an Arts Council England NPO [National Portfolio Organization, organizations that get regular funding from ACE]. The contract I lost was around £2,000 worth of work, canceled with a month’s notice. A lot of planning that happens for these projects, and then the delivery of it, the first session, was canceled with relatively short notice. With that project, there was also a potential further project down the line that was in the process of being contracted, which was on a similar scale. It’s always hard to say, but it was our foreground of work across a four or five month period that disappeared quite abruptly.
What’s interesting is that I haven’t heard from organizations for quite a while who I’ve worked for previously and who have received cuts. It’s understandable, because they’re working out what happens next. But there is a question of what happens from September, October onwards in terms of my work.
A lot of my employment comes from opera companies. While some of the opera companies that have had cuts I’ve never worked for before, it’s a small sector where your name is kind of passed around, and you do similar kinds of work because there are so few of us. Now I’m in a good position, work-wise, but looking ahead 12 months, I don’t have that big project in 2024 necessarily in the diary that I definitely did have at this time last year. It’s quite a precarious profession, so you just kind of have to rely on word of mouth and that things will drop in. But equally, I am apprehensive because of the huge cuts, especially to opera, that will have a real impact on individuals and the kind of ecosystem of who’s doing what.
I think people are absolutely disappearing from the profession, especially freelancers. People talking about retraining—I’ve had conversations with friends going, you know, after COVID and then this, people are really exhausted. I’m in a very privileged position right now work-wise, but people five years younger than me and younger have hardly been allowed to get their careers started, because of both COVID and constant cuts.
I’m a lot more fortunate than a lot of people, but I don’t know what the next 12 to 18 months will necessarily look like. I feel I’ll be OK, but I have very little control.
Russell Plows is artistic director of Hull Urban Opera.
We had a real loss of momentum during COVID. We just started getting going again, we were given some money to do R&D for a new opera, and next April, what we just applied for was an interim project to do an existing opera, Darius Milhaud’s “Médée.” The Arts Council didn’t feel that we had shown sufficiently how the local community were going to be involved, and what they would get out of it.
When you start inviting people to work with you, and then you get an Arts Council rejection, it means that you’ve sort of let them down. And if it happens two or three times, those people will think twice about committing to working with you. So, although we could have applied again, it would have meant we wouldn’t have known whether we’d got the funding for the project until quite late. And therefore, it would have been very difficult to engage people. Obviously, it’s always easier to engage people when the money’s in place. I can’t afford to let industry people down.
We keep audiences to an intimate number, so there would have been 100 per night, around 30 local volunteer performers, and maybe 25 creatives, including orchestra and cast. Our productions tend to cost about £45,000 each.
I certainly don’t envy the Arts Council’s position, because they must spend a lot of time dealing with upset artistic temperaments. Initially, I was annoyed, and then very down for a while. It takes so much energy to pull a project together and put everything in place. And then when it doesn’t happen there’s a terrible sort of grieving period, especially when a project is put on a really low burner, or it won’t happen at all. I don’t want to antagonize the Arts Council, but I am sympathetic to their plight, which is that they’re simply not given enough money.
I spoke to another local opera company, and their funding model is absolutely alien to us here: it’s all donations, it’s all wealthy donors. It’s how they run, and they make a lot of money, and that just isn’t the tradition here. Of course, it’s not helped by a government that places the arts quite low down in its agenda.
One thing that’s interesting is how much country house opera has taken off, which does seem largely independent to the Arts Council. And those things work by, well, frankly, by becoming a bit elitist, by being quite difficult to get to, and charging a lot for tickets. There’s a place for that, for high-end opera with high-end prices, but there needs to be a range of types of opera, and we all need to have our voices heard one way or another.
We described ourselves at one point as having a socialist outlook at Hull Urban Opera: we’re not likely to do champagne receptions, and it just didn’t feel quite right to me to be tipping our hat towards the sorts of elitism that a whole section of the opera community is trying to get away from. We’re taking positive action to grow and thrive; when we become a registered charity, we’ll have a look at funding sources, and we’re working with a media agency to look at how we might work digitally.
While we’re arguing about the competitive aspect of it, and whether we’re successful or not, the bigger issue is there just really isn’t sufficient [funding] to go around. What’s in danger of happening is that the Arts Council will fund all small companies equally insufficiently, and only the well-heeled ones will survive. And so opera becomes the playground of the wealthy again, which will be a disaster.
Lotte Betts-Dean is a freelance mezzo soprano.
My work predominantly consists of concert singing with a focus on chamber music, contemporary music, and song, with a bit of opera as well. It’s very broad reaching, and, even within a single program, there’ll be a number of approaches to music, or a lot of stylistic variety.
Some of my opera colleagues are probably in the situation where work that hasn’t even been offered to them yet has now been canceled. Say, for instance, the Glyndebourne Tour: an amazing, door-opening opportunity for young singers, the opportunity has gone before it’s even presented in some cases. Another organization that was cut really badly—to the point where it’s had to close—is Psappha. It’s heartbreaking that opportunities are vanishing before they’re even able to be presented to the artists that might be able to be part of it.
As a singer, of course, even one who doesn’t necessarily focus on opera, the impact of [cuts to] ENO and Glyndebourne is just totally destabilizing for all singers, whether they sing with those companies or not. Whether the goal is for you to sing at Glyndebourne or ENO, or somewhere else, or even sing completely different repertoire, these are titan organizations for singers. Their health is vital to the health of the whole industry.
I’ve already made some decisions recently to do things a little bit differently in the future in terms of maybe doing a bit more operatic work, if anything to enable me to do the “weird stuff” as well. I certainly hope that we don’t get to a point where I feel like I’m having to make financial decisions to eliminate elements of my practice to be able to survive, but there is that concern. Without the government funding for the organizations making these projects happen, unless we just start something new ourselves, it just won’t happen. I’m not a fundraiser, I’m not particularly good at doing applications for grants and that kind of thing, and I do feel a little bit at the whim of the organizations that want to employ me, and want me to be a part of a project. If they’re not in a position to make those offers, it’s all a bit worrying.
I’m Australian, I was raised in Germany, and I lived in Australia for a long time. But I came back to Europe, and I’ve come back to the UK. I could have gone elsewhere, but I could sense that I was heading down a slightly odd career route already, and I felt I would be able to do more of everything in the UK. And it’s turned out that I’ve been completely proved right. I’ve been here for almost nine years. I chose the UK because of the wonderful environment here, and I love it, and I absolutely don’t intend to leave. That’s the thing; we’re in a really difficult situation right now, but I do fundamentally, truly believe in the UK arts scene. ¶
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