The strange funding gulf between Opera Theatre Company and Wexford

In the past 10 years, the grant to Wexford has crept up but OTC's has fallen fast. What’s the rationale?

 Ermonela Jaho: the Albanian soprano, who first appeared in Wexford in 2000, was the Readers’ Award Winner at the International Opera Awards. Photograph: Marc Ross/AFP/Getty Images

Ermonela Jaho: the Albanian soprano, who first appeared in Wexford in 2000, was the Readers’ Award Winner at the International Opera Awards. Photograph: Marc Ross/AFP/Getty Images

 

The 2016 International Opera Awards were announced in London on Sunday. Irish contenders were few in number: Wexford Festival Opera was shortlisted in the Festival category, and Annemarie Woods in the Designer category. Wexford lost out to Glyndebourne, Woods to Vicki Mortimer.

Wexford did, however, have some involvement in the list of winners. The Young Director award went to Fabio Ceresa, whose 2015 productions included Mascagni’s Guglielmo Ratcliff in Wexford. The Young Conductor award went to Giacomo Sagripanti, who conducted Foroni’s Cristina, Regina di Svezia at Wexford in 2014, when that opera won the award for Rediscovered Work. And Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho, who first appeared in Wexford in 2000, won an online poll to be named Readers’ Award Winner. The festival has also announced an expansion: the 2017 edition will run for 18 days rather than the current 12.

Funding crisis

Opera Theatre Company turns 30 this year, and tomorrow, May 19th, marks the 75th anniversary of the first Dublin Grand Opera Society production, of Verdi’s La Traviata, at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin. It is astonishing to think that, in the middle of the Emergency, a new opera company could spring up and present, in its first year, 28 nights of opera (seven of them in Limerick) and a repertoire of nine works.

The year that gave birth to Opera Theatre Company – 1986 – was also the year of a funding crisis in the arts. The Arts Council, unhappy with its allocation from the government, protested by intentionally cutting back on festivities, with festivals the target. Institutions such as Wexford and the Dublin Theatre Festival were still supported, but they were cut back to maintenance levels without the support they needed to fund the year’s actual festival.

The government was not amused, and the affected festivals showed real courage by going into fundraising overdrive to ensure they could still go ahead.

It is always interesting to look at where the money from the Arts Council actually goes. Back in 1986, Opera Theatre Company’s £80,000 grant was actually higher than that of either Wexford, which was cut back to £30,300 that year, or the Dublin Grand Opera Society, which received £61,200.

The Dublin society quickly pulled ahead of the other two, but for a number of years the Wexford grant was 10-20 per cent higher than Opera Theatre Company’s; there was even a year, 1991, in which Opera Theatre Company received more money than Wexford. From the mid-1990s the gap has progressively increased in Wexford’s favour. The festival’s 2016 grant of €1.42 million is more than double that of Opera Theatre Company’s €680,000.

This is hard to rationalise. The council has never declared a festival of rare opera to be a higher priority than a national touring company. Opera Theatre Company has played in 160 venues in all 32 counties.

Following Opera Theatre Company over the years has brought me to venues I would never otherwise have had cause to visit. I still vividly remember attending the opening night of Tom Johnson’s minimalist classic, The Four-Note Opera – it literally uses just four notes – at the Corn Mill Theatre in Carrigallen, Co Leitrim.

I imagine there have been few opera productions in Carrigallen. I also doubt if any company before Opera Theatre Company ever seriously thought of going there to put on what is one of the funniest operas ever composed. There was a lot written about the late Garry Shandling’s innovations when the great comic died earlier this year, and you’ll find more than a few aspects of Shandling’s work prefigured in Johnson’s Pirandello-inspired opera.

Great debacle

Even stranger than the funding gap that has opened up between Opera Theatre Company and Wexford is the way the two companies’ fates have diverged over the past 10 years. Wexford’s grant crept up slightly, while Opera Theatre Company’s one has fallen by around a third.

The infrastructure of opera in Ireland has been badly damaged over the past decade. There was the great debacle of the Irish National Opera company that never was, ministerially ordained by Martin Cullen. This ultimately resulted in the demise of Opera Ireland, successor to the Dublin Grand Opera Society.

Six years on from the end of Opera Ireland, the Arts Council badly needs to get its thinking cap on in relation to an art form that has spent decades dealing with consultations, reports and promises that have never been lived up to.

Opera Theatre Company has a new production of Puccini’s La Bohème on tour. The opening night at Dublin’s O’Reilly Theatre saw the company reunited with one of its founders, director Ben Barnes. The production, with handsome designs by Joe Vanek, has been updated to 1930s Paris.

The leads are strongly taken: Máire Flavin is a multifaceted Mimi and Pablo Bemsch a heroic-sounding Rodolfo. Sinéad Campbell-Wallace also shines vocally as Musetta, and conductor Andrew Greenwood stirs up a storm – sometimes even too much so – from his 13-player ensemble. But there was something missing, too, in an evening where the stage direction seemed to handle things that bit too bluntly.

At 30, Opera Theatre Company is still prepared to innovate. Having begun life as a company devoted to opera in English, this Bohème is sung in the original Italian and has the benefit of surtitles. I have often wondered how much the English language connection matters to Opera Theatre Company devotees. This tour will tell. There were no problems on the opening night, when there was a standing ovation.

  • mdervan@irishtimes.com
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