Welsh National Opera: open letter laments Arts Council funding cut
With signatories including six former WNO leaders, the letter labels Arts Council England's proposed funding cut 'the reverse of levelling up'
Welsh National Opera has produced an open letter concerning the threat to its future role in both England and Wales.
It has been signed by 19 people, including former WNO leaders Sir Richard Armstrong, Sir Brian McMaster, Matthew Epstein, Anthony Freud, John Fisher and Sir David Pountney.
The full text of the letter is as follows:
In the debate on arts funding in England little attention has been paid to the deleterious effects of Arts Council England’s (ACE) plans on a major provider to English provincial cities – an arts company of international repute that is based in Wales, Welsh National Opera (WNO).
For many decades the funding of WNO has been shared between the two Arts Councils of Wales and England, an arrangement that has long been regarded as an invaluable cross-border bargain that benefits audiences in both countries.
It has allowed the creation of an opera company of a scale that Wales alone might struggle to sustain financially. At the same time, it has brought to seven English cities regular opera performances of international quality.
The public may not be aware that until the Covid lockdown, a majority of WNO’s performances each year were given in England – in Bristol, Plymouth, Southampton, Oxford, Milton Keynes, Birmingham and Liverpool. This cross-border bargain is now imperilled, disadvantaging both countries.
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ACE's plan to reduce WNO’s funding by 35% will not only sharply reduce WNO’s opera provision in England outside London, but will also threaten WNO’s service to Wales, at the very moment that Arts Council Wales (ACW) is undertaking its own strategic review. This is the reverse of levelling up.
Although ACE has offered WNO ‘transition funding’, the proposed transition would involve reductions in the number of full-time members of the orchestra and chorus that will profoundly change the nature of the company as well as its capacity to deliver the education and community work that has benefited so many young people and communities in Wales and in the English cities to which the company tours.
Several of us have been involved in successive strategic reviews of the company’s operations, all of which involved both Arts Councils. In each of these exercises it has been concluded that maintaining a full-time chorus and orchestra is central to sustaining that quality. The current proposal to rely much more heavily on freelance players and singers – neither easy nor practical outside London – strikes at the very source of WNO’s high reputation.
In the wake of last week’s 40th anniversary of BBC Cardiff Singer of the World it is utterly perplexing to us that these plans should be under discussion at the very moment that ACE is embarking on a strategic review of opera and music theatre. Horses and carts come to mind.
Moreover, we note that the proposed review refers only to England. We would urge ACE and ACW to work together on this review, to ensure its remit includes England and Wales, and for any reduction in WNO’s artistic core to be resisted while that review is undertaken. Arguably, this could merit an all-UK approach.
At the same time, we would urge ACW and the Welsh Government not to compound ACE’s error by any further injury to a company that has burnished Wales’s artistic reputation across the world for three-quarters of a century.
Sir Richard Armstrong
Music director, WNO, 1973-86
Dame Hilary Boulding
Principal, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, 2007-2017
Senior artistic advisor, Sante Fe Opera; general director, WNO, 1991-94; artistic director, Lyric Opera of Chicago, 1999-2005
Chief executive and artistic director, WNO, 2006-11; director of music administration, New York Metropolitan Opera, 1997-2006
General director, Lyric Opera of Chicago; General Director, WNO, 1994-2005
Principal, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama
Artistic director, BBC Cardiff Singer of the World
Gwyn Hughes Jones
Former chair, Arts & Business Cymru
Sir Brian McMaster
Managing director, WNO, 1976-1991; Director, Edinburgh International Festival, 1991-2006.
Sir David Pountney
Artistic director, WNO, 2011-19; Director of Productions, ENO, 1982-93
Honorary president, WNO and past Chair, Arts Council of Wales
Director of music, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama
Chair, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama 2002-05; board member, WNO, 2010-2018
Geraint Talfan Davies
Chair, ACW, 2003-06; chair, WNO, 2006-16
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa
Opera Singer and patron, BBC Cardiff Singer of the World
Lord Wigley of Caernarfon
Pictured: Peter Berger as Laca Klemen and Elizabeth Llewellyn as Jenůfa in WNO's production of Janáček's Jenůfa, 2022. Pic: Robbie Jack/Corbis/Getty
Steve has been an avid listener of classical music since childhood, and now contributes a variety of features to BBC Music’s magazine and website. He started writing about music as Arts Editor of an Oxford University student newspaper and has continued ever since, serving as Arts Editor on various magazines.