Funding for Opera and The Arts Plan

Funding for Opera and The Arts Plan

The huge cost of old operas limits funding for every other music activity in this country, argues composer Roger Doyle.

Arts Council funding for opera currently eats up almost half of the entire budget for music, and opera companies are looking for a lot more. The figures for 2001 are: opera €2.78 million; all other music €3.2 million.

Opera is stuck in a unique position in that, due to the conservative tastes of its audience, it is almost forced into producing a more or less standard fare of a rotating repertoire of ten or so ‘favourites’ forever and ever and ever.

Can you imagine the Abbey Theatre putting on a rotating repertoire of Shakespeare and non-Irish eighteenth and nineteenth century plays, year in and year out, and getting huge grants? Opera’s expensive production costs ultimately limit funding for practically every other music activity in this country, where innovation and above all ‘change’ occurs. And how do Irish composers fit into all this?

The Arts Council’s Arts Plan 2002-2006 states that among its objectives are ‘to make an arts career a realistic ambition for excellent and innovative artists’, and to, ‘extend the international impact and success of Irish arts and artists’. It is unfair to Ireland’s fine creative composers and musicians (especially the young generation) coming on stream now in all genres to have their careers somewhat curtailed because somewhere along the line some opera written long ago in a far-off land is costing, and continues to cost, so much to produce here. Contemporary music being made by living Irish composers and performers is very badly underfunded. Recent plans to set up a full-time contemporary music ensemble by the Arts Council have been scrapped and the commissioning scheme whereby new works can be commissioned and largely paid for by the Arts Council has had its funding cut very badly.

Among the stated plans in the Arts Plan 2002-2006 document is ‘Making Irish Opera Viable’. One plan is to ‘facilitate performances overseas of successful work by Irish composers’.

Further plans published by the Arts Council for opera are ‘to increase the number of commissions to Irish artists and more performances of their work at home and abroad’ and ‘provide more opportunities for audiences to experience the entire opera repertoire, including contemporary work’. These are good guidelines and they must be met now.

A Positive Proposal
In January 2001 the Genesis Foundation in Great Britain made a call to composers and librettists around the world for new opera commissions. Composer/librettist teams were asked to submit an idea for an opera, together with examples of their work. 210 entries were received. In November 2001 the Genesis Foundation announced 9 finalists who would receive £3,000 each to produce a draft libretto and about 15 minutes of music. Among these finalists was a young Irish team, composer Jurgen Simpson and librettist Simon Doyle (they had previously mounted a short chamber opera on a tiny budget at the Dublin Fringe festival).

In April 2002 the Foundation announced three teams who would be asked to complete their opera and who would receive £12,000 for the composer and £2,000 for the librettist. All three operas would be performed at the Almeida and Aldeburgh Festivals in Great Britain in the summer of 2003. The Simpson/Doyle team again made that list! The winning opera will receive a further £20,000 prize.

All this shows that not only do we have an emerging generation of composers (if only they were searched out) who can write new opera, but also that the Genesis Foundation have shown us all a fascinating blueprint for others to follow. Instead of an opera company taking a leap in the dark and commissioning an Irish composer to write an opera, it can be done step by step, with huge input from the opera company as to the sort of music they are looking for, over a two and a half year time-scale. It is thus possible that in the next ten years we could have four new operas from Irish composers, if the will was there.

The Dublin Grand Opera Society, which in recent years has transformed itself into Opera Ireland, last produced an Irish opera in 1968 and before that it was 1943. Opera Theatre Company is the only Irish opera company to regularly commission and perform Irish chamber opera.

Other possibilities costing less would be to piggy-back on the Simpson/Doyle opera and mount it here whether or not it wins the first prize. Also, the Contemporary Music Centre tell me that there are thirty already-existing operas in their library.

What must be mentioned also is the fact that one of Europe’s leading composers of opera is Irish. Are there no red faces in opera circles here, in the year of Gerald Barry’s 50th birthday celebrations, where productions of his operas are being performed in Britain at the Almeida, Huddersfield and Aldeburgh Festivals?

It is now the time for opera companies to look into the community that supports them and find the creative talent that will enable them to produce new Irish opera and also to find a new younger audience.

In recent years Opera Ireland made a leap in the dark with the English composer Turnage’s The Silver Tassie (Irish text, English composer) but almost went under with the huge losses incurred. A more structured approach like the Genesis Foundation’s concept would work better.

I appreciate that efforts are made to employ Irish singers, designers, and so on, wherever possible, but it is the Irish composers who now must be served. I would recommend that Arts Council funding be conditional on this point.

As I finish this article I have just learnt that Opera Theatre Company is to perform the Simpson/Doyle opera Thwaite next year in a co-production with the Almeida Festival.

Read John McLachlan’s review of Jürgen Simpson and Simon Doyle’s Thwaite from 2003 here;

Published on 1 September 2002

Roger Doyle is a Dublin-based Irish composer working in electronic music.

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