I finally snapped after reading the latest whinging letter in the Irish Times today bemoaning the lack of opera in Dublin. We don't have much opera in Dublin, simply, because audiences do not support what is there. I'm writing a fuller post, and have sent a letter to the Times, entitled "where has all the opera audience gone?" but here is a quick summary of what the real issues are, and they are not merely funding issues:
1. Audience attendance is middling. Small productions in small venues sell extremely well, but larger venues such as the Gaiety and Bord Gais Energy Theatre are often spotty and poorly attended. This goes for both local companies (Lyric, OTC and Wide Open Opera) and visiting companies. THE BGE resorts to group ticket discounting in order to stem the tide. The NCH struggles also with both semi staged, concert performances and even recitals of good international artists are poorly - sometimes very poorly - attended. As a result box office receipts are very poor, a situation exacerbated by low ticket prices relative to international houses in Europe. We cannot expect the tax payer to take the place of a paying audience.
2. Capital and operational costs are skyrocketing for Dublin based companies due to the sheer cost of doing business in Dublin. This could be offset by giving performing arts groups similar access to Local Enterprise schemes offering low cost space for start-ups. More assistance could be made available to performers who are self employed in order to improve what are probably quite modest incomes.
3. A few years ago one of the colleges in Dublin started a course in Operatic Studies despite there being no full time operatic sector in any part of Ireland. What other discipline would get away with running educational courses for sectors which do not exist in this country? Students are being effectively educated for export.
4. One of the most frustrating aspects of this debate is its Dublin-centric focus. Arts funding needs to be shared outside of Dublin and yes, to more "popular" segments that might attract a bigger audience. It is no surprise that the only viable, feasible sector in Irish opera has been Wexford Festival. Arts funding is about all of Ireland, not just Dublin, and multiple subsectors and other arts disciplines, not just opera.
5. Other subsectors of classical arts "enjoy" even worse funding than opera: ballet, orchestral and choral groups get no greater share of limited funding, and are often largely self-financed.
Music education outside of the core institutions in Dublin and Cork receive little, if any funding from the state. Tutors live precarious existences on contracts not dissimilar to "sharing economy" subcontractors: and have done so for decades before Deliveroo or Uber existed. Audience expansion unfortunately seems to be persistently seen as the job of educators, eliminating a large demographic who are outside of the major cities or are weakly networked.
6. Comparisons to sports are laughable yet persist. This is a perception particular to Dublin, where sports spectators and participants are more dissociated from classical arts. (This is not the case outside of Dublin: spectators of Munster rugby enjoy choruses from opera on the field before games by the Supporters Club Choir, something you would never see in Dublin). Even the risible attendances at FAI league of Ireland games often far exceed attendances at classical music events. Sports has its own issues which it does not demand the taxpayer bankroll when attendances are poor.
7. And finally, audience management is absolutely risible. Aside from well managed events such as the festivals in Wexford and Kilkenny, there seems little effort to get paying customers into auditoriums. Ticket prices have been largely static for many years, yet a huge proportion of, for example, NCH RTE NSO subscription concert audiences are now increasingly recipients of the thick bundle of complimentary tickets distributed shamefully at a huge stand in the foyer of the NCH. This is a disgrace, given the already heavy subsidy of the RTE orchestral groups by license fees and other RTE activities.
Frankly, the current whine of "not enough opera" (which really translates as "not enough money for opera") doesn't grasp fundamental issues about audience support in Dublin (and Ireland: Ireland is NOT just Dublin - this is a national issue). It is not propelling the issue forward, and like a lot of "give me back my sweeties" simply demands a return to Celtic tiger style profligate spending without dealing with core underlying systems problems. I will personally buy an annual Phoenix subscription to any of the letter writers who wish to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org where they can read all of the criticisms of the "Bernadette Gravytrain", John O Connor's embarrassing abuse of public funding at the RIAM and Opera Ireland's sheer waste. If classical arts in Ireland are to thrive, they will only do so through a combination of organic growth and grassroots promotion. We can't just demand money to throw on half-empty auditoria, not now.