WNO is in rude health on many fronts, but its boss tells George Hall of her mission not just to secure the company as it stands but also to increase the type of work it engages in and tackle issues around funding and falling audiences
When I meet up with Leonora Thomson – Welsh National Opera’s managing director since 2015 – the board has just announced that artistic director David Pountney’s contract will not be renewed at the end of the 2018/19 season. His successor will not be known for some time, but Thomson’s position has just become even more crucial to guiding WNO’s future. In many ways the company is in rude health: its chorus is world-famous, with an orchestra of equal excellence. Music director Tomas Hanus, appointed in 2016, has created a highly favourable impression, most recently with Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier and Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus. Other standouts include From the House of the Dead by Leos Janacek and Modest Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina.
In the 2016/17 season, 115 main-stage performances were put on around England and Wales and the company toured productions to Dubai and Hong Kong. More than 100,000 people attended a large-scale production, with more than half of those coming for the first time. But as Thomson admits, these are uncertain times for touring opera companies; issues around funding and declining audiences need to be addressed. The company will hope that her long experience in the arts, and in other sectors, will see it through the pressing challenges.
Thomson comes from Yorkshire and grew up in a musical family. Her father was headmaster of Ripon Choir School and her mother the director of music. “She taught me the piano from the age of four and I started the violin at five,” Thomson says. “I did a lot of singing with my dad, who was a good pianist. He had a lot of scores and we sang our way through operas together.”
She describes both of her parents as “opera nuts”, and she remembers being taken to performances by Sadler’s Wells on tour in York and Leeds from about the age of six. She did music O level, with grades in piano and violin. “I wanted to go to music college,” she says, “but my parents wanted me to go to university.”
In the end, she read philosophy at the University of Leeds, with both a music and a politics subsidiary in the first year. Thomson says: “When I came down to London, I thought about postgrad accompanying. But in the end, I realised that I wasn’t cut out for the life of a musician, so I started applying for jobs.”
She began in publishing before landing a job as press officer at EMI Classics, where she worked for four years. Next, she moved to handling press and promotions for BBC Radio 3, transferring to the Proms for two seasons before returning to the station as head of press. A couple of years at a higher level within the BBC followed, as a strategic communications adviser.
Thomson’s interest in politics led to her election as a Labour councillor in Ealing in 2003. But she found it hard to maintain her day job alongside her council responsibilities and resigned from the BBC to become Ealing Council’s deputy leader, then leader in 2005 until she lost her seat the following year.
So, she moved to a job in the arts. She joined the Barbican as head of communications and became director of audiences and development, a post she held for five years until the job of managing director at Welsh National Opera came up in 2015.
1. Welsh National Opera gave its first performance in 1946 at the Prince of Wales Theatre, Cardiff. The operas were Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci.
2. Including the forthcoming autumn performance of War and Peace, WNO has performed 158 different operas.
3. The professional chorus at WNO was established in 1968.
4. Over the years, there have been several live animals in WNO productions, including goats, dogs and an eagle.
5. In 1955, WNO became the first opera company from the UK nations and regions to perform in London.
Until then, artistic director Pountney had been in charge not only of the artistic side of the company’s work but also of managing it. “As well as working here, David had an amazing career as a freelance director, and I think they wanted someone who was more available,” Thomson says. “They knew that there were things to do. It needed firming up, and as he had previously worked in that way at Bregenz, David suggested that it could work here, with both parties reporting to the board.”
What did she find when she arrived? “We had a lot of work to do in the human resources field in terms of updating policies and how different areas of the organisations interacted. The other thing we found, and that we are continuing to tackle, is the issue around audiences.”
With the growth of fringe opera on the one hand, and of country-house opera on the other, audiences for traditional touring companies have been in decline. Thomson says: “There’s a range of issues as to why that should be: a combination of programming and repertoire, marketing, how we communicate with our audiences, and a wider societal thing in that the UK has been in a recession and people don’t have the money to spend.”
Does she feel that Pountney’s programming has been over-ambitious in terms of what regional audiences want? “He has been remarkably ambitious, and that was what he was brought in to do. Though I do say it myself, we are doing great work. But some of the more ambitious programming hasn’t quite worked for the broader public, though it is absolutely adored by a very loyal core audience.”
The emphasis will now move to what Thomson describes as “a slightly more balanced repertoire”. She continues: “David has been brilliant at putting that together for the next few seasons. In our spring season we had a fantastic, brand-new La Forza Del Destino [by Verdi], with revivals of Tosca and Don Giovanni. Forza isn’t seen very often, and it’s a piece people who don’t know opera might not go to, but with Tosca and Don Giovanni, there were shows that such people would go to.” She acknowledges that her description may sound “terribly simplistic”, and quickly adds: “It’s a lot more complicated.”
How does she propose to tackle the issue of declining audiences? “We’re trying different techniques. We have changed the way we do our marketing and are creating more digital content, as well as refreshing the way we communicate with people visually.”
But as Thomson explains, touring companies are hampered by the amount of data available to them. “On the whole, touring companies don’t have their own marketing data because it’s kept by the venues, and sometimes the commercial venues won’t share it,” she says. “So, we’re trying to build up our own database and communicate better with people.”
The company is also looking at touring. Thomson says: “After we’ve prepared and performed our shows here in Cardiff, we pack the whole lot into trailers and take them on the road.” Until recently, the company was doing five performances a week in Birmingham, Plymouth, Southampton and other main-scale venues, “but doing that in a city twice a year, or in some cases once a year, isn’t the most obvious way to grow your audience, because you’re expecting people who might not get a lot of opera to come to three different shows in a week”.
What was your first non-theatre job?
Production assistant at Ebury Press.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Director of audiences and development at Barbican Centre.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
I wish I’d been encouraged to do a formal business course.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My mother (who sadly died in 2012, aged 90).
If you hadn’t been an opera administrator, what would you have been?
I’ve been quite a few things, but I’d have loved to be a singer, or a jockey.
Yet, as Thomson admits, to work in other ways may well turn out to be more expensive. The idea is to look at a touring pattern of cutting it back to four performances a week to fill the venues better and try to achieve more of a sense of occasion, with a view to possibly going back to five if the policy works.
“The other thing we’re experimenting with is doing more matinees,” Thomson says. “Partly that’s because we have an older audience, and they don’t necessarily want to be going into the centre of Birmingham, or wherever, on a Saturday night. Anecdotally, it’s going down well, and they seem to be selling.”
Thomson is determined to expand WNO’s presence across Wales. “Our main-scale productions can only be toured to Llandudno and to Cardiff, though we used to go to Swansea.”
When asked what happened to Swansea, she says: “Essentially, the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff happened – people saw this fantastic venue that is now our home and they wanted to come here. Now we’re going back to Swansea, but in a different way. We’re doing concerts at the Great Hall of the university and each summer we’re doing small and mid-scale work, new productions that will go to smaller venues – Elena Langer’s Rhondda Rips It Up!, about the Newport suffragette Lady Rhondda, in the first instance – and taking that to Taliesin and other areas of Wales.”
In more prosperous days, WNO’s main activities comprised three seasons per year – autumn, spring and summer – each containing three full-scale operas. But they have cut back after tightening the belt. “We don’t get the funding we used to,” Thomson says. “Our turnover is about £17.5 million, with 61% of that publicly funded. Over the next five years, we want to decrease our reliance on public funding by a few percentage points because we can’t be sure that it will always be there. We need to become more resilient in case that happens.”
That involves building the box office takings – currently just over £2 million – back up to 2009-10 levels of over £3 million. Will that mean raising ticket prices? “Absolutely, but we are incredibly good value.”
To those unaware of the company’s inner workings, the sheer scale of WNO’s operation can be surprising. It is the largest performing arts organisation in Wales by a considerable distance, but as a UK opera company, Thomson suspects that only the Royal Opera House and English National Opera are bigger, and that WNO may be the largest touring company in Europe.
“Our overall headcount sits at just over 200 permanent staff, though that’s hugely expanded at full season,” Thomson says. The figure of 200 includes an orchestra of 50 and a chorus of 36, both of which may increase in number depending on repertoire requirements. “Some of the operas we can do with just our own orchestra, though for many we need an extra orchestra and an extra chorus as well,” she adds.
Thomson points to the biggest production of 2017-18: Mussorgsky’s historical Russian epic Khovanshchina. “I think the chorus went up to 58. Next season, Prokofiev’s War and Peace will be our biggest; that will be a chorus of 60, an extra 24 on top of our standard 36. In terms of the orchestra, I think Khovanshchina might have gone up to 70. That represents a huge part of our production costs.”
Most of the company’s sets – Forza, a co-production with Bonn, was an exception – are made in WNO’s internationally renowned scenery-making workshop, Cardiff Theatrical Services, which builds for other companies too. Logistically, it is a complex enterprise taking three full-scale shows per week to Birmingham or one of WNO’s other touring venues. “To get it all out on the road, we take all three sets for three operas plus all the wardrobe in the lorries and trailers – anywhere between 14 and 17 of them. There’s an incredibly complex transport schedule as to what goes where and when, because they must arrive in a particular order, especially in small theatres where the sets can’t all be placed in the wings and they have to be stored in the van.”
Born: 1965, Ripon, North Yorkshire
Training: University of Leeds, studying philosophy, politics and music
On the night of the final performance of any opera, immediately after the show, everything is put back into the trailers, “so the technical people are working late hours after the shows have come down and then getting in early to take them off on their travels again”. Meanwhile, the orchestra, chorus and touring members of the company travel independently to the venue and look after their own accommodation, for which they get a touring allowance.
Despite being based in Cardiff, and called Welsh National Opera, the relative dearth of large-scale venues in the country means that the company spends more time in England, and thus the corresponding funding split is roughly 60/40 in favour of England to Wales. How are the venues selected?
“There used to be something called the ‘spheres of influence policy’, whereby Opera North broadly takes the north – although we’re in Liverpool – and we take the swathe from Liverpool to Oxford, Southampton, and then down into the South West. In the autumn, Glyndebourne on Tour does a bit of a combination of the two.”
‘It’s a long game, but I believe if we can reach out, our partners will become accustomed to opera being part of their lives’
Meanwhile, back in Cardiff, where WNO’s administration is housed inside the Wales Millennium Centre itself, a senior member of the WMC team recently told Thomson the relationship between resident company and venue has never been better. The number of performances at the centre, however, is limited by the audience available in Cardiff and its surrounding areas.
The company has residence in the Donald Gordon Theatre, the centre’s main theatre with close to 2,000 seats, for around 12 weeks a year. Thomson says: “At the moment, we’re not doing main-scale in the summer, other than special projects. So to make sure that there isn’t too much of a gap, we want to do other things in Cardiff. That’s why we’re doing more St David’s Hall concerts with Tomas Hanus.”
Apart from main-scale productions and concerts, and partly to replace the work involved in the three summer operas that have disappeared, over the last few years the company has increased its community and education work. This includes running a local community choir, a youth choir and even a youth opera company. “We are really proud of this work. It’s a very important part of who we are,” Thomson says. “We have a brilliant leader in this area, Emma Flatley, who arrived just before I did in 2015 and has changed our strategy.” She outlines the three strands to the strategy. “There is teach and learn, which is around going to schools; there is engage and participate, which is reaching out to the communities; and there is train and develop, which is around talent and the youth opera side of things. So there is an enormous amount of work going on.”
The company has recently prioritised funding towards those areas. As part of its funding application to Arts Council England, WNO pledged to substantially increase its activities in that field in England too. Cardiff already has the well-established WNO Youth Opera, which does full-scale productions. Within that there are three groups, aged between 10 and 14, 14 to 16, and 16 to 25. Every two years, they perform an opera with young professionals as well as top students.
“We have begun expanding our South Wales-based work in this area to North Wales as well, where we already have a producer helping to embed us into the North Wales arts scene,” Thomson says. “We have started a youth opera up there and there’s a community chorus too, while our work in schools is going really well.” Similar projects are being rolled out in Birmingham, Liverpool, Southampton and the south-west.
“It’s a long game, but I firmly believe that if we can reach out, our partners will become accustomed to opera being part of their lives and eventually form audiences of the future. At the Tosca dress rehearsal, we had nearly 600 schoolchildren who so enjoyed it.”
With these initiatives, Thomson is looking not merely to secure WNO as it stands but also to increase the type of work it engages in. “It’s all about the fitness of the company for the future. Public money is not going to increase, and so we must raise more ourselves. It’s about getting that sustainability for the company so that we can do this great work.”
Managing director: Leonora Thomson
Number of performances: 115 large-scale (2016/17 season)
Audience figures: 123,593 for large-scale productions and concert performances (2016/17 season); 16,088 for concerts alone
Number of members (WNO Friends): 2,000
Turnover: £17.5 million
Funding levels: 61% grants from Arts Council England and Arts Council of Wales, 26% fundraising and other earned income, 13% box office
• Jan Michaelis, technical director: firstname.lastname@example.org
• Alison Dunnett, director of development, communications and strategy: email@example.com
• Emma Flatley, director of partnerships and engagement: firstname.lastname@example.org
More details at: wno.org.uk