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A report into the opera sector commissioned by Arts Council England has warned that the rising costs of staging productions are outstripping income.

Malcolm Ridley as Harrison Howell Kiss me Kate Opera North tour 2018
Malcolm Ridley as Harrison Howell in Opera North's Kiss me Kate

Opera North

A study examining the state of opera in the UK has warned that significant challenges “may limit sector ambitions” for the artform's future.

Arts Council England (ACE) commissioned the independent analysis last year to better understand how the sector currently operates and "inform its future investment in opera and music theatre".

The study follows significant cuts to grants for operatic and classical music organisations in the 2023-2026 National Portfolio.  


Acknowledging a widespread view that the sector is “vulnerable and under threat,” the report suggested that those critical of ACE’s November 2022 funding decisions were “failing to understand why cuts have taken place” and that they needed to do so to “address its challenges”.

The 113-page report described “an inescapable tension” between currently available income streams for opera and the balance of activities and ambitions in the sector, particularly those that align with ACE’s own Let’s Create requirements. 

In its conclusions, the report stated that “irrespective of scale”, income streams for opera are “under pressure” and that “rising costs of running opera and music theatre organisations are outstripping income”.

Reflecting the pressures on key income streams, the report noted that in the last 10 years, the only new area of income for opera had come in the form of creative tax reliefs, particularly the Theatre Tax Relief, which was permanently increased to a higher rate in the Chancellor's 2024 Spring Budget.

Elsewhere, the sector was found to be struggling with standstill or reduced public funding, trusts and foundations changing their priorities, and donorship and ticket sales still recovering after the pandemic.

The report also noted that some other forms of public funding previously available from the EU had ceased due to Brexit, while some contributors suggested that Brexit had impacted the amount received from their individual donors and corporate sponsors.

Many contributors suggested that issues with income streams were being exacerbated by perceptions of elitism in opera, which are present not only among the general public but also among stakeholders, including ACE.

There was also a widely held view that ACE is “not listening” to the sector's challenges, suggesting that the report was commissioned to attempt "to explain the November 2022 NPO decisions after the fact". 

The report noted: “This is a source of resentment and frustration, although we have heard few suggestions about a remedy for this situation.” 

'An expensive art form' 

As with other art forms, the report suggested that opera has been heavily affected by increased costs of materials, operating buildings, transport, accommodation, and rising wages and fees. 

However, it recognised the particular challenge facing opera as “an expensive artform” that requires long rehearsal periods with limited performances and demands “luxurious and traditional” productions staffed by a significant number of specialist talent, spanning different unions and working practices.

In line with much of the arts sector, the report found that wage and fee depression in real terms across talent areas in opera was “unsustainable in the long term” and “placed a disproportionate burden on individuals, particularly freelance workers”. 

Despite the breadth of the financial challenges facing opera exacerbated by a narrow audience and repertoire, the report saw “limited evidence of changing or new business models”.

Opportunities and challenges

Looking to the future, the report identified several opportunities and challenges for the sector, including a more strategic, sector-wide approach to talent development, as many contributors expressed concern that years of diminishing music education in state schools meant younger generations had few opportunities to be introduced to opera.

It also suggested the sector might benefit from a more joined-up collaborative approach to audience insight and extending existing collaborations to support new work in opera.

Acknowledging that "touring is becoming more expensive and difficult to undertake" partly due to rising costs and inflation, the report "found a significant geographical imbalance" with challenges including pressures on venues, particularly where they are owned or run by local authorities.

Opera companies also felt venues could be risk-averse to new or less well-known work and not willing to prioritise opera and music theatre productions over other touring productions because they offer a better financial return.

Meanwhile, some venues were frustrated by ACE's perceived lack of dialogue about cuts to opera and music theatre companies and did not feel that ACE had a sense of the distribution of the work that it funds or how that distribution works through venues.

The report indicated that cross-border work is required by both the sector and "funders" to "re-map" current touring infrastructure and consider how the sector might better reach a broader range of communities in larger and smaller venues.

It added that there is potential to learn from other art forms and a need to "surface more clearly" challenges shared across art forms indicative of more significant infrastructural issues.

Reflecting the pressures on key income streams, the report proposed opera could learn from organisations both within and outside the sector that have different business models or are trying out new approaches to generating income.

While the report said there was "limited evidence" of changing or new business models in opera, there were examples of larger organisations maximising potential earned income by exploiting artistic assets and a few smaller and/or newer companies exploring start-up funding and licensing productions in different ways.

It also suggested that more collaborative and open working could help the sector contribute to the overall delivery of ACE's Let’s Create strategy, specifically supporting innovative business models, engaging with new technologies and audience habits and finding new ways of reaching audiences.

Reacting to the findings, an Arts Council England spokesperson said the funding body wanted to "ensure we invest our resources in ways that meet the long-term interests of both the public and the opera and music theatre sector in this country".

They added that ACE hopes the analysis will "start a new conversation with the sector" about both its findings and how ACE and those in the sector should respond. 

A headshot of Mary Stone