English Touring Opera drops half its orchestra in controversial move, citing ‘increased diversity’

13 September 2021, 14:29

English Touring Opera drops half its orchestra in drive for diversity. Picture: Getty

By Rosie Pentreath

The opera company has said it’s prioritising “increased diversity in the orchestra” in line with “firm guidance of the Arts Council.”

English Touring Opera (ETO) has dropped half of its orchestral players in a push for diversity.

At least 14 musicians have been told they will not be booked for the 2022 ETO tour, many of them long-running members of the orchestra.

The ETO has attributed the changes to prioritising “increased diversity in the orchestra,” something that’s in line with “firm guidance of the Arts Council.”

“There has been an understandable outcry from Musicians Union members in response to this news today,” the Musicians Union (MU) wrote in a statement on Friday (10 September). “It comes at an especially devastating time for the freelance community, and musicians in general, with so many struggling with little work and income during the COVID-19 crisis.”

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Niamh Kelly as Helen in English Touring Opera's production of Michael Tippet's King Priam. Picture: Getty

In their response, the MU describes being “appalled” by the ETO’s decision and outlines that, “while the MU lauds efforts to increase diversity in the workplace, the Union is adamant this should be achieved fairly and legitimately, not by ‘sacking’ half an orchestra.”

Musicians are hired by the ETO as freelancers, so can be dropped from the opera season-on-season, but many have played with the company for many years so consider it a permanent fixture.

The Arts Council, which provides funding to the ETO, has responded by saying that they did not advise the opera company to fire musicians as part of their work to increase diversity in classical music.

“We did not instruct the English Touring Opera to send this letter,” the Arts Council has said. “We are now in conversation with ETO to ensure no funding criteria have been breached.”

The ETO announced hiring 12 new artists in the freelance orchestra for the spring 2022 tour on Friday.

“Following a recent round of auditions, we are looking forward to welcoming 12 new artists to our freelance orchestra for our spring 2022 tour,” the opera company announced.

“We hope that you will welcome these musicians to your towns and cities, and enjoy the musical qualities they will bring to this production.”

They did say, “This means that there may be musicians with whom you may be more familiar from ETO performances who will not be with us on this particular tour.

“We want to thank them for the seasons they have toured with the company and for the collective contributions they have made to ETO’s success over the years.”