A Case Against (Some) Subsidy OR Why I'm Trying To Make A Commercially Populist Opera
Updated: Aug 7
You may have seen the news of the failure of the ‘Festival of Brexit’, at over £500 subsidy per head for a deeply unpopular (poorly marketed?) event.
But if per capita subsidy is bad, we might look at opera for another oft-cited example.
I work for a subsidised arts organisation; until recently I also worked for another one.
I’m really fond of having a job. Also of what subsidy makes possible.
In some ways.
And I’d most certainly like to live outside the so-called logic of capitalism, so please take that as an underlying assumption that none of the pragmatics described are things I’d describe as inherently virtuous.
Disclosure out the way, here’s an argument against subsidy, based primarily on a comparison between new opera and interactive immersive theatre. This will use broad generalisations, with apologies, and also more on the fringe than the ‘mainstream’ (i.e. we’re talking Parabolic and [small opera companies I won’t be so unkind as to name], not Punchdrunk and the Royal Opera House).
An alternate title might be: why am I (still) trying to make a money-grubbing opera?
Both forms are predominantly artist-led, with creators being deeply involved in pushing forwards their imagined show on a production side.
Both have sparkling creativity, alongside some more generic work.
Both are remarkably expensive to stage due to some underlying requirements (singers and musicians for opera, actors and a room that can be turned into a world for interactive immersive theatre).
New opera takes place within a subsidy ecosystem. That is to say, if you’re putting on a new opera, your expectation would be that you’ll need to apply to grant giving bodies from Arts Council England down to local councils and small charities in order to fund your work.
Interactive theatre takes place within a commercial ecosystem. That is to say people putting on new interactive theatre expect to have to make money off their ticket sales in order to meet their costs.
New opera tends to have a series of workshops across a large number of years, often including public R&D sharings and scratch performances, before a short (typically final) run of 4-8 shows. A very small number of these works have a life beyond that initial run.
Interactive theatre tends to have a few private tests, followed by an initial run of 2-4 weeks (usually towards the latter), followed within 6-12 months by a longer 2-3 month run if the initial run was successful. The form is still too new to have a clear concept of if ‘repertoire’ applies as a concept, though some works do get numerous revivals.
In short: interactive theatre takes a rapid-iteration model, keeping momentum going between stages. New opera often takes longer, with delays caused in part by the need to raise new grant funds between sharings.
Broadly speaking: interactive theatre always has its eye on its audience. New opera often has an eye on the audience, but grants create an independence from them that allows (in theory) “art for art’s sake”.
This is probably why interactive theatre often draws on pulp genres, and new opera can draw on schools of composition that more or less explicitly declared that being accessible to a non-specialist audience was not important to them.
Within the aesthetics of new opera, this is fine. The problems (to my mind) come from where that subsidy model clashes with other values often held by new opera makers.
People love their interactive theatre companies. In part, this is because the very form of interactive theatre enables an almost parasocial relationship with the characters one interacts with. But it is also because interactive theatre companies deliberately try to make work that will appeal to their audiences.
New opera does have a core audience. But it is small, specialist, and often working within the sector in some form. While there is a school of thought that says ‘if you were only to just put it in front of people, they’d get it!’, the data I’ve seen suggests that new opera has a lower rate of new-visitor retention than interactive theatre.
Why does this matter?
For an explanation, I’d resort to three points I have probably used on this blog before:
If I invited you to a social gathering, and I spoke to the other guests primarily in Urdu, you would probably feel somewhat unwelcome if you did not speak Urdu (I do not speak much Urdu). It is likely that, if I invited you to that gathering again, you would be less likely to say yes.
If you have a choice what to do in the evening, one option is one of many streaming services offering near-infinite amounts of entertainment for a price heavily subsidised by venture capital. That is the entertainment industry’s main competition, and it is very appealingly audience focused.
If you went on a date with someone, and they clearly put themselves first at every opportunity - sitting outside though you were cold, because they liked the chill, going to a fish restaurant despite your allergies, because they’ve been told it’s the best in town, loudly condescending the waiter who served you despite your discomfort, because they enjoy feeling powerful and are a dick - you would (hopefully) not feel obliged to go on a second date.
On the other hand, someone really trying to win your affections might well try and find you the warmest table, an entirely fish-free restaurant, and treat the waiting staff with impeccable manners. Because they wanted to appeal to you, and knew you had other options.
Now, the first person might rant and rage about how they cannot get a date and are chronically single. And hopefully at some point, their mother will say “it is time for you to become a better person, so someone might actually want to date you.”
Subsidy makes it easy for new opera to ignore their dates. Interactive theatre has no other choice.
Other Functions Of Subsidy & Commerce
Currently, subsidy arguably makes work more accessible by pushing down ticket prices. However, based on industry data, it is difficult to believe that this is highly effective in terms of making work for a broader audience, rather than making it more affordable for the current audience.
Strategies to broaden audience (marketing, outreach & education) seem comparatively underfunded in the subsidised sector. While a commercial show or festival might have 10-30% of its budget devoted to promoting the work, it is rare to see that in the subsidised sector. Should the true purpose of it be to broaden appeal, one might expect such investment to be a requirement of the grant.
It is also worth noting that just because a work is commercial, it is not necessarily all-audiences. The overwhelmingly white, male, heterosexual Marvel Cinematic Universe (with sufficient nods to other groups as to sell them tie-in merchandise too) is a fine example of this. However, that cinema has started to notice the pink/black/brown/whatever dollar shows that commercial self-interest can drive change.
Right now, I think there’s something quite exciting happening in interactive theatre, driven by its need for audience approval. I’m not saying it’s the right answer for everything, but it’s quite an exciting glove to have thrown down to my operatic world.
There is wonderful, important work that does not think of its audience; that is formed for art alone, and would not be formed by the logic of the market. Some of that gains popular appeal, some only for connoisseurs. This sort of work is important, and I'd love to see more subsidy for art’s sake.
Maybe we believe in the inefficient market: that the work and workers created via subsidised channels is important because it eventually does become commercial, or takes a socially-beneficial risk the commercial sector might appreciate later (such as by representing marginalised groups), or a draw to support surrounding tourist industries, sometimes. All the rest is just wastage. Which we should, again, acknowledge.
But if the point of government subsidy and grants is to support an artform reaching out to a mass public via outreach and so on, it might have the opposite effect. It insulates the artform from audience disdain, when commercial forms can still innovate artistically while always being reliant on that mass public’s love.
Of course, it might be that we just need to design that subsidy better, allowing more budget for marketing, sustained engagement, and other such best-practice things.
And if the point of subsidy is to preserve points of national pride, that’s another matter entirely. But it might help to be clear about such things.
And make sure that, if you are doing a big national pride building festival, you’re clear enough about what you’re proud of that you’re comfortable telling people the festival exists.