Tuesday, 24 August 2010

John Fisher to leave WNO in summer 2011 ... and time to man the barricades!

Photo from the Telegraph

I had planned on returning to proper WNO blogging on September the 1st but the news that John Fisher is to leave his post as Chief Executive and Artistic Director when his contract runs out next summer had me deciding not to climb the last ten metres of Everest and return to base camp prontissimo.

A quick call back to my associate confirmed the reports and with it a sense of ?!!? set in. Although any opera company should be judged on the work of many people, and not just a small few, there is no getting away from the fact that John Fisher has played an important role in the company's recent history. I've no idea why Fisher has decided not to renew his contract, and quite frankly it's none of my business to make wild guesses.

What I am sure of is that it will take some scouring of the globe to fill his position and I hope that an appointment isn't rushed through to the detriment of WNO. Of course it would be nice to think that Fisher would change his mind, but it seems highly unlikely he will. As yet there are no whispers of where he will head to next, but a man who has the Met, La Scala, La Monnaie, De Nederlandse Opera, La Fenice, the Pesaro Rossini Festival and Deutsche Grammophon on his resume is hardly going to be struggling for work. Who knows – he may be heading for his native Scotland. Wherever he ends up I would like to think that WNO's followers would wish him good luck in his next venture.

Time for statements and then something extra…

In a statement John Fisher said:

"It has been a privilege to lead WNO over the last five years, and I am very proud of what we have been able to achieve.

"It is a wonderful company that is a great asset for Wales and the world of opera.

"In the next few years WNO will face very significant challenges, but I am confident that when I leave next summer the company will be in the hands of a very strong and accomplished team."

It seems that the parting of the ways is amicable with WNO Chairman Geraint Talfan Davies speaking of Fisher in glowing terms:

"Over the last five years John has made an enormous contribution to the development of the company through raising its musical and vocal standards to the highest level, and attracting to WNO the very best talent.

Many fine productions culminated in a truly outstanding Die Meistersinger that will always have an honoured place in the company’s history.

We are hugely grateful to him for all that he has achieved.

We now look forward to those productions that he will oversee during the remainder of his time with us.”

Now, I'll go on a slight walkabout tangent here so get ready for some (slight) Braveheart moments. Not being in position to get my hands on the full press statement from WNO (no sign of it on their website as I'm typing this in my tent) I've had to make do with two news sources – BBC Wales and WalesOnline. Both of which have more or less published the same quotes, apart from the closing comment in the BBC Wales article:

"The finest tribute that we can pay John is to do everything we can in the challenging climate ahead to sustain the standards that he has set," Mr Talfan Davies added.

There is no denying the fact that severe budget cuts are going to affect many aspects of society in the coming years and the arts will suffer significant cuts to budgets that are already small, despite what critics of the arts would have you believe. So to hear Fisher and Davies respectively refer to significant challenges and a challenging climate is a worrying echo of Dennis O'Neill's recent comment in the August issue of Opera Friend (Friends of Welsh National Opera magazine):

Andy Taylor (Editor and Friends of WNO Manager) This will be a difficult few years for the arts?

Dennis O'Neill Financially this is an opportune time for people who never wanted opera in the first place. Houses will try to make their work more accessible and will try to pare back costs. The risk is that we dumb down. On the contrary, this is the time when we have to be at our very best. Meistersinger couldn't have come at a better time for WNO.

There are inevitably going to be tough times ahead for many opera companies and I fear that WNO, despite the wonderful Meistersinger, will unfortunately not be immune to the cuts that are being proposed in the coming years. In my opinion it would be wise for those bodies responsible for the funding of WNO protect it as much as possible from any proposed cuts as it provides world class productions to people who are unable to reach the bright lights, and even brighter prices of London.

Many aspects combine to make worthwhile societies and despite what critics would have you believe the arts do make a telling and an essential contribution to everyday life and as such should not be allowed to become the preserve of the financially secure few. I have no doubts that WNO will survive the proposed cuts, but in what shape it survives is open to debate.

But this is where WNO's audience has an important role to play in ensuring a healthy future instead of a malnourished one. At the end of the day money is what makes our human world revolve and it's up to us, the bums on the seats to support WNO with as much financial rocket fuel as we can afford to. I'm not suggesting people wear rags and denote a hefty percentage of their income to WNO. I'm thinking more along the lines of becoming semi – opera geeks and catching more than one performance of a production if you normally only take in one show. You'd be surprised how much the same opera can be different from night to another – a change of seat allows you to see things you hadn't noticed before, a singer may be on better form from one night to another, that irritating sweet sucker you wanted to throttle one night won't be there the next. You don't have to cough up big bucks at WMC either - £5 for a ticket that would normally set you back £60 at Covent Garden is a bargain in most eyes. Then there are things like buying programmes and using the numerous bars / cafes in the WMC and other places WNO visits that will help to show healthy figures both for WNO and the venues it plays in. You could even join the Friends of WNO with benefits ranging from early booking to a healthy discount on performances that can be spread over many months with a direct debit.

But if these are beyond your financial situation you can still help by simple word of mouth. I think WNO, given its genuine long standing involvement with communities, would rather a following of the many rather than the few. Friends, family, work colleagues, mortal enemies – they're all potential bums on seats. And it's not as if you're selling them a timeshare on Alderaan.

WNO can only do so much – they need our support for them to continue giving us experiences as compelling as The Queen of Spades, as entertaining as Falstaff, and as thrilling and joy filled as Meistersinger. It's up to us to make sure it's allowed to continue creating these moments. So nag your friends, take in an extra performance, slurp an ice cream, buy a programme. Because as the Beastie Boys put it...


  1. I wish your company lots of luck finding a new director. Five years doesn't seem that long. You've got me thinking, what's really going on there. Good thing you're flexible and and descend from base camp when blogworthy news hits cyberspace. :)

  2. Hi Gale, thanks for stopping by :) It is a shame (and a big surprise) that Fisher, for whatever reason, decided not to extend his stay; especially since it meant I skidaddled in a rush and left my friend's sister's best friend's father's boss' portable dining set behind. But needs must and all that...

  3. How do we know the WNO board didn't renew John's contract? In these fiscally challenging times WNO will need someone with strong financial skills. Perhaps they're looking for someone with business experience to ride out the upcoming "significant challenges". John's next appointment will be telling.

  4. Hi ilovethearts, and thanks for taking the time to comment.

    Judging by people's reactions within the company at the time it was a great surprise that John Fisher decided to leave. He eventually left earlier than expected over the Christmas period, but there appears to be much mutual goodwill on both sides as he (along with Lothar Koenigs & Bryn Terfel) collected the South Bank Show for WNO's Meistersinger in late January. He will also be returning to Cardiff as chairman of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition in June, which has very strong links with WNO so the decision to leave appears to be his.

    Luckily, WNO have recently named his successor, and it was another great (but welcome) surprise that David Pountney was unveiled. This, coupled with the recent funding news from both ACW and ACE, means the waters are once again calm at WNO.