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Commentary

22 Jul 2020

"Opportunity will come from crisis": Polly Graham, Artistic Director of Longborough Opera, in conversation

It’s ingrained in theatre-makers: “Make a show.” As she prepares to announce some new events and performances that will take place in forthcoming weeks, as well as Longborough Festival Opera’s 2021 productions, Artistic Director Polly Graham reflects on the very difficult decision to cancel the 2020 Longborough Festival which she was forced to take.

A interview by Claire Seymour

Above: Polly Graham

Photo credit: Matthew Williams-Ellis

 

“It’s counter-intuitive,” she explains. “I found myself saying, until very late in the day, ‘No, we’ll find a way to keep going.’” But, then, as the public health emergency escalated, “Of course, we had to respond to that, and do the responsible thing.”

It was particularly hard for Polly to “say goodbye” to this year’s Festival as in 2019, her first year as Artistic Director , 75% of the Festival programme had been put in place before she took up her position. 2020 was the first year that she was responsible for putting in place the majority of the programme, which was to include her own directorial debut at Longborough, presenting Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses, with Tom Randle in the title role. She was and is clearly very concerned about what she describes as “the desperate situation that the freelancers with whom we work found themselves in”, and she speaks of her delight that she was able to invite the members of Longborough’s audience base to donate, enabling the Festival to provide clarity for artists, via the freelancers’ support fund.

“We are very aware of, and grateful for, the loyalty of our audiences, and of course we always seek to nurture that. But, I think too that it’s obvious that they appreciate how essential our freelancers are. They understand the economics of the theatre and the realities of how freelancers work. In making a direct appeal, we’ve been able to communicate openly about the situation.”

I ask Polly what the generosity of audience-member donors has enabled her to achieve. “50% of tickets were turned into donations, and two-thirds of this sum has been used to directly support our artists and practitioners, by paying them 33% of the fee that they would have received for their work this season. The rest has been used to develop new creative work for these artists over the coming weeks.” (Polly reveals that she can’t say more at present, but that further announcements about these creative plans will follow shortly!)

Despite the sadness, disappointment and distress, there have been some positives too, though. Longborough Festival Opera comprises a very small team with big ambitions, Polly explains, and historically it has been enormously difficult to find time to stop - “the motor keeps running, even with just four productions a year”. The closure enforced by Covid-19 has meant that they have had to pause, and this has provided a rare space for reflection and re-evaluation. The result is some exciting new work coming up, and opportunities to ‘open up’ Longborough’s repertoire.

LFO cr Matthew Williams-Ellis (16) (1).jpgLongborough Festival Opera. Photo credit: Matthew Williams-Ellis.

Of course, such opportunities have to be balanced against the seriousness of the ongoing situation, and the national crisis in performance arts industries and communities. “We mount four productions each year at Longborough, and thanks to that fairly finite programme and the scale of our audience-members’ response, we’ve been able to manage the situation. But, large companies which present many more productions over eleven months of the year face an even harder challenge.”

I ask Polly what she thinks can be done - and more specifically what the UK government should do. “There are many others, more eloquent than me, who have made a persuasive case. The problem is the negligence and ignorance about two things which are the essence of a society: education and the arts. It’s very depressing.”

Polly recalls a question that came up during a conversation with the charity Independent Opera: ‘What would you do if you were a young singer now?’ “It’s a great question”, she says. “At Longborough, every we give young singers an opportunity to perform through our Emerging Artists Productions. There is a danger now that a whole cohort will miss that chance, as next year it might be someone else who gets the opportunity.”

So, what would she do if she were a young singer now? “Go to Austria!” Polly laughs, drolly. “It’s terrifying when one thinks of the lack of government support and the arts communities, at the mercy of external forces in times like these, must be proactive to try to move things forward, to establish support schemes. After all, if people can gather in close proximity on the Tube or in the pub, why not - wearing masks, all face forwards, with appropriate safety measures in place - in a concert hall? The arts are absolutely fundamental to community well-being.”

I point out that it took the Covid-19 crisis to make me fully appreciate the extent to which the UK’s model for funding the arts make the creative industries’ very existence so precarious. On the continent, especially in Germany, it is not uncommon for opera companies and venues to receive 80% of their income in direct government subsidy, meaning that reopening with a small, socially distanced audience is a practical short-term solution, in contrast to the UK where the reverse economic model, or something even more parsimonious, is the norm and reopening a distant dream at present. Polly observes that, in addition to this, those companies that receive Arts Council England funding (Longborough Festival Opera does not) have been encouraged over recent decades to become even more self-reliant, by developing entrepreneurial and community ventures. As a result, “their quotas have diminished still further, and now they are being punished for their creative and economic initiative. It’s a perverse situation.”

I wonder if the ‘big voices’ within classical music have done enough to make themselves heard with sufficient vociferousness and passion? It seems as if artist leaders in the field of theatre, for example, have been more forceful in making the extremity of the disaster which faces their industry publicly known; other than Sir Mark Elder and Sir Simon Rattle ’s warning about the dire situation facing the UK’s orchestras, published in The Guardian in early June, I haven’t been aware of an co-ordinated campaigns to increase public awareness, garner support and force action. Should the classical music industry be shouting louder and banging fists on the Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden’s door?

Inside Longborough PG.jpgPolly Graham. Photo credit: Matthew Williams-Ellis.

Polly reminds me that others have spoken out. An open letter to the Guardian signed by singers and choral leaders including Dame Sarah Connolly, Bob Chilcott and John Rutter warned of the threat to choral traditions, reminding us that “Singing in a choir is not only about communality, social cohesion and harmony; for many it is an essential source of emotional wellbeing and positive mental health.” And, many freelancers have spoken out about the hardships they are experiencing and the frightening void ahead. Polly confirms that dialogue between opera companies is ongoing. Moreover, a national appeal and petition by #OneVoiceCampaign has been initiated.

And, shortly after my conversation with Polly, Boris Johnson pledged £1.5 billion to keeps the arts afloat during the on-going coronavirus crisis. This is of course enormously welcome, although the details about how and to whom the funds will be allocated have still to emerge: it’s just as important, if not more so, to protect and support freelancers, community and amateur arts, and arts education as it is to save the nation’s leading cultural institutions from collapse.

As Polly says, the government must properly support the arts industries in order for artists to return to work and find ways of continuing to make work and create live experiences which are an essential part of our collective, shared imagination. And, for Longborough, it’s important that the Festival keeps the conversation with its audiences alive and continues to keep doing things - hence an imminent announcement about plans for the remainder of the summer. “This dialogue with our audience is the essence of why we are here at all.”

It would be easy to end our conversation dwelling on current forecasts of doom but there will surely be brighter times ahead. Longborough Festival Opera has just announced its 2021 programme (4 June - 3 August 2021) which will ‘rescue’ three of the four productions planned for the ill-fated 2020 season - Wagner’s Die Walküre, Monteverdi’sThe Return of Ulysses and Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen. Director Cal McCrystal’s schedule prevents the staging of the fourth 2020 production, The Elixir of Love, next summer, but Polly is thrilled that Mozart’s Così fan tutte will replace Donizetti’s comic opera, in a re-scored version for The Barefoot Band conducted by Lesley Anne Sammons. As for her own directorial debut, she adds, “I’m delighted to be collaborating with conductor Robert Howarth on The Return of Ulysses - Monteverdi’s beautiful, compassionate drama of homecoming. Though one of the earliest operas it feels startlingly modern. This will be performed on period instruments, but the production will reflect the drama through a contemporary lens.” For a taste of things to come, Polly has directed a short animated film by illustrator Amber Cooper-Davies, inspired by the opera: https://lfo.org.uk/news/the-return-of-ulysses-a-short-animated-film

For the remainder of the Ring cycle, Longborough will perform Götterdämmerung in 2022, and celebrate the theatre’s 25th anniversary in 2023 with the full cycle of Der Ring des Nibelungen as originally intended. 2023 will contain a new production of Siegfried.

Opportunity will come from crisis, Polly believes. “We have an opportunity now to really interrogate why we are here and what we should be. In some ways, I’m even more excited.”

Claire Seymour

How to Buy Tickets

Tickets will go on public sale in March 2021, with priority booking available to members of Longborough Festival Opera . Further information can be found at https://lfo.org.uk/

The Longborough Podcast

In June 2020, Longborough Festival Opera launched a new podcast, featuring today’s brightest stars for a series of conversations about the world of opera.

The Longborough Podcast offers listeners the opportunity to hear directly from the artists and figures at the forefront of the industry. Each episode explores a particular composer, work or role, welcoming friends from the world of opera and the arts - including singers, players, directors, conductors and more - for some thought-provoking discussions.

The podcast is available free of charge at lfo.org.uk/podcast and on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Acast and Stitcher.

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