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Orchestras and opera companies are in an appalling position. Their entire identity, their reason for existence, and their financial model is based on large numbers of people sitting in close proximity indoors, on stage and in the audience. This is clearly an impossibility now, especially given the growing scientific consensus that Covid-19 is partly spread by tiny aerosol droplets that can linger in ill-ventilated spaces.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s revised furlough and self-employed support schemes will provide help for some musicians. But according to the Musicians’ Union, a third of their members, who are overwhelmingly freelancers, have been ineligible for the self-employed support scheme. These people are now staring into a financial abyss. The union also says that over a third of musicians are considering leaving the profession altogether. The hard of heart might just nod at this, and declare, Norman Tebbit-like, “On your bike” – if circumstances dictate that you can’t sing or play, you should get on with driving a van or working in an Amazon distribution centre. Most people would regard this, however, as a grotesque waste of talent and training, and an unspeakable loss for those whose lives are dedicated to sparking the elusive, magical connection between artist and audience.
Under these circumstances, many institutions have wanted, above all, clarity: dates when they can resume activities “as normal”. They want to safeguard the existence of their organisations, they want to get their musicians into work again, and they want paying audiences in concert halls. This is understandable. But imagining that there will be a clear, smooth path towards “normality” is folly.
In case any confirmation were needed, recent weeks have shown that Covid-19 does not respect timetables set out by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, or indeed by any national government. Restrictions have to be enforced and lifted with precious little warning, as the infection rate waxes and wanes, until a vaccine becomes available. The government’s abject failure to produce a viable test-and-trace system has not helped the situation.
The past weeks have shown that the only certainty is uncertainty, and that paying heed to Boris Johnson’s meaningless rhetoric, with its empty optimism and intelligence-insulting boosterism, is pointless. Nevertheless, as more is learned about Covid-19, some things are becoming clearer: the risk of infection is much reduced outdoors; small-scale, local, open-air activities are likely to remain possible. This is the reality that large-scale musical organisations would do well to embrace.
It may mean reversing every assumption they know, it may mean that orchestras become communities of musicians who operate in small groups, as opposed to the massed ranks that they were employed to be – but the path of becoming radically local, community-centred organisations, who perform in places other than grand concert halls lies open. So does the acceleration of connecting with audiences digitally.
The UK and devolved governments must see the benefit of this approach too, and do more to support a precious industry that is on the verge of collapse. Taking this route now could have profound creative benefits, long after the pandemic has fallen into memory.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: The Guardian view on classical music: normality is futility | Music