Saturday 8 June 2013

Editorial: Why Greek Opera Should Not Be Alone In Giving Wagner To The Unemployed

Warrant for the arrest of Richard Wagner.16 May 1849
"The Wagnerian" "does not do politics". In part because of the variety of our readers political persuasions, in part because so many others seem to do little else,  and in part because few people would understand the editorial staffs own such thoughts - if indeed they do themselves. However, the recent decision by Greek National Opera to open up the ancient Atticus Theatre to a free performance of Wagner's Dutchman to 1500 unemployed people has re-ignited our editors thoughts about similar matters. We suggest that regular readers, with no such interest in these things,  ignore it all completely and pass quickly on

For a variety of reasons, I live between a number of different and diverse locals. Yesterday, while walking through one (it was after all, a nowadays rare British sunny day) , I noticed a long queue of people waiting outside of a local community hall. If you are unfamiliar: these litter the UK's "inner-cities" and "council estates".  Always at the verge of being closed down, (as local councils, of all political persuasions, attempt to divert money to far more important things - such as "fact finding" missions to the USA to help decide the design of the latest insanely funded , morally corrupt, fiscally restraining and illogical  PFI ) these centres provide amenities to some of the poorest members of society. The "old", the sick, the unemployed, children - need I go on?   Looking across, I noted that this not in substantive queue was for an ever growing area of need for these centres: a foodbank. Again, for the unfamiliar, foodbanks are run by charitable organisations and  provide free, donated, food to the poor and unemployed.  That such things are needed in what is still a relatively "wealthy" country (no matter how under or over  manipulated that wealth perception might be in these strange times) is perhaps a salient reminder of how far many societies have fallen. That such foodbanks need to exist at all is perhaps bad enough, that in many cases they are so overwhelmed with visitors that they are having to "ration" the food they provide even more so.


Anyway, given this, it might seem a trivial or unimportant matter that we, or the Greeks,  should concentrate on providing a free performance of a nearly 200 year old opera. And indeed, food, shelter, safety,  etc is of paramount importance.  However, the fact that the performance was filled would suggest this is  far from the case. And indeed, why should the arts, especially the most expensive of all, not be made available to the unemployed or the very poor?

As Greece's National Opera’s Artistic Director, explained  “We decided that during these hard times, we cannot shy away from the real problems our society is facing. So through a series of artistic events held in various spaces, we are bringing opera to a wider audience because we believe that it is a type of entertainment people appreciate. And that is why we are holding this event today.”

Or as an unemployed school-teacher at the performance noted: “I think this is a great idea not only because so many people wanted to see this production, but also because the economic situation in the country means many would never have been able to. It is a good opportunity for people to forget their troubles.”

It would nevertheless seem surprising (if fitting given the influence that Greek art had on Wagner) that it is in Greece, a European country struggling more than many in repaying their private banks debts,  that an arts institute has managed to put on performances of Wagner's work for free for its poorest members (an action, it is without doubt, of which Wagner would have approved -  and indeed encouraged) but not elsewhere. Few other arts institutions are undergoing the sort of cuts in public and private funding that those in Greece are and yet those that are the biggest recipients of public and private money stay specially quiet about the matter -  a few "cheap seats" with limited views, weak acoustic properties and the need for those using them to not suffer acrophobia aside (The Ring and Wagner concerts at the Proms are a very different matter and should be applauded. Although in these times of ever increasing cuts in welfare benefits even £5 pound spent on a ticket can be the difference between eating for a day or not.).

Yet not one, that I can recall, either publicly, or  otherwise, funded opera house across Europe has taken such a measure. And that Bayreuth has not seems a very obvious fact. Strangely,  this might be less to do, in some circumstances, with money or funding then you might think.  For example, recently somewhere in the world,  one, none publicly funded house, noted that it had rejected a substantial public grant because it did not have the "resources" to attract the unemployed to its Wagner performances.Which suggests that in some instances that while the money may be available the will is not.

In times such as this, art, especially art intended to be as transformative as Wagner's clearly is, maybe even more important then is normally the case.   As on unemployed Greek attendee at Greek National Opera's free Dutchman put it: “In this crisis, at the very least, cultural events must be made available to the people. It is only through culture that the people will be able to rise again.”