A new opera called Usher House will have its stage premiere at Welsh National Opera in 2014. There is just one surprising factor: the composer is Gordon Getty, 77-year-old philanthropist, venture capitalist and son of oil tycoon J Paul Getty.
David Pountney, WNO’s chief executive and artistic director, announced on Friday that in return for performing Usher House the Cardiff-based company would receive a Getty donation of $2m – more than enough to fund several other productions. For the Californian benefactor the deal represents a passport to respectability as a composer. For Pountney it is a huge risk. It suggests that a state-subsidised ensemble can be “bought” by any rich amateur who dangles a pile of money in front of it.
A graduate of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Getty is a long-time opera aficionado. His music, bland and inoffensive, is seldom performed, but you can hear it on Getty-funded recordings by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and the Russian National Orchestra. Unlike WNO, both rely on private finance.
Getty’s one-act opera, based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, has been slotted into WNO’s new “British premieres” series alongside Jonathan Harvey’s Wagner Dream and Richard Ayres’ Peter Pan. After staging Usher House in Cardiff, Pountney will take his production to San Francisco, Getty’s home city.
Individual artists often shudder at the thought of their ideals being corrupted by financial inducement, but the history of music is littered with patrons calling the tune. Richard Strauss’s opera Ariadne auf Naxos satirises the compromises involved. As recently as the 1990s the Metropolitan Opera’s leading donor, Sybil Harrington, virtually dictated the choice of opera and director on which her millions were to be spent.
In the state-subsidised sector, examples of private money swaying artistic policy are rare. One of the purposes of subsidy is precisely to protect the arts from this sort of compromise. Which raises the question: has Pountney sold his – and his company’s – soul for a pot of gold?
The director known for his raffish sideburns, flamboyant attire and intellectual combativeness is prepared for criticism. “Yes, we’re doing the Getty opera,” he says with a smile, “but thanks to his generosity I’ve got three UK premieres by British composers.”
Pountney, 65, who joined WNO a year ago, heard Usher House when he was invited to attend Getty-funded recording sessions in Lisbon. He describes it as “a piece of subtle recitative, focused on the words. It’s very singable, not experimental or atonal”.
Having spent a successful decade directing the Bregenz Festival in Austria, he now wants to reposition WNO at the forefront of British opera life, after a period in which it under-performed. He believes that, in a time of austerity, the money Getty is offering is too good to refuse. Pountney has never been shy of controversy: as director of productions at English National Opera from 1982 to 1993, he promoted interpretations designed to divide audiences.
Since then the UK cultural climate has changed. He contrasts the “blandness” of life under the post-1997 Labour government with the “violent and argumentative” years of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative administration, which roughly coincided with his time at ENO. “You didn’t have to agree [with Thatcherite policies], but you could engage combatively, which was stimulating,” he says. “Tony Blair’s vapidity, and his lack of contact [with culture], was more damaging than confrontation. The Labour party, which was so passionate about making culture available to everybody in the 1960s, became totally uninterested under Blair. That 1960s tradition has stayed on in Wales, and is very much part of our remit.”
Citing a £45 top seat price, cheaper than other British companies, Pountney insists, “We’re incredibly good value.” But WNO has been through a round of budget cuts and programme curtailments, giving it a reputation for caution. “And I assume that is why I was appointed – they knew they weren’t going to get a cautious approach,” he says. “The chorus and orchestra here are high-quality collectives, involving massive expenditures. If you are forced to reduce activity, you shine a light on all those labour costs and people start to question whether you can maintain that load.”
So Pountney has gone on the offensive. “There’s no point sitting here and thinking the government is going to give us more in 2015 [when the next round of subsidy is decided]. WNO has to adopt a hard-headed approach, and find alternative sources of funding. The Getty thing is a massive step: it means we won’t need to do what every other company does – which is to cut new opera. Our programme is cast-iron protected. But we do need to develop a more commercial edge.”
It is strange to hear hard-nosed money-talk from a man whose reputation derives from his career as a stage director, starting with Katya Kabanova at Wexford 40 years ago. But, “You can’t be a director for the awful number of years I have been, without being involved in financial issues. It’s not always a negative thing. A budget cut can force you to find a constructive solution.”
In WNO’s case, this has resulted in co-production agreements, “enabling us to do various things we couldn’t otherwise do”. Some of these are predicated on Pountney’s involvement as director, but he maintains he has always preferred to work as a member of a company rather than as a freelancer. “I love directing, but I don’t need to go round the world again.”
And what does he think of the current fashion for opera in experimental spaces, where none of the traditional rules apply? Citing a WNO plan to work with John McGrath of the National Theatre of Wales on a site-specific project in Port Talbot, Pountney argues that such work is “a future, not the future. Opera has always been such a tremendously catholic art form, embracing everything from popular entertainment to [the challenging and avant-garde composer] Heiner Goebbels.”
He is not yet prepared to throw out the traditional opera house configuration. “The places where you habitually go to hear a symphony or an opera are places that efface themselves when the work begins. With a site-specific piece, the site is always engaging a large part of your attention. But when the lights go down in the Wales Millennium Centre, you get just the opera.”
Welsh National Opera’s ‘La Bohème’ tours until December. ‘Free Spirits’ season begins in Cardiff in February 2013. www.wno.org.uk