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Why did a good opera house accept $2 million with strings attached?

Welsh National Opera is the latest musical organisation to bite the Gordon Getty bait.

In exchange for a seven-digit cheque, the company will perform an opera by a talentless musician who inherited and once managed an oil empire.

I have heard enough of Getty’s music to know that it’s bad. It is written in a mid-romantic mush that meanders nowhere for extended periods of time. I visited Getty once to discuss his musical involvements. It was a very hot day and he did not offer me so much as a glass of water. Had he done so, I might have been morally obliged to refuse it.

Mikhail Pletnev had fewer compunctions. He accepted Getty millions to perform pallid stuff with his Russian National Orchestra.

Now David Pountney has done the same at WNO. Pountney’s justification is that the cash will underpin four other contemporary operas, all of great merit, including the UK premiere of Jonathan Harvey’s Wagner’s Dream. ‘This series gives us an extraordinary opportunity to re-engage with contemporary opera writing and to transform our perceptions of new music, ‘ said Pountney. ”We hope to dispel the misconception that modern opera is either moribund or incomprehensible to our audiences.’

But a bribe is a bribe is a bribe. Had WNO not agreed to stage Getty’s opera Usher House, it is unlikely the gift would have found its way into Welsh hands. This is not arts philanthropy. It is a financial transaction.

Oh, and before Welsh politicians start slobbering with gratitude, they should bear in mind the scale of the bequest. Getty’s fortune is estimated at $2 billion. His gift to Wales is a tin coin in a beggar’s pot, one tenth of one percent of his worldly goods.

Here, below, is Getty’s own considered opinion of his musical worth: ‘I’m the best since Mahler.’

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  1. I thought Getty’s millions to the RNO helped fund their tours too. You seem more upset at Getty paying for his music to be performed than Pletnev’s underage sex crimes in Thailand, which seemed to have gotten swept under the carpet.

  2. “It was a very hot day and he did not offer me so much as a glass of water.”

    What did you expect? This is someone whose father installed a pay phone in his home for his sons to use.

  3. As a keen sporter of WNO, I have to say I’m in two minds about this. I’m glad they have found some money to contribute to the staging of new operas and understand that whilst the Getty may be a poor opera it’s at least allowed some (hopefully) better productions to happen. What I don’t understand is why anyone would look a gift horse of this kind of sum in the mouth, especially when we know funding is slim. Perhaps the answer to that is artistic integrity.
    I suppose we can let audiences (if there are any) judge the Getty for themselves, and whether his contributions are truly worthwhile, and if there is any integrity left!

  4. If there ain’t any money, there are no performances of anything. No questions of artistic integrity, audiences judging for themselves, etc. – just silence. personally, I like the financial transaction as described by Norman Lebrecht. I’m sure he knows there are many moral compromises in business. Is the arts business any different?

  5. If he’d hired a professional opera company to record his work, that would be entirely fine, I assume. Maybe not great work, but if he wants to throw money at recording it, and provide work for good musicians in the process, he’s welcome to do so.

    If he’d hired a theatre and an opera company to perform the work, that would also be fine in my opinion.

    This isn’t really much more than an extreme example of the latter case. I don’t think anyone’s pretending that the work is being staged because of its artistic quality, but if all he wanted to do was hire the opera company and its personnel (including promotion work etc.) he could probably do that for a lot less than he’s currently paying. (Estimating 50 musicians and 20 crew, 70 people, working for a month of rehearsal and a month of performances, £5k per person, plus say £150k for theatre hire, publicity printing etc…. yep, £500k would probably cover it.)

    So let’s be happy that one of the few billionaire composers is prepared to hire a decent opera company to perform his work, do so at well above market rate, and enable them to commission other composers to produce new work at the same time. Nobody’s pretending that this is much more than a hire job, and there may be some people out there who actually enjoy a bit of mid-Romantic slush.

  6. Isn’t this taking rather a purist attitude? When I win Euromillions I intend to give support to opera, but there certainly will be strings attached – no so-called Regitheater director within a thousand miles of any opera company I fund.

    • Brian, fund a Baroque opera company – we can still use more of those. Better yet, come on over to New York and fund one here.

  7. Pountney’s logic is unanswerable: and if he’s gone out there and cut a deal which enables him to promote four worthwhile contemporary operas at the price of staging one duff one, he deserves nothing but applause. Enough of the preciousness and the wounded artistic sensibilities, please: this is no more a bribe than it is when a major company accepts Arts Council money to stage second-rate work to suit a non-artistic agenda.

    The audience will judge the merits of these works (and my bet – having attended most WNO productions since 2005 – is that they’ll stay away in droves from all of these pieces, whether by Getty or Harvey). But Pountney’s taking an artistic risk, and to do so, he’s made a shrewd compromise which means that it’s no longer a financial one. Which is exactly what organisations like WNO ought to be doing, if they wish to take artistic risks AND (and sorry if, from the top of those ivory towers, the idea that artists need to eat sounds a bit vulgar ) continue to pay their employees.

  8. What’s unusual here? The Philharmonia, LPO, LSO, RPO… all accept funding from commercial or sponsorship interests to perform music that is substandard: most arts organisations do. Often this is even programmed into the ‘season’ too, and frequently the amounts involved do little more than cover the cost of the performance they relate to.
    Here, however, the funder seems to be paying more than they need to, thus leaving the WNO with cash to spare. Frankly it sounds like a great deal for all involved – except, perhaps, Mr. Getty, who could have achieved his performances at a lower cost. What’s not to like?

  9. I’m a big fan of WNO. It’s the only company here in Wales which gives any regular top class performance of opera. Lothar Koenigs, the principle conductor, is impressive, and on their day, the orchestra can be as good as any.

    But having seen a number of good operas at WNO where the productions have disappointed me greatly, I think it is a small price to pay to have a dud opera to help fund genuine innovative contemporary opera.

    Remember that the bastion of all opera composers, Richard Wagner, obtained his funding through a prince who knew nothing better than to splash his cash. Opera has always accepted funding through odd schemes. If Getty’s music is, as you say, total rubbish, I for one will be sincerely glad of the chance to hear a large-scale work by Harvey.

    • Stephen Whitaker says:

      Getty’s music is not total rubbish just competent Samuel Barber style American Romantic
      stuff from a worked-out seam. (there are more examples on youtube if you play the link above.
      It will not embarrass WNO to perform it or alienate audiences with obvious inanities
      such as the ‘operas’ of Rufus Wainwright or Damon Albarn.

    • *waves* I don’t think we’re related, but drop me an email anyway? Would be interested in writing for Cantorion Pontyclun, and I see you’re doing quite a bit of music by living composers.

  10. Pleasure to meet you Chris, will email soon! :-)

  11. Stephen Carpenter says:

    Isn’t it a toss of the coin anyway? We’re talking about new music. The tag line, “All music was once new.” is perhaps apt. If Mr. Getty is rich enough to indulge himself and we get a collateral reward, what’s the point? Artistic Integrity is what it is and it is relentlessly moving forward, and not necessarily on the critic’s or audience’s sayso. Do I like the idea of flaunting a monied talent? Not especially. There are so many large talents without monied or prestige associated access who will not be heard but nonetheless keep working because their vision of art demands it,

    It takes money to put up public art, but it should not be primarily and fundamentally about the money. We have been jaded, I fear, by looking at the pricetag as if that tells us the real worth. After all, the pricetag is only what someone is willing to meet. That’s a financial transaction.

  12. Neil van der Linden says:

    King Frederic of Prussia did the same when he had Quantz perform his flute concerto’s.

  13. Neil van der Linden says:

    Oh and now I understand how the label Pentatone can survive.
    Well, why not. Still I prefer Mr Getty as a character to Donald Trump, I think.

  14. Perhaps this situation is a reflection of the sometimes desperate situations in which many composers live.
    Yes, of course we would all like to have our works showcased in this way, with virtually unlimited budgets in terms of performances, whilst during the writing process we would of course live in the lap of luxury with never a concern as to how the next bill that drops on the doormat will be paid (“where is the bottle-opener?” “It’s his day off.”)
    There is some strange jarring note here though when someone (who is described as being possibly without merit) sails in, pays for an entire season of works and is guaranteed to be deprecated (whether his particular opera is good, bad or indifferent).
    This ‘interference’ by patrons goes back a long way, and surely we must all recognise it as such; Write a bit, ride off the backs of others, pay a cheque and hey presto, buy your way to recognition.
    Perhaps I am biased. Whilst many years ago I once counted a member of the Getty family as my close friend (his brother was subsequently kidnapped and had his ear cut off), like many others in poverty, living for ‘the thought’, ‘the trade’ and the words to inspire composers, whose skill I could never hope to emulate.
    As far as I understand, the American model of funding is very different and alien to that of our own. In the US (as far as I understand), many new projects are funded by affluent individuals, whereas in the UK we rely on such bodies as The Arts Council (from whom I’ve never succeeded in extracting a single penny).
    What is worthy and what is not is an unfathomable question, but as I look forward to attending a ceremony at The House of Commons this Wednesday (Adam Gorb’s work ‘Anya17’ has been shortlisted for an award – I was the librettist), I reflect again that this opera was conceived, developed and performed without a cent of funding. OK, we’re off to Romania next year and Germany is now on the cards, but I nearly lost my house writing it. Perhaps I wouldn’t be so bitter if it had been funded, directed, produced, interfered with… by a wealthy philanthropist?
    Forget it.

  15. David Pountney says:

    Hold on a minute everybody – don’t assume that Gordon Getty’s opera is a dud before you have even heard a note of it just because he is a) rich or b) Norman Lebrecht says so. I HAVE heard all of it, and it is very intelligently, sensitively and atmospherically composed and, I am willing to bet, will give pleasure to a large proportion of the audience. No, it is not experimental or avant garde, but surely we have long got past the die-hard modernist days when everything had to be either extreme or worthless. WNO is going to present a spectrum of work which will give audiences access to various different aspects of contemporary music, of which Gordon’s opera is a part. Let him have his say, and then by all means make your judgements.

    • bratschegirl says:

      I’ve played some of it in workshop-type sessions. Your assessment of Mr Getty’s music is overly generous, in my opinion, and I’m neither a die-hard modernist nor an enemy of new music. I’m sure it will have its fans and give pleasure to them, but the same can be said of the “50 Shades” series; I think we can agree that popular success does not necessarily demonstrate artistic merit.

    • ken scott says:

      Full steam ahead, Mr.P.

  16. Norman Lebrecht praises Harrison Birtwistle, who does not know the sound of the music he writes, while considering the Walton worthless. He said that Walton’s music was so unappealing that its many performances world wide came about only because of some sort of intellectual snob value. He described it as emperors’s new clothes music, which is, in fact, a perfect description of Birtwistle’s music, as almost any orchestral musician who has played both will tell you.

    • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

      Do you mean Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart? I didn’t know he was a composer. William Walton wrote a few works that just might live on and to those who don’t like his music I say: “maynay, maynay, taykel u fahr seen…” (pardon my poor phonetic rendering). Mr. Getty is no William Walton but he seems to be having fun, especially with his money.

    • Stephen Whitaker says:

      It is perhaps not a good idea to accept the judgement of almost any orchestral musician, since they don’t hear what we hear in the audience.

      When Arthur Sullivan returned from Vienna in 1867 with previously unseen Schubert scores the London Orchestras laughed at the ‘incompetence’ of the orchestral writing and almost refused to play it.

      • But then orchestral musicians know when their parts are written in ignorance of their instruments,. They often have to modify what Birtwistle has written in order to make it playable. On many occasions it has been clear that when Birtwistle has been present at a rehearsal he does not realise that musicians have made substantial changes, or sometimes made up their part with random notes and rhythms.

        • Is that really always a problem, though? Frequently, composers are concerned with creating an effect – something often difficult to notate in traditional Western notation in any case. Provided what is played, across the orchestra as a whole, adequately reflects the effect desired, the exact notes played are perhaps not too important.

          Mind, it’s also fair to say that we hear poor playing on recording of Elgar conducted by Elgar, and he didn’t seem to complain too much; and we hear quite shocking standards of playing and see low standards of behaviour in many “top” orchestras night after night in any case without too many conductors doing too much complaining about this, either. Maybe it’s more a case of Birtwistle – and the others – not voicing their concerns, rather than not being aware of them.
          (Some composers – Carter, for example – seem extremely aware… and he is 103 (or 104?), so it’s hardly fair use your stories about Birtwistle to try and paint a picture about all composers)

      • But then orchestral musicians know when their parts are written in ignorance of their instruments,. They often have to modify what Birtwistle has written in order to make it playable. On many occasions it has been clear that when Birtwistle has been present at a rehearsal he does not realise that musicians have made substantial changes, or sometimes played impossible passages with random notes and rhythms. Some years ago, I advertised in the MU journal for any professional musician who had played Birtwistle’s music to get in touch. Quite a few called me. If their stories were made public they are so extraordinary few would believe them.

        • Birtwistle is not the first to struggle with instrumentation. Schumann had no end of trouble and suffered rewrites by others. So did Bruckner, Mussorgsky, many more.

          • Steve de Mena says:

            Schumann, yes, and it’s well known. Bruckner? Wasn’t that more self doubt? Neither if them, as far as I know, were Professors of Composition as Birtwistle was or is.

          • There’s no struggle with Birtwistle. It doesn’t concern him.

          • Neil van der Linden says:

            Maybe in order to embarrass him, after he had apparently embarrassed her, perhaps after she had embarrassed him, Alma Mahler once reproached Gustav for being a bad instrumentator, urging him to take Bruckner as an example.
            But indeed if Schumann would have only written symphonies (how appealing they can be, especially when John Eliot Gardiner plays them), nobody would ever left home to withstand a pouring rain to go to a concert to listen to a Schumann symphony. Maybe we would not have heard of him nowadays.

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