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Arts Council England said the timing, nature and content of a letter critical of funding cuts imposed by the public body had 'caused it concern'.

The Wales Millenium Centre, home to Welsh National Opera
The Wales Millenium Centre, home to Welsh National Opera

Thomas Deusing/Creative Commons

Arts Council England (ACE) told Welsh National Opera (WNO) that funding already allocated to it could be in jeopardy because of an open letter by its Music Director criticising cuts imposed by the public body, it has emerged.

In an email sent to WNO Interim General Director Christopher Barron in March, ACE Chair Nicholas Serota said the letter by WNO Music Director Tomáš Hanus, published the previous week, appeared to "lobby publicly for the reinstatement of its ACE [National Portfolio] grant to 2018-23 levels".

Serota said that this position appeared to place WNO's commitment to meeting the terms of a £3.2m grant awarded through ACE's £9m Transform programme, designed to support NPOs that received a cut in funding, in doubt.


"If that is the case, we would have to review the £3.2m Transform grant," the letter, obtained via a Freedom of Information request by classical music magazine VAN, states.

Welsh National Opera saw its annual income from ACE cut from £6.24m a year to £4m a year for the 2023-26 period and ceased touring in Liverpool as a result.

Hanus's open letter, published around 16 months after WNO's core funding cut was announced by ACE in November 2022, said cuts had left it with a budget that is "not even sufficient for a small regional theatre".

He said he hoped the letter could contribute to an ACE's review of opera and musical theatre in England by ACE.

"It is certainly a challenging time for opera companies to look at fresh ways of engagement, but to do this they need to be properly resourced," he added.

'Significant concern within ACE'

In response, Serota said: "The timing, nature and content of the letter are causing me, and colleagues at Arts Council England, significant concern, not least because we are well into a three-year funding agreement which commits ACE to an investment to WNO in the period 2023-26.

"It is important that I relay these concerns to you.

"You will know that when WNO made its application for Transform funding, it did so on the premise that it was prepared to embark on a journey of transformative change for the company's business model as it adjusted to ongoing lower levels of investment from Arts Council England.

"That was the basis on which we made the £3.2m award.

"Tomas's letter - and the fact it clearly has the support of the wider leadership and chair of the company - suggests WNO is committed to a rather different course of action: to lobby publicly for the reinstatement of its ACE NPO grant to 2018-23 levels.

"If this is WNO's preferred course of action, then the company's commitment to meeting the terms of its Transform grant and undertaking the significant journey of business change appears to be in doubt.

"If that is the case, we would have to review the £3.2m Transform grant."

'No new money'

Serota went on to say that the "trigger" for Hanus's letter the appears to have been a sense that ACE's Opera and Music Theatre Analysis, published earlier that month was "somehow a 'review' in which the current funding levels of opera companies is open to discussion". 

"I understand that you have been told previously that this is absolutely not the case, and I am therefore surprised that you allowed the letter to be framed in this way," he said. 

"The NPO decisions for 2023-27 are final, and there is no new money attached to the delivery of the learning arising from the Analysis beyond the schemes and programmes already offered by Arts Council.

"I am happy to meet with you and Tomas together but should emphasise that it is not an opportunity to seek any changes to WNO's funding from Arts Council England. 

"I also hope that you would want to use such a meeting to confirm that you remain committed to the terms and purposes previously agreed in relation to the Transform grant and that your Chair will then be prepared to re-confirm this agreement in writing."

ACE said it was unable to comment due to the pre-election period of sensitivity.

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The Arts Council England's review of opera, "Let's Create: Opera and Music Theatre Analysis" was commissioned in May 2023 and published in March 2024 The open letter was published on the 1st March 2024 and although bit late in the day, it addressed a fundamental flaw in the analsis of opera which were specific areas the review did not investigate, one of which was, "The experiences of the full range of operatic talent including conductors and music directors, orchestral musicians and a variety of backstage and administrative roles". (Let's Create: Opera and Music Theatre Analysis p5).The Arts Council's response appears to me more like bullying in the work place. Furthere more the Transform monies are probably funded by lottery funding which means less money in the pot for lottery funding project grants - perhaps the Arts Council could throw some light on this? There are two theories in life the "conspiracy" and the "cock-up". This entire excercise is a management cock up on an Olympian scale and so far no one has been held to account - it is time that heads rolled in the Arts Council.