Norman Lebrecht

British opera companies and orchestras must start investing in native talent

Brexit and Covid have pushed Britain out of the common musical market and thrown us back on homegrown sprouts. Good, says Norman Lebrecht

The making of a British opera company: English mezzo Edith Coates as Carmen in 1947 in the Royal Opera’s first postwar production,with sets by artist Edward Burra. Credit: Baron/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Early in 1946, two men boarded a train at Euston and went trawling for talent. Audition notices were posted at town halls up and down the land: singers wanted, no experience required. Two thousand applied. One town after another, they lined up for Karl Rankl, Covent Garden’s music director, and David Webster, its general manager.

Those who sang in tune were hired, £8 a week for chorus, £40 for soloists. An organist in a Harrogate church was appointed chorusmaster. ‘At Carmen rehearsals,’ recalled Constance Shacklock, a farm girl from Nottinghamshire and future star, ‘none of us had ever seen a Carmen before, let alone sung one.’

By mid-year, Covent Garden had a credible opera company. Within five years it was world-class, performing Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle and Alban Berg’s modernist Wozzeck. Indigent continentals such as Kirsten Flagstad and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf added gloss and know-how, but the core ensemble was homegrown. ‘We were building a British opera company,’ Shacklock told me not long before her death in 1999. ‘We were working as a team to build something of value, something the country could be proud of.’

In 2016, shortly after Britain voted to leave the European Union, I had breakfast with Covent Garden’s head of opera, Oliver Mears, to see if there were lessons to be learned from the company’s origins. It was clear from the Brexit result that opera would have to reconfigure casting practices. Singers from Europe would require visas. A substitute could no longer be flown in on the day. We were going to need an ensemble of British singers to cover most roles, with the occasional Netrebko or Kaufmann jetting in as box-office candy.

Young British singers were joining German companies because they could not get roles in London or Leeds

So much had gone wrong down the years in British opera, most of all an overdependence on third-rate imports at the expense of native talent.

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