Is Irish opera damned to its fate?


Years of hand-wringing and neglect by successive arts ministers and the Arts Council, and the demise of the Irish National Opera company have been nothing short of a disaster for opera in this country, writes MICHAEL DERVAN

THE FINE Gael/Labour coalition’s first 100 days are not that long gone. But the Minister for Arts, Heritage and Gaeltacht Affairs, Jimmy Deenihan, has already made his mark on history as the man who killed off the project to establish the Irish National Opera (INO) company.

As an expert report jointly commissioned last year by the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism (as it then was) and the Arts Council put it, “Ireland is – with the exception of Iceland and Liechtenstein – the only European country without a national opera company, without a dedicated opera house”. And Deenihan’s axing of the project will ensure that Ireland remains so.

The key development in the recent history of opera in Ireland was the Arts Council’s decision, in the middle of 2009, to merge Opera Ireland (a provider of full-scale opera in Dublin), Opera Theatre Company (a provider of small-scale, nationwide opera tours), and Wexford Festival Opera (a niche festival with an international reputation for the presentation of rarely-heard operas) into a single entity based in the award-winning Wexford Opera House.

The Wexford venue boasts an attractive auditorium and a reasonably-sized stage, but it doesn’t actually have the full behind-the-scenes facilities to serve its own three-week festival without mounting smaller performances offsite and renting extra space in the town to accommodate rehearsals. The idea of expecting a building designed for a festival to provide adequate services for a touring company and for full-scale productions to be seen in Dublin seemed hare-brained to most people outside of the Arts Council.

The then arts minister, Martin Cullen, himself an opera-lover proposed instead a new national company to be based in Dublin. He decided to leave Wexford to continue with its niche activity, and to merge the functions of OI and OTC into the new entity. But, hampered by bad health, he didn’t make a definitive move about INO until just before he exited the political stage. He set up a board, and the board recruited a general director. Cullen’s successor, Mary Hanafin, took the softest of options. In October 2010 she announced in the Dáil that Opera Theatre Company (the cheapest of the companies to maintain) would be rescued. She ignored the issue of main-scale opera in Dublin, and created further damage by kicking the can about the new national company down the road for someone else to deal with.

The outcome has been nothing short of a disaster for opera in this country. No matter what the fans of Lyric Opera’s productions at the National Concert Hall may say, there is no natively-produced, full-scale opera scheduled for Dublin this year.

Opera Ireland has been forced out of business. Literally. Faced with the cessation of Arts Council funding, and lumbered with a considerable deficit, it had no option but to shut up shop.

The company ceased to operate at the end of last year and its considerable wind-up costs still have to be met. If they’re not, they could conceivably land on the shoulders of the board members or become a serious bad debt to a bank. The first of these outcomes could discourage anyone concerned about their reputation from sitting on the board of an Arts Council-funded company, and the second would make hard-pressed Arts Council clients seem even riskier to banks than they do at the moment. Public funding for opera has become a total mess.

Under Martin Cullen, the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism took responsibility for waving the magic wand, and transforming the responsibilities of OI and OTC into the remit of a unified national company. But the Department never actually came up with the funding for INO to do its work. The implementation of Cullen’s vision was bungled by ignoring the wishes of the interim board that included Ray Bates (former director of the National Lottery) and Brian McMaster (former director of both Welsh National Opera and the Edinburgh Festival), and by casting aside the advice of two international consultants who prepared the expert report on the project (Rudolf Berger, a former artistic administrator at the Vienna State Opera and general director of companies in Austria and France, and Bjørn Simensen, director of the Norwegian National Opera Company, who oversaw the company’s move into the €500 million Oslo Opera House in 2008). This was hardly the way to enhance Ireland’s cultural reputation abroad, or to project a positive message to the worldwide community of opera lovers.

It’s interesting that the only civil servant within the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism listed among the interviewees by the consultants’ report was the assistant secretary Niall Ó Donnchú. But the civil servant who was given responsibility for the implementation of the project was someone of far lower rank. Is one to assume that the department was not particularly interested in the eventual success of the project? When the Arts Council received the report in September 2010, it went into overdrive in its responses, declaring on the one hand that the report should be implemented, while at the same time producing internal documents so full of nit-picking that it’s hard to imagine the council actually wished the project any real success.

The proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating. In September 2010, according to the council, it wrote to the minister “recommending that the department implement the findings of the report in full while counselling that, in the event that the department was unable to commit to the level of support proposed, the creation of INO should not proceed at this time, as to do so would undermine the entire initiative and constitute a significant risk”. Were the department to decide not to proceed, the Arts Council remained “willing to resume its traditional role in providing for opera via alternative arrangements, to the extent that its own funding permitted this”.

One of the report’s clearest recommendations was this. “In 2011,” wrote Berger and Simensen, “through the fact that INO is building up, there is money from this year’s ‘opera pot’ (€2.3 million), that will not be used by INO. We recommend that the ACI use this money to finance actions that support the audience building efforts (outreach, education), etc, or create a fund for supporting new Irish opera.” Did the Arts Council, which had recommended implementing the report in full, do this? Not at all. And it appears to have required ministerial intervention by Hanafin to rescue OTC. Even allowing for the money granted to OTC, the council’s inaction resulted in a net leakage of €1.5 million from its already meagre opera budget.

Doing nothing, sadly, is par for the course when it comes to the implementation of opera policy by the Arts Council. Back in 1976, the council set up an opera advisory committee. In 1978, that committee recommended the establishment of “a permanent Irish opera company” that would be independent of the Dublin Grand Opera Society (the precursor of OI) and the Wexford Festival (OTC didn’t begin operations until 1986). And what did the council actually do about it? Nothing. Again in 1996, the council set up an “opera development committee”. The following year, its chair, Laura Magahy, floated the idea of a national opera house in Dublin’s docklands. Did anything happen? No.

In 2002, the Arts Council published another report, Towards a Policy and Action Plan for Opera. The title itself tells the whole story, as it assumes the council had no viable policy or action plan for the most expensive and employment-intensive of art-forms. The report’s “shopping list” of developments included an additional annual season of main-scale opera in Dublin, the touring of main-scale opera outside Dublin, a centre of excellence at Wexford (which was to involve annual – non-festival – opera programming, and a training programme for Irish opera artists and managers), increased small to mid-scale regional touring, and development of Irish repertoire (to help create a “contemporary opera culture”). Did any of these come about? No.

And in 2006, after the deliberation of yet another “opera working group”, the council adopted the opera policy proposed by its specialist advisor, James Conway. This was to fund opera provision through an international niche festival opera season presented by Wexford Festival Opera; an annual tour of chamber opera; an annual season of nine performances of two romantic-scale operas; an annual grant for a youth opera/opera for young people/community opera production; an annual tour of two classical-scale operas; an annual or biennial (depending on the standard of applications) opera project, regularly including the presentation of new operas or opera-related cross-disciplinary work, open to new entrants or to new entrants in collaboration with funded producers. And the council also agreed to earmark €5.7 million from 2008 (at 2006 prices) to implement the policy “subject to the council’s overall budget in that year”.

Did all of this really happen? Well, the niche festival and the chamber opera already in existence (Wexford and OTC) continued to operate. But nothing new was introduced. In fact, the only main-scale opera outside of Dublin and Wexford, the Cork-based Opera 2005, was defunded in 2009.

The Arts Council was allocated €82.3 million in the budget of 2006. The earmarked opera spend of €5.7 million amounted to 6.93 per cent of that amount, and 7.58 per cent of the €75.2 actually awarded in grants. The €5.7 million spend on opera was never achieved. And of the €57.27 million the council has disbursed so far this year, the slice awarded to opera is just 4.42 per cent.

Whatever its protestations, whatever its operatic advice to the Department of Arts (and the council has been providing such advice), it would be difficult to conclude that the council is taking opera any more seriously now than it ever did.

All you have to do is imagine that the organs of the State were behaving in this way about the National Theatre, the National Gallery or the National Library to see how the cultural tourists everyone is so interested in are likely to view the issue. If ever there was a suitable case for treatment, this is surely it.

And what has Jimmy Deenihan done? He’s passed responsibility for opera back to the very same institution that’s been ignoring its real needs for decades. Ireland may be cash-strapped, but it’s sobering to remember that even IMF-rescued Latvia and Hungary still have their opera houses.