Welsh National Opera, Peace and Passion, Wales Millennium Centre

April 22, 2024 by





It could not have been more apt for this concert that Mozart was struggling to make ends meet and even hold onto life when composing the Requiem. Our sources tell us he was notorious for a lifestyle of expenditure that income could never keep up with. The work had to be finished by others and some performances were what we would now call fund raisers to keep the wolf from the door for his wife and children. So, it is often remarked, he was in a way writing his own funeral music.

Why apt for this concert? The reasonably well covered financial problems WNO faces, with both the English and Welsh arts councils not supplying the company with the funds it too needs to keep up its expenditure, with statements on touring reductions, cuts to musicians’ hours, and probably other savings that are not so headline grabbing.

This would not normally be a place to discuss the company, or any other company’s financial situation, had not the conductor, WNO’s likeable and bubbly Musical Director Tomáš Hanus, decided to sound the warning of an impending death knell, saying the company had never before facing such a financial crisis. How perfect to then launch into the Requiem.

So, what are the long-term consequences for the orchestra, which was formed in 1970, in exceeding its 55th birthday in its present form (the company will soon reach its 80th)?

There was also an odd air as the venue for this concert should have been St David’s Hall which is also in a shocking state or perhaps state of shock, being closed due to its own structural decay, its running handed over to the private sector setting alarm bells ringing.  An aside is whether another singing and orchestral event that involves WNO has much of a future either.  That is the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World which was sort of set up because of the building of St David’s Hall.  It too has had its ups and down, funding issues, name changes due to sponsors coming and going, and some wondering how much this operatic talent show was at least in part maintained due to the personal likings of some of the higher paid echelons of the BBC in Wales. With St David’s Hall’s closure, the new management model when it does reopen one day, and the competion’s main sponsor, Cardiff Council  not exactly keen to splash the money on what is really a BBC TV programme, despite ever increasing council tax and declining services, it too may be hosting a Requiem.  At a recent lecture for the next generation of creative industries graduates in Wales, when asked which of the currently public funded cultural forms should not be funded, opera was the resounding favourite for the axe. Museums came at the top worth funding. It seems half a century of trying to break the stereotype of opera being elitist, expensive, aged etc has failed to make much of an impact.

Perhaps it was the change of venue that made this concert lack some impact. While the main auditorium at WMC is supposed to have wonderful acoustics, I have wondered right from its very opening whether this really is the case for every genre of performance and type of performance. At this concert the placing of the WNO chorus behind the orchestra, with the soloists of course at the front, to my ear impacted the usual splendour of the Requiem. The conductor drove Mozart’s final music along with sensitivity and his now usual great enthusiasm, enabling musicians and singers alike to shine through and those sections renowned for the ethereal beauty of the sacred and secular, despair and hope, of this near mythical piece. Players and chorus singers alike were enthused by the energy melded with heartfelt sympathy for the work from their conductor. Our principals’ voices followed effortlessly the sections, with the  Spring-like brightness of Sophie Bevan matching the sunshine outside, complementing and complemented by the warm mezzo of Kayleigh Decker. James Platt has vocal and stage presence to caress the soul and tenor Egor Zhuravskii sang quite beautifully and if his music had been held a little lower possibly with even more impact.

For some reason the programme was reversed from the published programme, so it was after the interval we had a very agreeable indeed performance of Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine, followed by the orchestra performing Schumann’s Symphony No 4.  This really was a musical vehicle for the orchestra to throw their peacock tail into the air and show off their own colours. The at times vivacious playing of the stings was only matched by the athleticism of the conductor who could have given Tom Daley a run for his money,  bouncing up and down on his podium but fortunately not diving into the waters of the music (or orchestra).

But we were left with that haunting concern for the future.

Those of us who are older than we care to admit, can remember at least 40 years of Welsh National Opera’s lurches into financial turmoil, reduced seasons, cutting out venues (poor Swansea), the end of the excellent smaller venues touring season, freelance singers being asked to accept smaller fees, a private industry chap coughing up for musicians’ instruments once I seem to remember, and so on and so forth.

Sadly, we also know other companies have lost their orchestras, and, shockingly, Mid Wales Opera has had its arts council funding completed axed. None of this is to be taken sitting down, although standing up and shouting doesn’t seem to make any difference either. Even more unfortunately for WNO, and others not getting the money they wanted or any money at all, their plight and share of public attention (if there is much) has been dramatically superseded by the horror story at the National Museum of Wales where around 100 staff have lost their jobs and the roof, quite literally, is caving in. The First Minister Vaughan Gethin has gone public in saying the NHS comes before museums, and sadly the £200k his election campaign pocketed that would be sufficient to keep at least one if not two art companies who lost their funding afloat, remains pocketed despite the revolting smell that still emanates from the money handed over by a business who was convicted twice for environmental offences.

A much larger conversation needs to be had about the future of the arts, their funding, their form and their role.  Loving a particular company or even art form is not enough to secure its future when they are in the hands of such politicians.

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