Saturday 18 April 2015

Paying for our Entertainment - Power, Patronage and Sponsorship

Winaretta Singer, Princesse Edmond de Polignac
Winaretta Singer
Princesse Edmond de Polignac
Opera has always been expensive and required backers, but with the money and support comes power and the ability to control. In the past this has ranged from influencing who performs and what is performed to selecting where it is put on. In the modern world sponsorship and patronage rarely comes without strings even though the power or influence exerted may be less than obvious, and it may manifest itself in the nicest and discreetest of ways. But at its best this sort of relationship can be creative, and many of the great works of the past owe their existence to the enlightened patronage of great figures such as Winaretta Singer (Princesse Edmond de Polignac) who spent her share of her father's Singer Sewing Machine fortune on matters artistic including commissioning artists as diverse as Francis Poulenc, Manuel de Falla, Kurt Weill, Igor Stravinsky.

But, it has to be admitted that patronage and sponsorship are rarely entirely disinterested, the person or body receiving money has to providing something in return, or satisfy certain criteria. This is as much true of public bodies as private patronage; even the Arts Council at its most expansive provided money with strings; opera companies had to satisfy the opera panel, and the council was famous for turning on clients and dropping groups like D'Oyly Carte Opera and Kent Opera. And the modern day Arts Council England has very much its own agenda, involving access, youth, education and diversity. But however admirable these requirements may be, they have to be satisfied by potential clients before any support can be considered.

All public patronage is like this in the current economic climate. With a shortage of available money, public bodies have to prioritise their own concerns. Perhaps when the Arts Council was first founded it had the aim of providing disinterested art, but shortage of money supply brings power. So that opera's sheer expense makes it vulnerable. Some fringe companies work outside the system, taking no external monies and working from hand to mouth in a way which can seem like hard work to the outsider. But in fact this means that they are also free from outside interference; they can spend their limited income without any artistic influence.
Donizetti's Les Martyrs - Opera Rara
Personal patronage and private sponsorship is more complex and it is fascinating to discern the control and the influence which has gone on in the background. Helping to pay for an opera means that the money provider must get some sort of say. The Peter Moores Foundation, for instance, has provided a series of projects last year and this, which have clearly chimed in with Peter Moores' interest in rarely performed 19th century Italian opera. So that, fascinating though the opera is, English Touring Opera is unlikely have decided to perform Donizetti's The Wild Man of the West Indies without the foundation's support and encouragement. Such sponsorship helps a group venture into rarer repertoire and cushions some of the risk. The foundation's support has meant that ETO has toured a strong pairing of Donizetti operas this spring, and that Glyndebourne will be giving an outing for another unjustly neglected Donizetti opera in the summer. Similarly a Polish group is responsible for sponsoring Szymanowski's King Roger at Covent Garden as their interest lies in promulgating Polish culture. A less obvious linkage is the support by a group of Armenians for Opera Rara's new recording of Donizetti's Les Martyrs; in this case the martyrs in Donizetti's operas are Armenian Christians and the events on the opera have resonance for them with events in the 20th century.

The influence can also be less than positive, with the promotion of repertoire which can be seen as outside the company's purlieu or not in some way 'working'. Covent Garden's espousal of Zubin Mehta's opera caused a great deal of comment some reviewers feeling unsupportive of the work and questioning the whole sponsorship issue. The problem with personal patronage is that attitudes have changed and whereas in the 18th and 19th centuries the power of money was accepted, nowadays there is some resistance and a distrust of 'buying your way in'. And such influence is not always as open as this, and you hear rumours which only goes fuel the speculation.

Influence can be positively malign. I know of at least one company where the power of a sponsor persuaded them away from their core repertoire to more popular works, which failed to take and this led to the company's demise.

Another area of power, which is as old as the hills, is the power of a particular artist. X is a superstar and their performances sell out, they will only appear if they perform with Y in X, take it or leave it. So navigating these waters is a minefield for the company, putting together packages which are seen as artistically interesting but financially viable.

We are artistically richer because of the way that public bodies, organisations and people are prepared to pay for our entertainment, helping to explore old repertoire, create new and permit organisations to work in areas they otherwise would not. Of course, if the old repertoire is outside your interests, and you find the new repertoire difficult then you will not see the patronage as quite as enlightened as it might seem. A more fascinating study though, is trying to discern the hand of discreet support when it is done with little or no acknowledgement.

In the 18th century, the teenage Mozart composed Mitridate Re di Ponto for Milan, because he won the support of the Viceroy of the Holy Roman Emperor, who controlled the opera house, despite Mozart not having the support of the singers (who seem to have distrusted whether this kid could write a full three act opera seria). Nowadays the mechanisms are different, but the hoops an artist must go through are still there. We in the audience have to remember that; someone has helped pay for our entertainment.
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