HL Deb 17 May 1971 vol 319 cc91-104

7.9 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The object of the measure, which is confined to local authorities in Wales—which of course includes Monmouthshire—is to make it possible for such local authorities, if they so desire, to contribute towards the resources of the Welsh National Opera Company. Legislation to this end is required because the powers under Section 132 of the Local Government Act 1948, which enables local authorities to make payments towards the provision of entertainment, restrict their ability in this direction and confine their benevolence to such entertainment as is convenient for residents in the area of the contributing authority.

We have a very good precedent for the Bill which I have the honour to place before your Lordships to-night in that the present Secretary of State for Wales, Mr. Peter Thomas, some years ago introduced a similar measure, which passed into law, to enable the Welsh local authorities to contribute towards the Royal National Eisteddfod of Wales although it might not be held within their own confines; and a little later Mr. Idwal Jones, who was at that time the Member of Parliament for Wrexham, introduced another measure allowing the Welsh local authorities to contribute towards the Llangollen International Eisteddfod even though they might themselves be some distance from Llangollen—and, knowing the difficulty of transport in general in Wales, I do not think one could truthfully say that Llangollen was altogether convenient to the inhabitants of all Welsh local authorities. But that does not in the least diminish their enthusiasm for it.

What we are seeking to do to-night—and it will be in agreement with another place, through which this Bill has already passed—is to extend this principle to the Welsh National Opera Company. We feel that it is most desirable that any local authority in the Principality, if it so wishes, should contribute to what has become over the past 25 years one of our most distinctive and distinguished national institutions. I am quite sure that all of your Lordships who have had the pleasure of listening to a performance by the Welsh National Opera Company will agree that they maintain an extremely high standard. They became known in London, of course, first of all, by their performance of Verdi's opera Nabucco, when the choral singing made quite an impact. But in the intervening years since then they have, of course, very much widened their repertoire. At the moment, in the current season, there are eight operas in their repertoire, of which I think the production of Boris Godounov is perhaps the most distinguished. The repertoire for this season includes Falstaff, Aida, The Magic Flute, Die Fledermaus and so on.

As I am sure some of your Lordships here know, although the Company started largely as an amateur company, at tremendous sacrifice of time and leisure on the part of those who took part in the performances and in the rehearsals which were requisite thereto, in more recent years they have made the most gallant efforts to turn themselves into a professional company, or basically a professional company, and to extend both their repertoire and the range of their performances. It is quite plain that in a country with the population of Wales it is not easy to sustain a company performing grand opera if it is confined to the Principality itself, and therefore in the most recent period the Company has gone beyond the confines of Wales and are performing also in England. The spring season, which is at present on, involves two weeks' performance in Cardiff, one in Swansea, one in Bristol and two in Llandudno, with rather briefer visits for rather circumscribed performances in Haverfordwest and Aberystwyth, where the facilities, of course, are not suitable for a full-scale grand opera performance. But in the autumn after the opening season of three weeks in Cardiff, the Company are proposing to tour to Southampton, Oxford, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Sunderland; and I am sure your Lordships will agree that if they can take their quite admirable Company to these places, they will add very much to the enjoyment of the citizens in these other towns.

We all know, of course, that opera is one of the most expensive forms of entertainment. One cannot reach really high standards in opera without considerable expense. Nowhere in the world can grand opera be performed cheaply; it simply cannot be done. In all countries of the world, therefore, opera on this scale must have a subsidy of some kind. So it is in no way derogatory of the Welsh National Opera Company to make it plain that, although they play very frequently to capacity houses, nevertheless they still cannot make ends meet just on the takings of the performances, however well supported they are. If your Lordships believe, as I do very strongly, that the Welsh National Opera Company are a popular opera company, in the sense that their performances should be available to all people who enjoy and appreciate opera, then you will also understand that one cannot follow (at least I think it would be very undesirable to try to follow) the situation which we find in, for instance, Glyndebourne, where one is appealing to a relatively small number of people who pay very high prices indeed for their seats—so much so that now, I think, a great many of the seats in Glyndebourne are paid for by companies rather than by individuals. I do not think that that would be at all a suitable way to deal with the position in Wales. We want to keep the opera available, as I have said, to as many people as possible who can enjoy it.

Now the Government have not been ungenerous, and I want to make this quite clear. We appreciate the contributions from Government sources through the Arts Council. My noble friend Lady Lee of Asheridge will, I hope, support us with a few words in this debate, because when she was Minister she showed very great interest in this matter. We are very appreciative of the fact that when the opera company was in financial difficulties owing to an accumulated deficit, the Arts Council stepped in to meet the situation. But the Welsh Opera Company is still facing very considerable difficulties, although the proposed grant from the Arts Council has been slightly increased—not very much, but slightly —and there will be, we understand, a guarantee, an underwriting, of the expenses of the English tour that I mentioned. Nevertheless, there is a gap between what the opera Company has estimated to he its necessary expenses for the corning year and the—


My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt, but may I ask the noble Baroness this question? She referred to a gap and to underwriting. By whom is that being underwritten?


For the English tour, I assume that the money comes from the Arts Council but it would be administered by what is ca led DALTA, which I think stands for Dramatic and Lyric Theatre Arts Association, which acts as an agent for the Arts Council in organising tours of this nature. The tour that I have referred to—the seven-week tour which will follow the Cardiff season in the autumn—is being organised in association with DALTA and, as I understand it. it has been suggested. that they would underwrite this tour to the extent of, I think I am right in saying, £60,000. That is a guarantee; it is not a grant. I think we must make this clear: that they will guarantee the costs (or the deficit, rather) on this tour to that extent.

But even with that very welcome guarantee there is still a gap which the Welsh National Opera Company are trying very hard indeed to eliminate. That is the gap between their estimate of what they really need and the offer which is being made by the Arts Council plus the guarantee for this particular tour. They have already done a great deal to narrow the gap: by making certain economies, by cutting down new productions that they would have liked to undertake. They have therefore cut down to two the additions to their repertoire. I am sure that your Lordships will appreciate that if you are based in a relatively small community, as in Wales, you have to have a fairly extensive repertoire, otherwise people will not come; for once they have seen one production they naturally want something fresh. So one is placed in this difficult position. The fact that you are playing to a public which is relatively restricted numerically means that you need more productions than if you are in a high populated area. That is one of the things that the Company have felt obliged to do. They have also decided to postpone certain salary adjustments that they had hoped to make and to reduce some of the costs of the orchestra; but that cannot be done to any great extent without impairing the quality of performance.

One further matter worries me. The company has felt impelled under the financial stress to cut down its training scheme. I think this is most regrettable, and I hope that the Welsh local authorities, who know of the matter, will wish to contribute towards the training scheme. One of the greatest benefactions of the Welsh National Opera Company has been the way in which it has reared good young operatic singers in Wales, given them professional training with the company, after which, as we all know, they go on to Sadlers Wells and Covent Garden. Some of the most distinguished singers who perform regularly at Sadlers Wells and Covent Garden have come from the Welsh National Opera Company. I am speaking of both principals and chorus. I think that it would be most regrettable if anything were done to limit the opportunities for our very fine young Welsh singers, men and women, to obtain from the Welsh National Opera Company the kind of experience and training in a professional atmosphere which is invaluable for someone who hopes to sing in grand opera. We cannot truthfully claim that Sir Geraint Evans, although he has sung with them, owed his entire experience to the company; but Gwyneth Jones, Margaret Price, Elizabeth Vaughan and Stuart Burrows, to name a few, have really owed their professional start to the Welsh National Opera Company.

I am sure that all of us who have had the pleasure of listening to this excellent company feel that it is something that we in Wales can be proud of. It is something distinctive. I think it would be tragic for Wales—and not only tragic for Wales but detrimental to the cultural standards of the United Kingdom—if anything were done to lower the standards and impair the qualities of the work done by the Company. Therefore, I hope very much that what we are asked to do in this very modest but important Bill will appeal to your Lordships. It is really no more than to enable the local authorities in Wales to contribute if they wish, to the opera company. I hope that this expression of good will in Parliament will draw to the notice of the local authorities their opportunity to do something to support a very fine Welsh national institution. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a. —(Baroness White.)

7.25 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady White, for the very clear exposition that she gave of the reasons for the introduction of this Bill. The Bill is a very short one but that does not mean to say that the noble Baroness could not have made a lengthy speech. I am glad that she did not; she covered the whole subject in a very short space of time. I welcome the Bill. The prestige of the Company is very high. Those who have seen it from its beginnings will realise how remarkable an institution it is. It is largely the creation of one man. It started near Cardiff as a purely amateur company in a small way and, as the noble Baroness said, it has grown into a great national institution which now appears in a number of centres—not only in Wales but also in England. No doubt in time it will go further still. Grand opera is an extremely expensive form of entertainment. This is particularly so in the case of this Company for one of its objects, unlike that of some commercial companies, is to stage new operas which the public have not had an opportunity of hearing at all—for example, Italian operas which have not been presented in this country for many years. So the losses are great.

For the year ending March 31, 1970, the Company's accounts showed a deficit of £56,280. It is a fact in opera that even if every seat were sold for every performance there is still a loss. You cannot get enough money out of box office receipts to cover the expenses. Although it is delightful to know that the English will have the opportunity of witnessing this example of Welsh culture, of hearing Welsh people sing Italian opera, it is a fact that most of the £56,000 loss was occasioned by the Company's performances in England. That is my information. I have no doubt that this year, the extended scope of the company, to which the noble Baroness referred, will mean that the losses will be greater; and again they will be largely brought about by their appearances in England.

The results of this great loss would be most unfortunate. In the first place, you cannot send a telegram to first-class opera singers, particularly soloists, saying, " Be in Cardiff next Thursday " or, "Be in Bristol next Wednesday week." They book their engagements two or three years ahead. You cannot get men and women of the calibre of Geraint Evans, Gwyneth Jones and the like at the last moment. If they are not assured of the financial stability of Welsh National Opera they will not book up. The same thing is true of many devoted people in the chorus, among the administrative staff and among those handling the scenery. All of them tend to get worried about their future. It is essential that the opera should be put on to a sound financial basis. I regard it as one of the three great cultural institutions of Wales—not the only ones but the three great cultural institutions—the Royal National Eisteddfod, the International Eisteddfod of Llangollen, and the Welsh National Opera Company. These are three tremendously important institutions in Welsh life. It would be a tragedy if they went.

I wonder whether it is not possible for the Arts Council itself to make a contribution. I appreciate that it would be widening the scope of the Bill far too much to put down an Amendment conferring on English local authorities the powers which the Bill seeks to confer on Welsh local authorities. But I wonder whether—having heard of the possibility, or having read of it, perhaps in Hansard, especially as supported by the noble Baroness, Lady Lee of Asheridge—it would be possible for the Arts Council itself to make a grant in view of the great losses sustained by the Company when it appears in England.

I have only one further point to make. One sometimes sees in the Tress (I am glad to say one never hears it in your Lordships' House) letters to the effect: Why should we spend money on opera when we could spend it on whatever the particular object the person who writes wants to spend it on—a vast number of other things—because opera, it is said, appeals to only a minority. Even if this is so, that is no reason not to support it. All developments in art probably at first appeal only to minorities; and even arts which appeal to a small minority in the beginning eventually redound to the enjoyment of the majority. One can take the position of the stage, for example, where developments, say, ten years ago in the theatre were seen by only a very few people, and understood h y only a very few people, but now are seen and enjoyed by many more. They have spilled over on to television and the films, and thus the majority get the benefit of what in the beginning appealed to only a small minority. So I hope, if there is any feeling in that way by some ratepayers, that the local authorities will resist it and will realise that they are sustaining a most important art form which is giving enjoyment to very many people, both in their own local area and n other areas; and it is, as I say, one of the three greatest glories of Welsh culture.

7.33 p.m.


My Lords, my only reason for taking part in this debate is to underline all that has been said by my noble friend Lady White a; to the purpose of this Bill. I do so with a sense of gratitude to your Lordships, as I had the pleasure some three years ago to support in this House a similar Bill which was introduced in the other place by my brother, Idwal Jones, in support of the Llangollen International That Bill passed through all it; stages in your Lordships' House without the slightest opposition, and I am confident that that will be the fate of the Bill we are discussing this evening.

Having mentioned the Llangollen International Festival, I cannot resist the temptation to attempt a " commercial " and to remind noble Lords that the Festival will be held in seven weeks' time. Those of you who have never attended that Festival have missed an unforgettable experience. The Musical Director, Mr. Gwynn Williams, told me the other day that on this occasion no fewer than thirty-three nations will be taking part in the Festival. If noble Lords want to forget the drudgeries of the Division Lobbies and the all-night Sittings, well, my advice is: Go to Llangollen!

The Bill which we are now discussing was introduced in the other place by an ardent Welshman, Ifor Davies, the Member of Parliament for Gower and an enthusiastic supporter of the Welsh National Opera Company. He received the full support of the other place. As he explained when presenting his Bill, and as reiterated this evening by my noble friend Lady White, the object of the Bill is to make it possible for local authorities in Wales to contribute out of the rates, if they so desire, towards the expenses of the Welsh National Opera Company. Unless financial assistance is forthcoming, the Company is doomed to extinction, which would be a great tragedy. The Company was formed in 1946, and later registered under the Companies Act 1948 as a non-profit-making, sharing company, limited by guarantee for the—and I quote: promotion and presentation of grand opera in Wales and elsewhere and to contribute to the musical educational life of the community. It started its career, as Lady White reminded us, as an amateur company, but soon developed into a professional status. Its new status demanded an extension in its playing weeks, an extension of the number of towns in which it can play, and an extension in its repertoire. These changes, obviously, needed an increase in financial aid, which has been met only in part.

The Company has served Wales well. Unfortunately, there are only three places in Wales where one can find facilities for large-scale opera. These are Cardiff and Swansea in the South and Llandudno in the North. In spite of this, the Company has made great efforts to present smaller-scale operas in other towns in Wales which have only very limited stage accommodation. It is therefore truly educational in its aims and functions. The Company now compares favourably with the leading opera companies in England and elsewhere in Britain, and its prowess is recognised throughout the country. In the last two years it has played at Bristol, Southampton, Bournemouth, Birmingham, Leeds, Sunderland, Liverpool, and also at Salder's Wells. Welsh singers, as my noble friend Lady White reminded us, are now in demand not only in this country but also on the international operatic stage.

Before I resume my seat, I do not wish to indulge in any form of carping criticism, but, as a Welshman, I am always instinctively prompted to make comparisons between the treatment of England and that of Wales by various financial institutions. I would be the very last person to criticise the Arts Council of Great Britain, and that for two reasons. In the first place, my high regard for the noble Lord, Lord Goodman, would in itself prevent me from doing so. In the second place, I believe that the Arts Department, under my noble friend Lady Lee of Asheridge, was the outstanding success of the Labour Administration—I say that without the slightest reservation. I am only hoping that the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, will follow her good example. Nevertheless, curiosity prompted me to make a comparison between the grants allocated by the Arts Council to the Welsh National Opera Company and, for instance. Covent Garden and Sadler's Wells. I find that in the year 1969–70, Covent Garden had a total grant of £1,400,000; Sadler's Wells had a total of £762,000. That makes a combined total of £2,162,000. The Welsh Arts Council made, by comparison. a meagre grant to the Welsh Opera Company of £178.016. No doubt my words will reach the ears of the noble Lord, Lord Goodman, and the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles. I would only say this to them: treble the grant to the Welsh Company and they will live happy ever after. It gives me great pleasure to support the Bill.

7.40 p.m.


My Lords, it is quite true that the Welsh Company is still in difficulties, and perhaps the trouble is that people simply cannot understand why opera is so expensive. I hope that Welsh pride will be fully enlisted behind this measure that has been introduced by my noble friend Baroness White. It is no use expecting the central Government to give total finance to any major art. Its very vitality rests on the fact that it has deep local roots. We hear a great deal about Welsh pride. The Welsh people are proud of their distinctive culture. Therefore I hope that all county councils in Wales and in Montgomeryshire will respond to this opportunity that they are being given.

You have to be at close quarters watching a great company work to appreciate the discipline, dedication and sacrifice that is put into running an opera company. I entirely agree with what has already been said: that it is enough that they should do this for us, without being haunted by wondering whether they can afford it: can they afford to train, can they afford the administrative staff? We are not even talking in terms of a Welsh opera house; we are talking in terms of supporting a Welsh Opera Company.

How can we get rid of this false notion that opera is only for a small minority of wealthy people? Of course we have Covent Garden, and it is extremely expensive to get into Covent Garden, even with all the subsidies that arc paid. I would ask my noble friend to remember that when one talks about Covent Garden one is talking about the opera house as well as the opera company. Some of my earliest memories in a mining village in Scotland are of delight when the Carl Rosa Opera Company or the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company visited us. All the operas were familiar in my home. I do not know what songs the young workers of Wales are singing these days when they go home on a Saturday night. I can remember more than 15 years ago sitting at an open window in Tredegar when the lads were coming home after 10 o'clock on a Saturday night. I assure your Lordships that it was not hymns they were singing, and it was not pop songs; they were singing arias from II Travatore, Carmen and so on. As I say, I do not know whether they do that now, but they did in days past. The opera was a popular art. I cannot speak:or England, but in the part of Scotland where I grew up and the part of Wales that I knew, there was a great delight in the beauty of the words and the music of the opera.

There must be an insistence that if we are to have an opera company it must be absolutely first class; and, if we maintain the standards I hope it will become more generally recognised that it must be supported over a wide area. You must have a national power house: you must have it for Wales, for London, for Scotland and elsewhere. Welsh pride must insist on parity of esteem; that their company is not second-rate, but is superb in its training and talent, and gets an international as well as a national reputation. I hope that we can do something to make it clear to county councillors throughout Wales and elsewhere that this is a very special responsibility and a great opportunity that they have, and that they will realise that financial support for a great opera company must come locally, as well as centrally.

7.45 p.m.


My Lords, I am happy to tike part in singing with this Welsh guar et and the guest artist in the shape of the noble Baroness, Lady Lee of Asheridge, whose dulcet tones we very much appreciated hearing. We are, I think, singing in close harmony, but due to the fact that there is a pop group called the House of Lords, we shall have to find another title for ourselves. I am pleased to have the opportunity of expressing the full approval of the Government for this short but important Bill. I should like to join with the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, in admiration of the succinct, concise and eloquent way in which the noble Baroness, Lady White, introduced the Bill, although perhaps the normal virtue of being concise was not so important this evening, when some of our colleagues who have to take a short rest from the Industrial Relations Bill may have been hoping that we could continue the debate a little longer.

Like others of your Lordships who have spoken, I have for many years admired the performances of the Welsh National Opera Company, and I have listened to them with great pleasure both in London and in Cardiff. Therefore I fully support the Bill. I should like to take this opportunity of paying tribute to a man whom I knew well, who started the whole thing going—Bill Smith. He was, I think, largely responsible for its success in the early days, against great difficulties, and he deserves some mention to-day. He was a simple man, but a successful businessman, with a vision and a devotion to the cause of opera. It was he who started the Welsh National Opera Company, harnessing the talents of great professional singers to the glorious swelling sound of Welsh amateur choruses. On that basis the opera company took shape. To-day it is well established, and largely professional, and therefore faces, as has been made clear by other speakers, severe financial difficulties. It needs to tour extensively in England, as well as Wales, and it needs financial support.

I was grateful to the noble Baroness for her tribute to what the Government are doing through the Welsh Arts Council; and this of course is a tribute to the last Government, who equally warmly supported the company through the Welsh Arts Council. It is only right that Welsh local authorities should not be deterred from supporting the opera company by the strict requirements of section 132 of the Local Government Act 1948. As has been said, it follows in the tradition of two other significant Acts: the Eisteddfod Act 1959, introduced by the present Secretary of State for Wales, and the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod Act, introduced by Lord Maelor's brother in 1967. Both of these gave local authorities undisputed power to contribute to the support of these other two national institutions. This Bill follows that precedent. and I hone that your Lordships will give it an undivided Second Reading.

7.49 p.m.


My Lords, I am extremely grateful to all who have taken part in this brief debate. I am sorry if the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, has had slightly to expedite his dinner. We have no Standing Orders in this House, and we might have started singing and carried on for quite a little while. Between us I am sure we could give a very good account of ourselves. But perhaps that would be establishing a precedent which on other occasions (if. for example, our Scottish friends joined in; might be a little rowdy. As I say, I am grateful to all noble Lords, and not least to the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, who has expressed the support of the Government for this Bill.

I think I should perhaps have mentioned that at the present time, as I understand, the local authorities, who are entitled to contribute under existing legislation, contribute a sum, in round figures, of about £20,000 a year. This, of course, is excellent as far as it goes, but it quite plainly does not go anything like far enough. Needless to say, we should like the Government to give a little more than they do, and if possible on a triennial basis: I would suggest that the noble Lord might consult with his noble friend about that matter. It was said during the speeches of my noble friends that the position is very difficult for a company of this kind when it does not know beyond a 12-month period what its position is going to be, because it cannot then engage people of international repute and it cannot really make arrangements for its orchestra, either.

I think that, for opera companies particularly, a little more would be especially desirable. But however much the Government are prepared to do—and I hope they will do a little more, because I think the Arts Council are quite well aware that more is needed, and do it on a longer term basis—there is still room for the local authorities in Wales. We hope very much indeed that as a result of this brief debate, as well as what was said in another place, they will now take this opportunity to show the pride we have in Wales in the Welsh National Opera Company.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.