Fresh opportunities open up for Opera in Ireland

Arts Council is looking for applicants to provide ‘main-scale’ opera from 2018, as Opera Ireland finally gets something of a replacement

Wide Open Opera’s production of “The Barber of Seville”. Will Opera Theatre Company, Lyric Opera and Wexford Festival Opera also throw their hats into the ring?

Wide Open Opera’s production of “The Barber of Seville”. Will Opera Theatre Company, Lyric Opera and Wexford Festival Opera also throw their hats into the ring?

 

The Arts Council’s problematic handling of opera has been well aired in these pages. Happily, the council’s latest move on opera funding is in a positive negative direction. The budget for opera is to increase in the coming years, with the spends given as €3.26 million for 2016, €3.81 million for 2017 and €4.85 million for 2018.

The really big news is that the council has issued a call for proposals for “main-scale” opera provision from 2018. In other words, it has at last decided to address the vacuum that was left by the demise of Opera Ireland in 2010. And it’s decided to do this by creating a differently configured successor to OI.

What it’s going to do is “identify through an open application and dialogue process the most appropriate regular provider of an annual season of Irish-produced, main-scale, predominantly core-repertoire opera in Dublin from an agreed date in 2018, and the subsequent regular touring of some of this repertoire to appropriate venues in other parts of the country.”

Quite specific

The criteria it’s imposing are quite specific, and will involve three to four productions per season in Dublin, “with a view to regularly touring some productions to Cork and Wexford at an early juncture”. There’s to be an emphasis on “Irish/Irish-based opera artists and other professionals”, and on growing “large and diverse Irish audiences for opera”.

The council says that the successful applicant “is likely to have a deep understanding of opera production and opera audiences and have a strong track record which includes successfully addressing artist development and audience development in previous work”.

The new development, which involves planning up to 2020, is kicking off this morning, with a workshop on the application process for potential applicants. The process will be different to regular Arts Council applications. There will be dialogue before the submission of finalised proposals on May 4th, with a presentation to a seven-person expert advisory panel, on which Irish and international experts will outnumber the Arts Council representation. The final decision on the panel’s recommendations will be made by the council on May 24th. The fine print of the funding agreement is not expected to be finalised until the end of June.

Caveats

Before you have your head turned by the headline figures, there are a number of caveats. The funding available for the new company in 2018 will be €1.8 million. If you adjust for inflation, that’s pretty much equivalent to the €1.62 million Opera Ireland received in its last year of operation. And the total 2018 opera budget of €4.85 million is actually lower in real terms than the €3.65 million allocated to Opera Ireland, Opera Theatre Company and Wexford Festival opera in that same year. In other words, in 2010 those three companies received more than the 2018 total, which will also have to cover other production and commission awards as well as bursaries and travel grants.

Given that Ireland has a very limited number of opera producers, it seems inevitable that only a small number of players will be in a position to apply. Wexford Festival Opera, which failed in its application for a spring season of popular opera for 2017, faces numerous dilemmas if it wishes to put its hat in the ring. It’s currently in the process of restoring the festival to a full, 18-night run. It has no experience in producing at a Dublin venue, and it would also run the risk of diluting its brand by presenting core repertoire in the capital. But the empire-building opportunity must surely be attractive.

Operatic ambitions

Eugene Downes, whose aspirations to take over Opera Theatre Company came to naught a few years ago, has been re-kindling his operatic ambitions since becoming director of Kilkenny Arts Festival. He’s put on operas in concert at the festival, and is known to have had preliminary discussions about presenting Wagner’s Parsifal there. But his engagement with opera does not extend to having an actual track record of producing opera in an opera house.

Vivian Coates’s Lyric Opera has worked primarily in the National Concert Hall, but the company has also produced in the Gaiety Theatre and in the Grand Opera House in Belfast. Lyric Opera, however, has only had limited success in securing Arts Council funding over the years, most recently for Dvorak’s Rusalka at the Gaiety in 2013.

Fergus Sheil’s Wide Open Opera, the only Irish opera company to have worked at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, is sure to apply, and it’s been mooted that WOO and Opera Theatre Company (of which Sheil is also artistic director) may present a joint application that would enable a new company to cover both main-scale and touring opera.

Some of the smaller companies that have won production awards in recent years may well decide to scale up. And the Arts Council has made it clear that new entities are welcome to apply. With three seasons’ worth of productions to account for in the applications, not to mention multiple applicants, there’s no doubt that Irish opera singers’ phones will be buzzing with offers in the coming weeks. mdervan@irishtimes.com

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