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Our much-discussed social and mental health relies on having something to live for and cherish during and after this existential shock. So when will someone start treating artists as Essential Workers, asks Julian Reynolds.

The National Theatre, Munich
The National Theatre, Munich - home of the Bavarian State Opera: “A theatre without an audience, without artists to enliven the stage and orchestra pit, is nothing more than a dead shell”

Marco Wiedmann CC BY-ND 2.0

As another three weeks of lockdown grind on, mini sound-bites about glimmers of light and the distant end of tunnels are trailed at the number 10 Coronavirus Press Conference, the only fully paid live stage show in town. Just how low the arts are on the list of Government priorities can be gauged by the uneven cast, the bland lighting, the dodgy tech and the tub-thumpingly predictable script.

So no surprise that hints about an “Exit Strategy” contain no references to the cultural sector. Support for the vast majority of those in the performing arts, the freelance singers, musicians, directors, designers and actors, wasn’t even considered for an ‘Entrance’ strategy or even a ‘Coping During Unlimited Future Lockdown Zero Freelance Work and Cancelled Contract Income’ strategy. The arts are expected to live up to their epithet, Get Creative and clearly Keep On Going It Alone. The Number 10 scriptwriting team hasn’t yet trusted the public with the truth that other European governments and institutions are openly sharing, that it is extremely unlikely there will be any theatres or concert halls operating at all in 2020.

Speaking with pride?

Opera managements in houses on the continent have responded with flexibility, mostly born from a properly funded public policy, with understanding and good will towards performers whose livelihoods have been put on hold; some houses are so locked up the finance directors can’t get secure computers to send owed fees (Italy), though gradually things for the future are getting ironed out. But as the UK government First Responders to any criticism seem to have quickly and secretly developed tests and antibodies for anything remotely continental, particularly in recent days ‘German’, my attention was drawn to the mismatch of UK/Continental cultural messaging.

On 26th March the German government came up with a €50 billion tailored creative and cultural industries package (£43.5 billion), and Berlin and other states have put aside €100s of millions more. In England, the ‘arms length’ Arts Council has truly wowed its clients, but not the tens of thousands more in the creative ecosystem, with the ever so slightly more conservative sum of around £160 million and a whole load of strings attached. Money is a message, but in the UK it seems to be the only message. The price, but not the value.

The Royal Opera House’s heavy heart ‘difficult time’ closure statement segued from the suspension’s ‘impact not only on our loyal audience but also our committed and talented workforce’ to the begging bowl next paragraph:, ‘Our employees, permanent and casual, are reliant on the income which we derive through ticket purchases… it is inevitable that we will become more reliant on philanthropic support and charitable donations. If you would like to support our work you can make a donation here’. Sadly this link does NOT support this blogger or most of his fellow freelance artists.

Compare this with, for example, the personal statement from Nikolaus Bachler, Intendant of the Bavarian State Opera, who is not afraid of actually speaking with pride about what the arts stand for and can bring to humanity. He wrote of his and his company’s pain from being forced to close, (stories of police arriving and stopping rehearsals will be long remembered): “A theatre without an audience, without artists to enliven the stage and orchestra pit, is nothing more than a dead shell” There’s no doubt in those words that an Opera Theatre’s sole raison d'être is for artists to perform, and that solidarity with them and safe strategies to perform again is and should be very much part of any Exit solution.

Essential Workers

Why is it in the UK we are afraid of expressing big thinking, challenging the government to a discussion about the indispensability of the arts and making the case that its practitioners are absolutely Essential Workers for our spiritual and intellectual wellbeing? Our much-discussed social and mental health relies on actually having something to live for and cherish during and after this existential shock. If in the near future various economically relatively essential industries can travel on public transport masked-up and distanced, why can’t audiences, theatre workers and essential artists do the same? Why not experiment with existing shows and audience spaces? The UK industry is packed full of amazing directors, assistants and world class stage-managers who could at the drop of a PPE hat reorganise productions to be Covid safe with 2 metre social distancing. It would be different but it would be alive and relevant, possibly profoundly moving. The government just needs to give the word for any number of creative initiatives to burst forth.

No end of streamed/skyped solo performances from living rooms and patronisingly truncated ‘show must go on’ 30 second segments at 9am on Radio 4 will ever give the vital rush of excitement a desperate population will have from a live performance. And there is no reason why this shouldn’t be made to pay, either through a live box-office or pay-per-view streaming for those who can’t travel. The sector needs to move now to secure a financially viable future for what could be the new normal. Artists do not get paid beyond the original live performance for most of the stuff that is used by the public through institutional streaming, which in the overused name of access-ability, is already scandalous. With Covid, the theatres are re-streaming their greatest hits and no one is getting a repeat fee, just a nice warm feeling if by chance they find out their work is being shared.

Now, not sometime later during the inevitable fall-out, is the time for the sector to creatively plan and campaign before it really does become the new normal and, just like the UK government, artists are all reduced to being enthusiastic amateurs. Or maybe that really is their secret glimmer of light arts Exit strategy.

Julian Reynolds is a piano-key-worker and long-term opera professional.

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Julian Reynolds


This conclusion raises valid concerns. Ever since 1965, when UK governments have had an Arts Minister and subsequently Culture Secretary of State, almost every Conservative holder of the office has tended to think of the arts as what public school chaps did for fun and the professional middle class did for their spare time entertainment (House of Lords debates on culture used to be full of the noble Lord This recalling the noble Lord That playing Katisha in The Mikado at school etc.) and it was no accident that John Major’s upgrade of the Ministry when the National Lottery began was named ‘Department of National Heritage’. Chris Smith’s important profiling of the UK’s creative industries’ during the British EU Presidency of 1998 failed to penetrate the Treasury’s industrial economy mindset – a problem we are still stuck with in 2020. Ed Vaizey’s uselessly complacent white paper in 2016 probably did more harm than good, and condoned ACE’s blatant misapplication of Lottery revenues. Julian Reynolds is spot on in identifying the longer-term risk that is embodied in the Treasury’s current overlooking of the cultural economy and seeming ignorance of how it is structured, while the privileged London institutions with their live-streaming capacity could, ironically, accelerate the wipeout of ‘live and local’ professional activity across the rest of the country.

Several more weeks have passed since this article was published, so Mr Reynolds must be really fuming by now. While he has a nice line in junior common room humour (“piano-key-worker” and “the only fully paid live stage show in town"), the self-serving tone is fatuous. I'm aware of his wide ranging operatic work but he suffers from the curse of life in the middle. That's his tragedy, he can only aspire to performing opera as well as Abbado, Rattle, Boulez, Muti so misses a crucial point in his argument. Maybe the opera-starved public don't need a return to Mr R's live performances but can in fact sit at home and go up a notch, listening to the truly great performances - say Bernstein conducting Carmen - which would be even more of a revelation this than a pretty good live show. Am afraid in these straightened times there's less energy to spare on opera conductors.