‘The evolution of opera’s operating model and the social parameters for public sector subsidy’ was the unwieldy title of a session at the autumn conference. More simply, it asked questions about the sources and criteria for public support, and how they might change.
Ahead of the session, we commissioned Dagmar Walz to research the background to the topic, using a sample of 26 theatres from 16 countries, for whose ready cooperation in supplying data we are grateful. The majority (70%) of respondents were heavily dependent on subsidy for 70% or more of their income. Even the 30% with lower proportions of subsidy relied on significant financial support from their state bodies. On the other hand, the reporting requirements varied widely.
Traditional quantitative measurements comprise number of performances, productions and commissions; audience occupancy statistics and ticket prices; financial and income targets and ratios. Two-thirds of respondents reported that employment levels were an important factor, along with contract details and salaries as a proportion of turnover. Some also cited gender parity, management pay, and even employee satisfaction.
Qualitative measurement was rarer, and in only two or three cases were comprehensive criteria applied to the assessment of artistic quality, innovation, international standards, and range and focus of the repertory. Some placed a value on the development of talent and of the art form, and/or quality of governance and management.
Perhaps most noticeable was a growing emphasis on social impact. Areas of interest include audience development; learning programmes; stakeholder and community engagement; equality and diversity among both workforce and audience; ecological sustainability. As democratically elected funders are challenged to justify their support for culture, these parameters are likely to become more widely enforced.
During the ensuing debate the director Graham Vick put it bluntly: ‘We exist for audiences. Any criteria must begin with the audience. Who are we speaking to? Is it possible for audiences to come and see and afford our performances? How can we be part of the whole of society?’ Galyna Grygorenko, representing Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture and Education, spoke of the responsibility to provide a transparent process. Along with performance numbers, ticket yields and income ratios, she envisaged adding the social investment in building an inclusive audience. Anna Maria Meo from Teatro Regio Parma observed that there remained a big distance between what companies would like and what they are pushed to do.
The dramatic decline in productivity consequent upon the pandemic in 2020 has made quantitative measurement temporarily invalid. Some public funders are signalling a shift to other measures of success. We need to ask ourselves: what kinds of measures are useful in assessing the contribution of opera to society? It is in our common interest to engage with the public representatives to find answers to the question: ‘What helps us tell our own story in the most effective way?’