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Music Pages

UK opera companies rally to retain orchestras

28 January 2013, Leeds, UK

Opera North music director Richard Farnes
Opera North music director Richard Farnes(Photo: Bill Cooper)

Report by Keith Clarke

Fears that the opera orchestra could be an endangered species were raised at this year’s annual conference of the Association of British Orchestras, held in Leeds 23-25 January.

In a session chaired by Opera Now editor Ashutosh Khandekar, the challenges facing opera orchestras were outlined by Richard Farnes and Richard Mantle, music director and general director of Opera North, and Henry Little, chairman of the National Opera Co-ordinating Committee.

Little, who spent ten years as head of opera at Arts Council England, said: ‘Across the country, the whole network of opera ensembles is largely quite unacknowledged, yet it is a top-quality musical force that really drives the success of the companies.’ There had been calls to disband opera orchestras, with existing concert orchestras deployed instead. Little said he had ‘spent ages in darkened rooms drawing up models and looking at schedules … and in every case it just wasn’t practical.’

Aside from the logistics, the ensemble nature of an opera orchestra could not be overlooked, said Richard Farnes: ‘Opera companies are called opera companies for a very good reason. It’s an ensemble of people with a multitude of different crafts who are all coming together with a common aim to create a three-dimensional piece of work musically and thematically on the stage. The intrinsic quality of what you get from an ensemble is completely different.’

Arts Council England is currently reconsidering its provision of opera in England. Richard Mantle seemed unoptimistic about the outcome. ‘There is a staggering lack of understanding among our funders about the very particular nature of opera. It’s all about costs. The Arts Council is absolutely terrified of the relative costs of an opera company or a large-scale lyric company, the big employers. They see something like 39% of their grant going to nine companies and they really can’t cope with that.’


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