Updated: Jul 7, 2020
Artistic Director, Becca Marriott, explores the value of art and opera in times of crisis...
In a recent article in the Sunday Times a colourful quarter page graphic proclaimed that the number 1 most useless job as...
Ironic of course, considering an artist would have been commissioned to create the image.
In times of crisis, Art seems like a luxury; but history screams loudly that it is not.
When we think of the First World War, many of us will engage with it emotionally and empathise with the men who suffered and died on both sides because of poetry, literature and cinema.
World War Two was a musical war - dotted with gramophones, songs and dances to release the human spirit trapped by terror, hunger and despair.
The Vietnam War was arguably brought to an end by a single photograph – a girl aflame with napalm sprayed from a US army plane.
The truth is that, in times of crisis, Art reminds us that we are human. To fight an enemy, be it fascism or a disease, we must constantly be reminded what we are fighting for – the freedom to express ourselves and our culture.
However, the greatest argument artists can make as they lobby governments to save an industry which has been decimated by lockdown, is the economic one. A trip to the theatre, or a gallery, means so much more to the economy than the ticket price.
From the train ticket you bought to reach your culture fix, to the meal out or the drinks afterwards, the nice dress you purchased to wear to that date at the opera, the alcohol tax receipts from arts venues (art and alcohol are, for better or worse, bedfellows), the Arts Industry is big business. It employs not only the painters, dancers, singer and actors, but hidden artists; designers, wardrobe mistresses, wiggies, graphic designers (think about the programmes and posters); as well as technical, administrative and service staff. The Arts Industry employs thousands of people in the UK, many young, all aspirational.
Artists regenerate areas. In 2010 I was party to some of the discussions of the developers of the huge new housing project on the site of the Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre, as I was co-creating an arts festival in the area. Why did these men of money want to talk to a penniless grass roots charity coordinating small literary events and fringe theatre and comedy? Simple – everyone wants to live in Bohemia. When an area has an artistic vibe, property prices rocket. It’s a long-established pattern. Cheap area; artists move in, little galleries, shops and theatres pop up, gentrification begins, and the area becomes expensive. It’s a world-wide trend. Artists are responsible for creating some of the most desirable places in the world to live; from Bloomsbury to Montmartre, The East Village to Monti; and with the big property price tags come big government tax gains.
These pennies in a country’s pocket are easily measured, but what about the subtle ways in which the Arts contribute to our GDP? Without downtime, be that an amazingly constructed television drama, a trip to a museum, a date at a West End Musical, or a stroll around a gallery, would our workforce be as productive? Even fascist states and totalitarian regimes recognise how vital it is to maintain The Arts and offer them to the people.
Furthermore, experiencing Art improves our ability to empathise and encourages kindness.
If we want a kind, generous and productive population we need The Arts.
And what about Opera?
While The Opera Makers are dedicated to producing smaller and medium-scale opera without reducing the operatic experience, it could be argued that grand opera is just a step too far in a starved economy.
A close friend of mine, who works mainly in improvised, stand-up and sketch comedy, asked me: “Why is Opera so expensive? Why can’t a huge (and regularly full) theatre, like the Royal Opera House pay for itself? It was then I pointed out that they employed a full-size orchestra, an entire chorus, a dance company, and in many instances nearly twenty principal artists per show, all on good wages. Then there’s the set, costume, wigs, design, theatre maintenance etc…
…should grand opera retreat?
Because all of this excess is opera’s very raison d'être. Yes, smaller scale opera is fantastic at drawing people into epic scale stories. I am a huge proponent of this relatively new form. But, grand opera with all the trimmings is a hugely important form.
Opera most closely translates from the Italian as “the undertaking”. This theatrical form has, at its very heart, the idea of being the absolute extreme in theatrical endeavor; encompassing dance, singing, acting, orchestration, the biggest sets, the boldest costumes, the grandest theatres. It is the pinnacle of stagecraft.
Asking: “Should full-on opera exist in these cash strapped times?” is like asking: “Should anyone enjoy the Christmas dinner binge in the age of moral veganism and obesity?”
We need excess, just as we need moderation. This is the nature of being human. As a race we have always dreamed of Babelian towers.
Opera feeds that need.