On November 11th, Arts Council England’s Director of Music, Claire Mera-Nelson wrote a blog in defence of the latest National Portfolio Organisation funding round. In it, she stated that the organisation’s aim was to ‘support the future development of England’s music ecology as a whole, as well as to ensure support for a new generation of audiences and musical talent’. In a portfolio that actually increased by £40 Million, it is certainly true that the new distribution covers a broader variety of artforms, and digs deeper into the community and grass roots provision, with a shift of funding away from the most populous and diverse city in the country - London. It remains to be seen whether these decisions will support the ecology of music as a whole, but one thing is certain - in acceding to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport’s demands from a no-longer serving minister, the Arts Council strategy for classical music has dangerously destabilised the delicate and interdependent structures allowing it to function.
Let’s leave to one side the deeply flawed concept that English National Opera might simply up sticks and relocate to a yet undecided location, with less the half its previous funding – Samira Ahmed and Stuart Murphy have already spoken eloquently about this on Front Row recently. This rejected suggestion is part of a wider confusion, in which the Arts Council has cut, or defunded, major orchestras, ensembles and opera companies at the same time as increasing the funding of youth music initiatives.
Looking at the figures, there is increased support for British Youth Opera, Music for Youth, National Youth Choirs of Great Britain, and the National Youth Orchestra, and entirely new support for The National Children’s Orchestra of Great Britain and Awards for Young Musicians. Conversely, at the professional coal face, Britten Sinfonia, Psappha, The Barbican and English National Opera are defunded, and there are damaging percentages of funding removed from Glyndebourne (51.8%), London Sinfonietta (41%), Welsh National Opera (35%), London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, and the Philharmonia (all 12%), Southbank Centre (10%) and the Royal Opera House (9%). Rather than supporting the next generation of musical talent in the classical music sector, the Arts Council has built an Escher’s staircase of impossibility, in which young people are being encouraged into developing a passion for artforms they are less and less likely to earn a living from.
Of course, music for music’s sake is a wonderful thing, and it is increasingly necessary to support initiatives for young people, in light of the dismantling of music in state schools. The issue here is that some (or many) of these children and young people, switched on to the power of music and shared creative expression, might decide to take it up professionally. British Youth Opera, a platform that has long been considered a steppingstone into the professional opera world, has seen an increase of nearly 20% in funding - here, the Arts Council endorses the training of the next generation of singers with the one hand, all the while whipping away their means of sustainable employment with the other.
Staying with opera, Mera-Nelson points to the ‘appetite to enjoy opera: at different scales, reimagined in new ways, and on new stages’ mentioning the increased support for English Touring Opera, Birmingham Opera Company, and new support for Pegasus Opera and Opera UpClose. This increased support, which is both deserved and cheering, comes, unfortunately, at the expense of some of the bigger opera companies. It has not been understood that less resourced companies, whilst a vital part of the professional opera world, are not a final destination for most singers. They are where many young artists cut their teeth, on a relatively low wage, while gaining the invaluable experience they need to build the stamina and craft for a bigger stage (with a bigger wage). If the starting point becomes the end point for singers graduating from young artist programmes, where will the next year’s graduates perform, and the graduates the year after that? This strategy, far from helping future generations of talent, creates a talent crush.
the Arts Council endorses the training of the next generation of singers with the one hand, all the while whipping away their means of sustainable employment with the other.
Arts Council Chief Executive Darren Henley echoes Mera-Nelson’s view on opera, in his article for The Guardian on the 14th November, in which he alludes to the increased appetite for ‘opera in car parks, opera in pubs, opera on your tablet’. This may well be so, but the audience is only half of the equation. What about the artists? If the singers and instrumentalists we train today are limited financially to this kind of opportunity, you may well hear some sobbing interspersed with the singing and playing in the carparks and pubs of the future.
What is the message our Arts Council is trying to send to our young musicians? That they want them to train, and to immerse themselves in music, but that their years of dedication and craft cannot add up to earning a living? Alongside my life as a singer and writer, I work in Artist Development at the Royal Academy of Music. Our entire remit is to prepare students practically and creatively for a fast-changing music world. On Monday morning, on the last day of an inspiring course making new work with Glyndebourne’s Artistic Director, Stephen Langridge, the students began to express their fears. These young people, driven and excited about the possibilities of their music-making, are watching the very fabric of their future professional lives being eroded. Among the students in that room, several were composers, and for them the news looks particularly bleak. One of the main new music funders, The PRS Foundation, is cutting its support by 60% from 2024. Psappha, the innovative ensemble responsible for more than five hundred new commissions over the last thirty years, is now in imminent danger, and new music charity Sound and Music is cut by over 30%. With other orchestras and opera companies depleted, the commitment to new work will falter even more than it has already, because of its expense and risk. It becomes increasingly doubtful that the composition students we train today will have their works premiered by ensembles, orchestras and opera companies in the UK; they will look elsewhere for sustenance, our musical culture will be the poorer for it, and the less relevant.
Composers can at least compose mainly from home, wherever their work is commissioned and performed, but what will happen to our young, UK-based instrumentalists, singers and conductors, given the dwindling employment prospects here? We can’t encourage them as freelancers to make use of the professional opportunities in our neighbouring countries as we once did - Brexit has capped the number of days they can work in the EU to ninety in any given year. Unlike the international students we train, our home-grown talent must either invest in their futures in the UK or choose to live permanently elsewhere. As an educator, I now find myself wondering if I should be advising the latter - if we really have got to the point at which we are training our students to leave the country.
It becomes increasingly doubtful that the composition students we train today will have their works premiered by ensembles, orchestras and opera companies in the UK; they will look elsewhere for sustenance, our musical culture will be the poorer for it, and the less relevant.
I would ask the Arts Council to think again about the inherent contradictions in their current strategy. Increasing the support for youth initiatives should not only be a ticked box for inclusivity and access, if talented young musicians are subsequently unticked from entering the profession in a realistic way. Darren Henley writes in the Guardian that ‘new ideas may seem heretic to traditionalists, but fresh thinking helps the art form reimagine itself and remain exciting and meaningful to future generations of audiences and artists.’ I agree – new ideas are essential to keep classical music provision dynamic and culturally relevant, but by slashing the ability to create new work, and limiting the professional possibilities for classical musicians, the future for artists and audiences here will not be exciting and meaningful - it will be extremely quiet.
Dr Jessica Walker
Singer and Writer
Senior Lecturer and Lead in Artist Development, Royal Academy of Music