Adam Price’s Blog

The Blog of Adam Price AS/MP, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr

Adam Price MP / AS - Carmarthen East and Dinefwr

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Archive for August 3rd, 2009

3rd August 2009

Lone voices…

The recess is an useful time for reflection and, sparked by the ongoing debate about what the purpose of a politician actually is – answers on an e-mail please – I think that an important part of the role is to stimulate debate, to ask the unanswered questions, sometimes to champion unpopular ideas or causes. It’s sad that ‘maverick’ is seen as a term of political abuse as democracy needs its heretics more than the populists run by focus-groups and the media or salaried ‘yes-men’ controlled by the whips.

I am often criticised by opponents for ‘kite-flying’ and being a ‘publicity-monger’. If that means that I occasionally say things that are interesting enough for people to want to repeat and debate them, then I plead guilty. This does mean that I also occasionally say and do things that upset some people: that is never the objective, but it’s sometimes the result. In Wales, in particular, where social networks are so often overlapping, there is an intrinsic fear of conflict and direct communication. This, in part, relates to a communitarian ethos where decision-making is consensual. The down-side of this is that organisations are not subject to the kind of robust debate which is necessary for anything to improve. People in Wales take criticism personally. To be a critic – particularly of a valued shibboleth – is to to place oneself somehow outside the fold.

The most recent example of this is my foray into the world of opera. The two central contentions that I made: that the WNO has never in its history appointed a Welsh Musical Director and that it has not commissoned a scale opera from a Welsh composer for decades was not contested as it happens to be true. My choosing to highlight this was attacked as the action of a “small-minded obsessive”; I was accused of “going AWOL” in failing to understand the commercial pressures that WNO are working under.

As far as my central charge – that the Welsh National Opera is not a ‘national’ opera company in the fullest sense of that word – I remain unrepentant. Some people misinterpreted my comments as suggesting that opera per se is ‘elitist’; it isn’t and there are plenty of examples of companies dedicated to opera as a genuinely popular form. To some extent WNO MAX, WNYO and the Community Choir are evidence of this kind of approach. The problem lies in the huge disconnect between this ‘outreach’ work and the classical works of the international opera cannon that is the exclusive and excluding focus on the WNO main stage.

The argument is made that the opera-going public will not pay to go to see new work ‘made in Wales’. If WNO were purely a commercial company wholly reliant on ticket sales or private sponsorship then this argument would hold true. But it’s not. It is largely reliant on the public purse, in which case the public (opera-going or not) is entitled to ask what it is getting for its creative investment. At a time of hard economic choices we obviously have to ask about value for money but surely we have also to ask about ‘values’ for money.

The Arts Council of Wales is engaged in such an exercise with all its revenue clients – and along the way hard questions have to be asked and maybe we have to articulate the unthinkable. As a land of song with a musical language in Welsh, opera has taken a central role certainly in our public investment in the arts – but does that investment repay our citizens in developing the talents we have? Or is it only an entertainment?  If world class excellence is our aim then how is WNO nurturing equivalent Welsh talent for the future?

This isn’t a parochial thought – rather it is one focused on our creative future. It is a question that surely has to be asked of all the flagship and “Beacon” companies in the arts.

Opera is an artform that marries many arts – not least composing and singing. Whilst it is great at last to see and hear an excellent cadre of superb singers… it must lead us to ask – where are the composers? where are the conductors? The music directors? The librettists and the designers of the future and what is WNO’s strategy for their future development?

e.g. The distinguished composers Guto Puw (until recently composer in residence of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales) and Pwyll ap Sion … – what of Karl Jenkins?

Opera of course requires longterm investment and development – but if I were to ask this question in any of the Scandinavian countries of the national opera companies of Denmark, Norway or Finland – I would not only get the reply that there are singers but there are also composers, directors, librettists and designers and that they would see their development as one of their primary duties.

This doesn’t mean all operas need to be in welsh but surely as a musical language – good to sing in – it would be nice to hear it on the mainstage….and not just as surtitles (extremely welcome though they are)

It is risky on the mainstage I know but isn’t art sometimes about taking risks….

Post-script: the international opera director, Patrick Young, based in Blaenau Ffestiniog has been given some money to develop the first main-scale opera in the Welsh language probably since Arwel Hughes in the 60s. Could this new company, Opra,  be the beginning of a Welsh version of the ENO, alongside the ROH-type approach of the WNO?