Just keep swimming
Raising money to run an independent opera company that has at its core reaching a diverse
audience with quality productions, and the serious, professional training of young artists - with all the complexity that entails - is an ongoing, never-ending battle. And frankly, not something I anticipated would be so relentlessly difficult, when I left my cushy, tenured academic position within a major University! Just recently, I sat across the table from someone looking after a very large philanthropic foundation and articulated our plans for the future, in particular for the Opera Festival, which has genuine potential to join the anticipated annual opera festivals of the world, and consistently attract local, regional, national and international visitors. (Given that we already attract a high percentage of international participants.) This person, playing devil’s advocate, asked many questions about activity, identity, and not being from an opera or theatre background, I could see she was struggling with how more opera than OA or VO presented could be justified. She said, “well, we ask the community what they want, and they never say opera”. If I had my wits about me, I could have responded with the (attributed) Churchill quote - when asked to cut arts funding to support the war effort, he refused and replied “then what are we fighting for?”.
The conversation goes some way to explain why it is challenging to extract support, and encourage attendance, for the arts in general, particularly as social issues and economic injustices become increasingly severe. It took me a little while to be able to respond. I recognise, as do the young people who continue to pursue a career path in opera, that the impact or need cannot possibly be measured in the same way as a warm bed, a safe place and a hot meal. But a piece of opera-theatre: the sound of a human voice making extraordinary sounds and telling innumerable stories can transport and impact another human in a way that is far-reaching - no exaggeration to say life-changing, profound, visceral - in a way that meeting everyday human requirements cannot.
Human needs that can be articulated in product and service are quite rightly a priority, but the act of opera, in its scale, extraordinariness, its tradition and anti-tradition - represents the coming together of talent, effort, skill, time, determination, love and devotion of a whole team of humans, and can be a shower of riches in an otherwise grey world. We persevere with opera, against the odds, not only because we carry and pass the torch of a 400 year old, ever-developing, ever-changing tradition, which fuses so many art-forms, not only because we carry the dreams of the future generations who lift up and perfect their voices, study the music, harness the skills to be theatrical and tell stories and reach hearts, but because we - humans - opera singers/practitioners - happen to be in possession of a treasure that cannot actually be quantified by money. We, opera singers, find ourselves, through no rational explanation other than sheer luck of physiology and a heightened need to communicate, capable of giving the world the gift of something they might not have ever realised they needed. And a group of people: our donors, supporters, helpers, advocates, understand this to be so, and help us have a platform upon which to sing and perform.
Belinda Prakhoff (Guest Artist) and Agathe de Courcy (Studio Artist, France) in Britten's CURLEW RIVER at 45 Downstairs Dir. Linda Thompson Des. Peter Corrigan