Opera companies face extinction under radical Arts Council reform


THE ARTS Council is planning a radical reform of opera provision in Ireland. Wexford Festival Opera, Opera Ireland, and Opera Theatre Company are all facing possible extinction.

The Arts Council is working on a proposal that would see all three companies, whose combined track record of opera production runs to nearly 150 years, cease to exist.

The companies’ current functions would not be lost, however.

A new company would be set up to mount productions in Dublin, run the Wexford festival, and provide small-scale productions to tour around the country. Staff in the existing companies would not automatically transfer to the new company, which would be based in the new €33 million Wexford Opera House.

Since the beginning of the year, the council has engaged with the three existing companies to examine its options in the light of the decrease in the Government’s grant-in-aid expected in 2010. The recommendation in the McCarthy report is for a €6.1 million reduction, which if approved would follow on an even larger reduction in this year’s grant. The council had been lobbying for a grant of €100 million by 2008; it is currently on course to be allocated under €70 million in 2010.

The council will experience difficult decisions across all areas because of the cutbacks. Opera, the most expensive of art forms, is a particular challenge, because, by international standards, it has been seriously underfunded in Ireland. In spite of the developments of the Celtic Tiger years, Ireland has never established the kind of year-round, national opera company that can be taken for granted in most European countries, even ones much smaller and less wealthy than this.

Dublin-based Opera Ireland is the first of the opera companies to issue a public statement on the council’s proposals. It said: “Opera Ireland, along with the other main opera companies, has been in a process of dialogue with the Arts Council over a number of months about finding an agreed way forward for the art form through the difficult financial climate in which we all find ourselves. That process is not yet completed. The Arts Council has made a specific plan to which it has asked the companies to respond and contribute. We are currently exploring this internally and in further discussions with the council, and it would not be appropriate to comment further until we have had time to complete this stage of the process.”

The council is believed to see the new model for opera provision as more efficient and more scalable, meaning that it would be better placed than the existing companies to adapt to funding changes, either upwards or downwards. The plan would also give a year-round raison d’êtrefor the highly praised Wexford Opera House, which was primarily funded from the public purse.