Is There A Bright Side To Brexit?

The referendum result poses risks — but also a chance to break the dependency culture of the arts

Norman Lebrecht

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. 

The director of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, is a Dane, Kasper Holten, who has done many good and brave things over the course of six years without ever winning the confidence of a once-passionate audience or of an eternally nervous board. Some of the directors he brought in were revelatory; others were drawn from the Eurotrash school of Regietheater that has, in recent years, reduced Bayreuth to an audience laughing-stock. Holten’s departure next March will leave the ROH in a quandary shared with the rest of the country: where the hell do we go from here?

I wonder why no one batted an eyelid when an open recruitment process resulted in the new director of the British Museum, Hartwig Fischer, being a German art historian, just like the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Martin Roth, who was Fischer’s predecessor in Dresden. Both are highly accomplished curators. But the role of these institutions is to reflect the British nation first unto itself, and then unto the world. That mission got lost somewhere between the boardroom, the executive head-hunters and the EU directives on equal opportunity and free movement of labour.

Brexit provides a chance to reflect on these erosions of identity and to demand a correction. Without flirting with xenophobia or protectionism, it is worth remembering the great Maynard Keynesian postwar cry for indigenous self-sufficiency — “Let every part of Merrie England make merry in its own way!” — a slogan that first stirred British arts from their bucolic slumber. The Brexit era is the time to demand that opera houses train more British-born singers, instead of sending them to learn their trade in Germany’s 80-odd opera houses. The need is long overdue to nurture a generation of administrators who are young, gifted and rooted in their native culture rather than living off a bulging phone file of international connections.

There is a case to be made for emphasising our differences. Germany and France provide high levels of arts subsidy as an undebated civic right. In Britain, that right, earned by Keynes 70 years ago, has to be justified anew with every change of government — and it won’t come easy with Theresa May, who summarily dismissed the two leading arts advocates in the previous Cabinet, George Osborne and Michael Gove. No matter: the arts in Britain have been honed by struggle. That is our natural habitat.

We need to re-examine the sullen dependency culture fostered by a tick-box Arts Council and support the eccentric growth of country house opera — first Glyndebourne (1934), then in rapid succession Garsington (1989), Longborough (1991) and two rival Grange Park companies (1998, 2017). All are subsidy-free inspirations of a British landscape and climate. Many believe that Longborough’s Ring cycle, conceived in a country barn, was truer to Wagner’s humanist intention than anything seen lately at Bayreuth. Similarly, the Eugene Onegin I saw this summer at Garsington was the most elevating ensemble performance I have ever seen of that autumnal Russian tragedy.

“Always,” chanted Monty Python, “look on the bright side of life.” And we must try. Still, the risks and losses of the Brexit future cannot be ignored. British arts are already being shut out of European councils. Insularity is being simultaneously embraced by the Brexiteers and forced upon us by dyspeptic former allies. Opportunities are shutting down. British arts face loneliness and self-doubt, their greatest challenge since the Second World War. It is an hour for blood, toil, sweat and — copious — tears. 

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