A chilly afternoon in London’s Shoreditch, and a handful of singers are gathered around a piano in the centre of a huge sky-lit loft, its walls lined with the bound scores of once‑forgotten operas. Welcome to the offices-cum-rehearsal space of Opera Rara, an extraordinary record label established to rescue neglected masterpieces from obscurity. The scores on the music stands are a new edition of Donizetti’s Le Duc d’Albe, originally commissioned by the Paris Opera in 1839, but abandoned by the composer when the soprano for whom it was being written, who happened to be the director’s mistress, decided she didn’t care for it. This summer it will be recorded, featuring the stellar soprano Angela Meade, a stalwart of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, and the French baritone Laurent Naouri. Sir Mark Elder, one of the world’s leading opera conductors, will conduct The Hallé orchestra.
“This is what gets me out of bed in the morning,” Charles Alexander, Opera Rara’s chairman and a major supporter of the label, tells me at a rehearsal for the company’s other summer 2015 project, Gounod’s little-known farce La Colombe, for to hear voices of this calibre in a space as intimate and unexpected as this is a privilege. But it’s also the knowledge that in enabling such a venture, Opera Rara is not only going to bring pleasure to connoisseurs of bel canto, but is also adding to the sum of musical knowledge and producing for posterity a recording of a work very few would otherwise get to hear.
For as the major record label Warner Classics concedes in the publicity for its forthcoming release of Verdi’s Aida, “Studio recordings of large-scale operas have become something of a rarity.” Where high-volume sales of pop albums and singles used to cross-subsidise classical recordings, the faltering fortunes of the global recording industry, driven not least by the culture of illegal downloads, not to mention legal streaming services such as Spotify and Qobuz, has all but eradicated this. As Paul Baxter, owner of Delphian Records, has said, “The way we consume music is changing ferociously fast, but a model that pays 0.002 cents per stream can’t possibly be progress.” In essence, then, the future of classical music recording now lies in the hands of philanthropists.
Not that Opera Rara is a recording company in the conventional sense. “It’s actually more than that,” says Alexander. Before recording an opera, “it first has to decide whether or not it’s a masterpiece and why it has been neglected. It does this through forensic, almost archaeological research and historical analysis” of why it fell from favour.
Next comes the meticulous preparation of a performing edition of the work. For Donizetti’s Les Martyrs, Opera Rara’s acclaimed version of which was issued last year and will be released on CD on May 5, it took a team of musicologists and post-doctoral students almost five years to transform 400 pages of manuscript into the 850‑page score that the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment played. An irony when you consider that it took Donizetti just five months to write.
Then it is cast, recorded in a studio and performed live; “a scholarly book” is commissioned to go with it and both recording and book are digitised and archived. To use an oil-industry analogy, says Alexander, latterly president of GE Capital Europe (prior to which he spent 25 years at NM Rothschild & “first you must find the acreage, the unpublished, unrecorded work of a composer; then you explore it and bring the oil to land; then you refine it; and then you offer it to your public. The recording is only one stage of the process.”
It is, however, the one that will endure. “So what we’re actually doing is reviving and recreating a work of art, which can be left in perpetuity as a legacy. At English National Opera [on whose board he used to sit] or Glyndebourne, each production is a unique work of art in itself, but it is by definition transitory. What we’re doing is by definition permanent.”
Of course, such projects – and the company has operas by Bellini, Donizetti, Gounod, Leoncavallo and Rossini in progress – do not come cheap. A recording can cost up to £300,000; the CD booklet alone can cost thousands (an individual or company putting up the sum to fund it can have its name or brand on the cover and a page dedicated to the sponsor can be incorporated). But although Opera Rara has sold more than half-a-million CDs and downloads over the past four decades and has 52 full-length operas, as well as numerous compilations in its back catalogue, not to mention 41 complete performing editions of operas that it rents out, it needs to raise 70 per cent of its income through grants and donations from opera lovers, trusts and foundations.
Historically, Opera Rara’s principal source of funding came from the Peter Moores Foundation, established by the former chairman of Littlewoods Football Pools, but the organisation was wound down a few years ago. “If you want to name a philanthropist who has backed the recording of classical music, you need look no further than Peter Moores himself, to whom English music owes a debt that it can never repay,” says Alexander. (Moores also supported the recording of a substantial number of recordings of new operas by composers such as Thomas Adès for the major label EMI, and George Benjamin, James MacMillan and Edward Rushton for Chandos.)
But while Alexander is under no illusion about the challenges of raising money, he remains bullish. “During my business career I was involved in lots companies and organisations undergoing periods of transition and change, so as somebody who’s interested in opera and a business and charitable challenge, this was something worth taking on. That moment in Les Martyrs, where [the sensational American bel canto tenor] Michael Spyres sings Dieu m’inspire and hits a high E [you can watch it on YouTube], that’s what inspires me. I just love the art form.”
Among Opera Rara’s most generous supporters is Dr Nicole Bru, founder of Bru Foundation whose Palazzetto Bru Zane project sponsored Opera Rara’s recent issue of Offenbach’s Fantasio, winner of the CD Category at the 2015 International Opera Awards. Though the focus of its interest is described broadly as “culture”, French-born Bru – a medical doctor who became director of the 400- strong research department at the French pharmaceuticals company Union Pharmacologique Scientifique Appliquée or UPSA, whose owner she subsequently married – has a particular passion for 19th-century French Romantic music. So the Foundation’s raison d’être, as she puts it, is also “to obtain recognition for the lesser-known works of well-known composers, such as Bizet, Gounod, Massenet and Saint-Saëns. And to rehabilitate those composers – Alkan, Hérold, Pierné and George Onslow, the so-called French Beethoven – whose works are rarely played in concert now.”
In addition to funding musicological research (15 researchers are based at the foundation), educational programmes in primary schools in the Veneto, music festivals in Venice and Paris and individual concerts and operas – not least a May 30 production at the Château de Versailles by Les Talens Lyriques of Uthal, an opera by Etienne Méhul, held to have been the most important composer of the Napoleonic era, scored, somewhat improbably, for an orchestra with no violins – Bru also hosts concerts in the exquisite surroundings of her 17th-century canal-front palazzo in the heart of San Polo.
But with an eye to posterity, the foundation also has its own label and will issue four meticulously researched recordings this year (notably an opera by Mozart’s great rival Antonio Salieri), each accompanied by a scholarly book.
New philanthropically driven funding models don’t only apply to more obscure reaches of the repertoire, however. Two years ago, the Swedish soprano Erika Sunnegårdh recorded an album of songs by Richard Strauss, which, wrote Andrew Clark in the FT, revealed her “to be as fearless vocally as she is commercially… she strikes her top notes with thrilling power and accuracy”.
Innovatively, the album was part-financed by the crowdfunding website Kickstarter, with 159 donations that ranged from $20 to $8,000. Sunnegårdh raised $18,786, spent a roughly equivalent sum from her savings, and the Malmö Symphony Orchestra gave its services for free. “The thing about crowd funding,” she says, “is that it activates a conversation about how music is funded and consumed, and certainly in the classical business, if you’re going to do anything with an ensemble of more than five people, you’re going to spend money. You just can’t make an orchestral recording on a shoestring budget.”
Crowdfunding has been successfully used to finance yet more ambitious projects, notably Winter Morning Walks. Made with the soprano Dawn Upshaw, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, it won composer Maria Schneider a Grammy Award in 2014 and was bankrolled through ArtistShare, a platform, says its mission statement, that connects artists with fans in order to fund the creation of new works. It’s further evidence, says Erika Sunnegårdh, that “lots of albums are privately funded now, even the ones that are distributed [and bear the logos of] the big record companies. “People still want albums,” she adds (hers can be downloaded for free from her website). “They still want to listen to music. But we do need to think differently about where the money is going to come from. And, philosophically, I like the idea of it activating a sense of community.”
As the philanthropist John Studzinski notes: “It’s like the people who said the movie industry was going to become less profitable. The movie industry is profitable. It’s just a question of where in the value chain people make money and don’t make money.” Indeed, the vice chairman and senior managing director of global investment and advisory firm Blackstone, who was awarded the Prince of Wales Medal for Arts Philanthropy last year, believes recorded music – especially “spiritual or sacred music [which] is the closest proxy to replicating silence and quiet” – is a luxury we’re valuing more and more as the world becomes increasingly urbanised and noisy. “People are also going to continue to want to listen to music because more people are going to have the facility to do so,” he adds, citing projections that suggest that by 2020, 80 per cent of the global population will have a smartphone. “We’ve just got mixed up between the model of where the profit is made and the actual demand for music.”
That said, the Genesis Foundation, of which Studzinski is the founder and chair, has funded a series of recordings for the independent Coro label, which belongs to the choir and period-instrument ensemble The Sixteen – and found itself with an unexpected hit in 2012, when EL James namechecked Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Alium (an austerely beautiful motet written in about 1570, featuring 40 voices) in Fifty Shades of Grey and endorsed their recording of it. “I am delighted to have introduced so many of my readers to this amazing 16th-century music,” she told Classic FM. (Attentive listeners with classical educations will note that the final line of its text – the climax, so to speak – translates as “be mindful of our humiliation”.)
Whether readers became converts to English renaissance music as a result remains unknown. But “creating new audiences” is very much the focus of Studzinski’s philanthropy. (He notes proudly that one of the four recordings he has sponsored, Spirit, Strength and Sorrow, three new settings of the Stabat Mater text, by Alissa Firsova, Matthew Martin and Tõnu Kõrvits, which his Foundation commissioned, reached number eight on the iTunes Classical Chart last winter.) Another is establishing what he calls “cultural memory, which I think plays an important role in what the arts are about. The arts are not about entertainment. We don’t just record something to entertain people. I’m more interested in commissioning sacred music and sacred art because [they make] a broader statement about our time. Music is a powerful vehicle and a sign we’re shifting from an age of materialism to an age of spirituality.”
In addition to supporting The Sixteen’s recording activities and commissioning new works for it to perform, the Genesis Foundation also sponsors the UK’s first fully funded training programme for young choral singers, called Genesis Sixteen, of which, incidentally, Charles Alexander’s daughter, the soprano Molly Alexander, is an alumna. As Studzinski explains, “The nurturing, mentoring and creation of networks for young artists was a specific goal when the foundation was formed in 2001, since which time it has devoted more than £10m to opening opportunities to exceptional young artists from diverse backgrounds, setting them firmly on the path to fulfilling their creative and professional potential.”
That same desire to help future generations is a major motivation for the philanthropist and former farmer David Bowerman and his wife Mary, the founders of Champs Hill Records, which over the past five years has issued around 100 recordings almost exclusively made in the private 160-seat concert hall they built on their estate in Sussex, so boosting the careers of a host of now-established artists. “It’s not about making money,” says David. “It’s about giving people the chance to hear some of the finest musicians in the world and providing a platform for some of the marvellous young performers when they are on their way up.” He reels off a list of names: Sophie Bevan and her sister Mary; Katherine Broderick; Federico Colli, the young Italian winner of the triennial Leeds International Pianoforte Competition in 2012, “who would probably not otherwise have had the chance to record in the current climate of the business”; Alexandra Dariescu; Ivana Gavri´c, “who went on to win a BBC Music Magazine Young Artist award in 2011”; Thomas Gould; Sofya Gulyak (the previous winner at Leeds); the London Conchord Ensemble; Njabulo Madlala; Joseph Middleton; the accordionist Ksenija Sidorova… And he’s keen to champion work by rising composers too: Cheryl Frances-Hoad, for example, whom he points out was accorded the honour of being featured as BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the Week earlier this year. “We’re also keen to present relatively little-known music that is unlikely to stand a chance with the big labels,” he says.
In essence, the reports of the death of the recording industry would seem to be premature. Rather, as Erika Sunnegårdh puts it, “We’re just on the cusp of changing the collective conversation around the way it’s funded. [Historically] the people who determined what music and which musicians ‘made it’ were individuals with great personal wealth. I mean, who hasn’t dreamt of having a personal benefactor?” Increasingly, then, the recording industry is coming to depend on donors.