Throwing Down The Long Black Glove: Coming To Bargain With A Lack Of Funding
I’ve been invited to discuss this a number of times by opera peers, and tried to hold my tongue so I don’t feel like I’m using a hot take to drive tickets to my show.
Equally, we’ve just sold out the last show of the run, and there’s just six tickets left for the other night remaining, so I think that qualm might be escaping me.
And I do have quite an obvious take I’ve not seen elsewhere (at least, from within the sector).
I want to sum up my core values about operatic socio-economics before we start:
Opera isn’t inevitable. It can be allowed to die, like music hall was in the 1940s and 50s. After all, its core repertoire has shifted from being mostly-written-in-the-last-50-years at the height of UK popular opera in the 1920s to… stuff that mostly would have seemed very familiar back then. However much you like said repertoire, that should trouble you. If new novels were a niche form, and the government gave Penguin Classics tens of millions a year, we’d start asking questions.
Once we stop acting like opera has a right to exist, we might start making better arguments for its existence.
Traditional ‘grand’ opera is deliberately expensive, showing off the patron’s ability to afford such marvels - and we’ve avoided efficiencies such as automating the orchestra, for aesthetic reasons that defy modern economics (that is not to say this is the wrong choice; economics must not be allowed to trump all other causes).
Under Verdi and Puccini, opera was quite commercially savvy - but to my knowledge, such I-want-to-sell-a-cast-album works as Repo! The Genetic Opera rarely find their way to subsidised stages.
Subsidy is a privilege, not a right, and it binds companies as much as it frees them. While people have been shocked at Arts Council England’s latest demands for what subsidised organisations do, a bit of quid-pro-quo seems fairly reasonable when giving out tens of millions of pounds (not to mention introducing some criteria by which to judge ‘fairly’-ish).
Above all, what subsidy allows is for opera not to change. It allows the old large-scale operas to carry on, when that might not be what’s best for the form.
[I said might! I’m not entirely sure, since I do rather like them.]
It allows even smaller companies to try and emulate the big ones.
There’s more too it than that - marketing, wider cultures around philanthropy etc., commissioning models and so on - but I think these are the core points.
Why Reject Subsidy?
I didn’t get any, is the first reason. I think it’s quite a good one.
I realised that the amount of time I was spending on funding applications would be better spent working in a shop, putting the money aside where I could, and that’s been a core strand of Come Bargain’s starting capital.
We got support from Britten Pears Arts, the Opera Awards Foundation, the Royal Victoria Hall Foundation, and Tête à Tête, all of which I’ve viewed as start-up capital to allow us to make a commercially viable product unlike anything anyone’s seen.
Mostly, though, I was challenged by Owen Kingston of Parabolic Theatre pointing out that without subsidy, his company (which I love) has been required to engage with its audience, find out what they want, and serve them far more than many subsidised organisations. If they forget who they’re making work for, they fold. All while remaining free of changes in Arts Council policy.
I Want To Break Free (Of Subsidy)
Here’s how I did it. Roughly. I’ll polish these thoughts later.
1. I admitted to myself that I was having much more fun in more commercially-savvy fringe sectors - podcasts, tabletop roleplaying games, interactive theatre. I’d much rather spend my money there than at new operas, which felt tired by comparison.
It’s likely the hardest step for the opera sector, but admitting what else we find fun, and working with that, rather than appropriating little sniffs of “ooh, but it’s slightly influenced by drag/pop music/circus” might help you like it helped me.
2. I admitted to myself that subsidy was unlikely for any work I might make, no matter how safe, or how perfectly in line with ACE’s policy. So instead I decided to work out how to make work really well at a small scale, rather than as a tiny copy of work for a long-dead king.
And yes, there is a political aspect to that. When people say (subsidised) opera’s for everyone, remember that the king subsidising the bread and circuses is still a king, wanting something in exchange.
3. I decided to make work that, as a core requirement, a substantial number of people might like enough to pay for. Its aesthetic language seeks to thrive within a range that works for those outside the bubble, because we’d like their time and their money. It strives to be fun and delightful, because those things will keep audiences there, rather than the once-every-ten-minutes operatic chuckle of most ‘fun’ opera.
Besides: an art form that has forgotten laughter beyond that chuckle has died.
Never forget: your competition isn’t the Royal Opera House; it’s Disney+ and Netflix.
4. I decided to find the fecking bones of opera, and then stride off in another direction if those bones were still needed. Never forget that opera isn’t inevitable, and if you’re using it, you better have a damn good answer for why.
In Come Bargain’s case, it’s because it allows us to make a world where it feels like magic is real. That’s an old kind of opera, when singing was the voices of gods.
It takes us rather beyond the shabby copy of a form designed for the socio-economic values of another era that summarises much of the ‘modern dress, on a budget, still Tosca’ sector (not all of it).
5. Break your mind free of the idea that subsidy means freedom. This is a lie. You are as free in a commercial sector, beholden to your audience, as you are in a subsidised sector, beholden to funders’ latest policy initiative.
We’re selling out based on word of mouth; based on people being excited by what we’re making, and telling their friends.
With this run on sales, we might actually make money.
Some operatic peers seem to see this as dirty, based on their comments and sneering about genre fiction and not-really-opera. That’s fine. It’s not for everyone.
We’re free. We’re making something fun and beautiful; something people want. Enough to actually pay what it’s worth, rather than an artificially-suppressed price of subsidy.
Don’t you dare tell me it’s not aesthetically valuable because of that.
My team and I have made something I’m willing to declare pretty extraordinary.
Your Next Steps
Without subsidy, we suddenly have to imagine an opera that truly acts as though it requires its audience - not as a nice-to-have, but as a need-to-have.
That can be a wonderful relationship, forcing you to re-examine the entire thing from top to bottom, and find a new way of being operatic - if that’s still what you need to be.
Above all, I’m not saying “be like me!”
I’d hate to see endless clones of what I’ve done (both artistically, since it’d be dull, and financially, since I’d hate the derivative competition).
I’d also hate to see no subsidy - I think it does allow for the rectification of past wrongs in terms of who has the right to make work, to support work that might not otherwise be made, and above all, to ensure that everyone has access to great work. The above should be seen as an argument for an operatic sector that exists more like the National Theatre does, alongside a commercial one, rather than the current model of subsidy-first. Anyone who tries to use it to argue that I only want market forces, rather than just acknowledging mass patronage as a useful source of artistic motivation, can choke on the Uncanny Thing's long black veil.
But I’d love to see you try to take the same steps; of seeing where imagining operatic life beyond subsidy, not as terror or ACE-inflicted punishment, but an opportunity, leads.
And yes, now that I’ve made something that’s commercially successful, I will absolutely sell out to the first subsidised opera house that’ll take me (maybe even to direct Tosca).
This has been a terrifying ride, and I’m delighted that my four-year gamble seems to be paying off.
(If there are any tickets left, do grab one).