In the 1980s, the Arts Council decided that Ireland needed to move beyond the kind of opera tours with piano that had been offered by Irish National Opera. The council funded a new company, Opera Theatre Company (OTC), and gave it a grant of IR£80,000 (€101,579).
The decision was unusual not only as a brave leap of faith in a new company, but also because the grant was larger than those given to the long-standing Dublin Grand Opera Society, which received IR£61,200/€77,708, or Wexford Festival Opera, which got IR£30,300/€38,473.
Fast-forward into the noughties, and OTC found itself engaged in a life-or-death struggle as the Arts Council tried to subsume it into a new national company based in Wexford. The then minister for arts Martin Cullen decided instead to roll it into a national company based in Dublin. Neither merger took place, but the uncertainty caused a lot of predictable difficulties and damage.
Now, in 2014, OTC’s Arts Council funding is at €640,000, down 22 per cent from its 2008 peak. If OTC’s funding had kept pace with that of the Wexford Festival since 1986, it would now be a staggering €3.7 million. If it had kept pace with the Dublin Theatre Festival, it would be €1.3 million. If it had only kept pace with the council’s own grant-in-aid, it would still be €765,617 – and that’s even after the heavy arts funding cuts by successive governments in recent years.
So last year, when OTC went looking for a new executive director and a new artistic director, the company needed a brave duo. As executive director Rosemary Collier puts it: "It's no secret that OTC had hit bumps on the road financially." She mentions the cancellation of co-productions with companies in Denmark (of Alban Berg's Wozzeck) and Wales (of Benjamin Britten's Albert Herring). She also inherited "a massive operating loss" that the company generated to year end March 2013.
The challenges were "to find ways to steady the ship, to analyse and reorient the business model that was there and get the financials back on track". The reduction of core costs included redundancies and a rescheduling of output. "We're with the company just over a year, and the upcoming tour of Donizetti's The Elixir of Love is the first full tour we'll have done."
Although she’s fluent in management speak, Collier says the driving force is artistic. “The business planning is inherently linked with how we discuss artistic propositions. It’s a fluid discussion.”
Artistic director Fergus Sheil points out that “OTC is almost 30 years old. The two of us are here for one year. There was a long history of good management and artistic successes internationally as well as at home. OTC became the victim of political decisions which were outside of the company’s control. We hope to put those bumps behind us.”
The decisions they made, he says, weren't easy. But he sees The Elixir of Love as indicative of the scale of production he would like to do more of.
“It involves a team of around 40 people taking the opera to nine venues. We want to do a lot more things like this, of a scale that people can come to and know they will have a magnificent experience at the opera.
"Over the next few years we're going to explore areas of the repertoire that OTC hasn't done before, some of the more well-known titles. Next year, for example, we're doing Verdi's Rigoletto in May. We want to do productions which are not what you'll see if you go to Live at the Met, but very lively, very fresh productions that will reflect to some extent our world here in Ireland in the 21st century."
“Fergus’s artistic motivation around those works and that repertoire has been to the fore,” says Collier. “And it’s interesting that the soft intelligence we’re getting from venue managers is that audiences want this type of repertoire.”
Sheil says he would also like to see “a return to the company’s commitment to new work by both emerging and established composers and also attract writers into working in opera”.
Collier and Sheil have also established OTC Opera Hub with four singers (Kim Sheehan, Sharon Carty, Rachel Croash, Rory Musgrave), a composer (Andrew Synnott) and a director (Tom Creed). The idea is to foster and develop artist-led projects. "We want that to be very much like a co-op, and a lot of the work that will be generated around Rigoletto next year will revolve around those six artists."
Sheil says the company hopes to have a dialogue with the Arts Council about how OTC can “on our own or in co-operation, provide for larger-scale productions that can be seen in a number of places, Dublin, Wexford, Cork, as well as develop our core touring”. Collier’s ambition is for OTC to become a kind of core for the opera sector. “We’re interested in the careers of Irish artists and opera practitioners. We want to make it realistic that they can work here and expect to work here.”
Is she interested then in the idea of a national company? “I think anybody who wants to see opera in Ireland develop realistically would welcome the development of a national opera company. As long as it’s underpinned by robust policy, a robust funding model, good governance and good support from the State.”
OTC's The Elixir of Love, a co-production with NI Opera, opens in the Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire, on Saturday, and tours to Ennis, Cork, Tralee, Wexford, Kilkenny, Galway, Dundalk and Navan.