Instructed by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to move money away from London and reassign it to the regions as part of the Levelling Up strategy, Arts Council England has ended up making some very risky decisions. It has thrown funds at small untested groupuscules without a firm audience base and penalising major reputable institutions such as the Royal Opera House for their success and expertise. Given that the sector is struggling from the effects of the pandemic and the energy crisis – not to mention historic under-funding – the result could well be a catastrophic reduction in the quality and quantity of our cultural life, and a further blow to our international prestige. Opera is being particularly hard hit.
Undeniably, opera is an art form of interest to a relative minority and one that gobbles up the dosh in its need for full chorus and orchestra and months of rehearsal. But we do opera very well in Britain, and it is surely the job of any Arts Council to nurture excellence and support work that may be perceived as ‘difficult’ or arcane. Instead a scythe has been taken to it, cutting the grant to Glyndebourne’s touring wing down by half and chopping Welsh National Opera’s capacity to serve the Midlands and west of England. This isn’t levelling up, it’s dumbing down.
Most contentious of all will be the proposal to withdraw National Portfolio status from English National Opera – in other words, denying it a three-year funding agreement, currently set at £12 million per annum. In its place, it is being offered a one-off grant of £17 million to re-establish a base outside London, with Manchester being the front running location.
This is suicidal insanity. Nobody could doubt that ENO needs to change its business model from scratch and that its current home at the London Coliseum is totally unfit for purpose.