SUMMER BEFORE THE DARK
By the Editor
Let’s talk about the weather … Writing this on my return from yet another rained- off Bregenz Festival performance, it’s impossible not to wonder about the effect that climate change appears to be having even on opera. Of course, the unsustainable path on which our globe seems set is raising much more pressing issues for mankind, yet given the number of long-established outdoor performance venues we take for granted, is this also a worry for the operatic world? So far, we’ve not heard promoters voicing concerns publicly, but it must surely be a topic on everyone’s mind. At Bregenz, well-rehearsed contingency plans swing into motion when rain falls, allowing top-bracket ticket holders to move indoors to a severely reduced concert staging, but that still leaves several thousand bedraggled and disappointed would-be spectators without their holiday treat. Would this festival on the shore of Lake Constance have been founded 73 years ago if weather had been such a routine hazard then, and does climate change threaten its long-term future?
At Bregenz and other open-air venues worldwide, ticket refunds are of course possible, in some cases. The website of the Arena di Verona—also, it seems, an increasing target of summer thunderstorms—is admirably clear about such things, but essentially those Terms and Conditions kick in the moment a performance has begun. On a bad night, such festivals can stand to lose hundreds of thousands of euros, so it is hardly surprising they give the impression of holding out until the last possible moment—sometimes after the overture has started—to call things off. Even in places still renowned for wonderful summer weather, al fresco opera—whether it be at the Festival d’Aix or Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour—can be affected. Other summer venues, from Santa Fe to Savonlinna and London’s Opera Holland Park, have enough cover to protect audiences from inclement weather even if patrons are likely at least to have their spirits dampened, but smaller venues can’t always afford such installations. Now that unpredictable weather seems to be the new normal, what are opera festivals going to do to adapt?
Opera and environmental issues crossed paths again at Covent Garden the other day, when a campaign group hoping to end oil sponsorship of the arts protested against BP’s support for the Royal Opera House. The debate has, of course, been going on for many years, with the anti-oil lobby insisting that arts organizations ought to live up to their ethical obligations and ditch tainted sponsors. Long-standing deals between BP and both Tate and the Edinburgh Festival have lapsed—officially, the energy giant blamed a tough business climate—but the ROH continues, along with the Royal Shakespeare Company, National Portrait Gallery and British Museum, to receive valuable sponsorship. BP’s chief executive, Bob Dudley, told a recent Chatham House event that to him the protests felt misplaced because his company and its critics agreed on much more than is generally acknowledged.
That hasn’t stopped continuing high-minded calls for the return of sponsorship money in the British arts world, but many people will find their sympathies divided between seemingly progressive causes and the stark realities faced by those in receipt of diminishing arts funding. Those realities are likely to have just got a lot starker with the appointment of a new culture secretary, who when she was education secretary declared that pupils were being held back by an over-emphasis on arts subjects. Of course, Nicky Morgan’s place in this new cabinet of curiosities and disgraced incompetents is in keeping with the dystopian credentials of all her colleagues, but I promised to talk about the weather, so shall save that topic for a rainy day.
Opera, September 2019