Is There A Bright Side To Brexit?
Glorious Garsington: Roderick Williams (left) and Natalya Romaniw (fifth from left) in “Eugene Onegin” (©Mark Douet)
The further we get from the Brexit referendum the less we know about the ultimate outcome, be it in this lifetime or the next. All we know for sure is that predictions are not worth the paper they are printed on and, as far as the performing arts are concerned, less will definitely mean less in every sphere of operation. I hear immediate concerns for orchestral tours and operatic exchanges between the UK and continental Europe. At the most basic level, an Estonian diva summoned at short notice from Turin to replace a Desdemona at Covent Garden will never get on stage in time if she has to obtain a UK work permit and clear the endless “all others” queue at inhuman Heathrow. Opera chiefs are spending their summer working out alternative scenarios.
Not one person in authority in British arts, not a single one, believed that Brexit would be a good thing. And the view from the grass roots is even gloomier, judging by messages from thousands of professional musicians on my social media. I promised to make no predictions, so let’s wait and see.
What is incontrovertible, however, is that when the summer festivals end and the real world reopens its box-office everything will have changed. Horizons have shrunk. Expectations are shorter, ambitions curtailed. Lines of disengagement are being drawn.
Which, let it be clearly stated, is no bad thing. Over two decades of relentlessly rising standards and prices in public spectacles, be they sports or arts, there has been a rising sense of resentment that an essential value is being lost. The Monday night that Arsene Wenger fielded a 16-man Arsenal squad that did not contain a single English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish player in a red shirt was the night — February 14, 2005 — the music died. Wenger claimed vindication when his motley crew won 5-1 over Crystal Palace but something was broken that night. The connection between players and public, the assumption that professional footballers were essentially local lads with a twinkle in their toes, was blown apart by borderless squads of bloodless character.
As in sport, so in the arts. The spirit was sacrificed in the pursuit of a nebulous excellence. For reasons never to be understood, the summits of British arts were yielded to outsiders. Two Australians were hired to run the new Millennium Centre in Wales and a third to lead the Edinburgh Festival, none with distinction. Entire casts at English National Opera — the English, National Opera — were supplied by an American “consultant”, a maven called Matthew Epstein with a predilection for American strivers and a few from the Baltic states who came cheap, and sometimes good. ENO, designed as a nursery for English talent, became an X-Factor for all-comers.