Classical music has an image problem

There is an ugly and damaging dispute at English National Opera, and as David Nice explains in a comment on a recent post: "The situation at ENO is complex in terms of how to find a solution, but not at all complex in the attempt to deprive 40 or so singing professionals of three months of their salary per annum. That's just morally wrong in my view". David and others are better qualified than me to commentate on what is happening at ENO, so I am leaving the detailed commentary in their capable hands. But I would add to David's comment that for decades ENO was part of my musical education; a production of The Mastersingers conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras in the early 1970s remains a highlight of my 50 years of concertgoing, and any diminution of ENO's creative potential would be a serious blow.

But making great music depends on finding the right balance, so today I offer a little balance. Classical music is between a rock and a hard place; with declining audiences and shifting demographics on one side pressing against shrinking funding on the other. The knee-jerk reaction to the distressingly frequent threats to great performing ensembles is to blame philistines who work at a distance from the musical coal face; usually it is 'the management' or 'the funders' who are blamed. In many cases these executive functionaries deserve much of the blame. But everyone in classical music must take at least some of the blame. The management and funders are trying - albeit clumsily in many cases - to make a shrinking financial cake go further. And classical music is not doing a good job of making the case for receiving a fair share of that shrinking cake.

Those of us who live, eat and breathe classical music know that it is one of the most sublime art forms, and we know that sublimity comes at considerable cost. But others, particularly those allocating shrinking resources across different art forms, may see things differently. They may see classical music as actively repositioning itself as a celebrity-centric entertainment obsessed more by self-promotion than artistic excellence, and see avaricious management agents exercising too much control and enjoying disproportionate financial rewards. They may also see classical music as paying little more than lip service to equality, as being profligate at celebrity level, and as enjoying financially lucrative dalliances with humanitarian-challenged regimes and ethically-compromised corporations. And those decision makers may well conclude that rather than tackling these all too evident shortcomings, classical music continues to argue for being treated as a special case.

Thankfully English National Opera does not indulge in the more extreme excesses of some of its higher profile peers, and what is happening to the ENO chorus is almost certainly morally wrong. But in our media-obsessed age perception is everything, and chaos theory applies even in art. Which means that when a conductor flaunts his Rolex in Los Angeles, another one has a Through the Keyhole moment in Baltimore, and another revs his Lamborghini in Bamberg, the purse strings draw tighter in London and elsewhere.

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David said…
You make another point which I hadn't really thought about recently: at ENO, it usually really is about the work more than the 'stars'. So much the better when Mike Leigh - brilliant - or Terry Gilliam - a little more hit and miss - help to fill up the big Coli. But it does mean so many of the meretricious trinket-trappings which can get in the way of the Royal Opera just don't figure. Not that the RO isn't equally capable of great work; but personally I still find the Coli as much of a pleasure to visit, with its courteous, friendly front of house staff especially, as ever I did as a teenager, while the Royal Opera becomes ever more an obstacle course: the richer the punters, the more liable they are to knock you over in the foyers and in the rush to the cloakroom.

Anyway what's become ever clearer is that Mark Wigglesworth has been an absolute Mensch to the artists, a deep and serious music-maker without affectations and a very decent human being. That, as a chorus member said, has been the one really bright light in the past few weeks.

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