This briefing focuses on support for opera in England. Arts and culture funding is a devolved matter in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. However, the briefing does touch upon developments involving the Welsh National Opera (an opera organisation based in Cardiff) as this receives funding from Arts Council England (ACE) and has also been the subject of recent parliamentary questions.

1. How is opera funded in England?

There are a range of opera institutions in England. The five biggest of these, in terms of share of UK performances in recent years, are:[1]

  • Royal Opera House (also home to the Royal Ballet)
  • Glyndebourne/Glyndebourne festival
  • Opera North
  • English National Opera
  • English Touring Opera

There are multiple sources of funding for opera institutions. They include:

  • Grants: for example, money channelled from ACE, local authorities, or national lottery funds.
  • Donation income: this will often come from private donors, corporate sponsors, and charitable foundations.
  • Commercial and trading income: this is money gained based on the activities of the organisation. For example, ticket sales, programmes and onsite sales (such as catering and refreshments) and touring income.

The respective reliance on these different funding sources varies across the institutions. For example, analysis commissioned by ACE in March 2024 noted that some institutions, such as the Royal Opera House, received the majority of their funds through commercial and trading income and donations.[2] However, many others were heavily reliant on grants, particularly outside of London. For example, figures for 2022 indicated that the median proportion of turnover from grants was 68% for organisations outside London and the rest of the South (for London, the figure was 41% and for the rest of the South it was 30%). In addition, six organisations which were regularly funded by ACE received more than half of their income from that regular funding (or in the case of Welsh National Opera, ACE and Arts Council Wales). These included the English National Opera (ENO) and the English Touring Opera. The analysis report emphasised:

These organisations are able to operate due to ACE funding. The presence of large and mid-scale opera and music theatre outside London and the rest of the South is made possible by ACE funding.[3]

A table detailing regular ACE funding for opera and music theatre organisations since 2015/16 can be seen below.[4]

Table 1. Arts Council England regular funding to opera and music theatre organisations, 2015/16 to 2023/24

A table detailing regular ACE funding for opera and music theatre organisations since 2015/16
(Source: Arts Council England, ‘Let’s create: Opera and music theatre analysis’, March 2024, p 104)

2. What funding issues does English opera face?

Concerns have been raised about many aspects of opera funding and its sustainability over recent years.

One of the most prominent issues raised related to ACE’s funding announcements, made in November 2022, for its 2023–26 investment programme.[5] This set out the regular funding to be channelled to national portfolio organisations (organisations that receive regular funding and support from ACE). These announcements were also made in the context of instructions from the government for ACE to redistribute some of its funding from London to other parts of the country and ACE’s ‘Let’s create’ strategy focused on broadening access to cultural opportunities.[6]

The November 2022 announcement included significant cuts to the funding of a number of opera institutions, including Glyndebourne and the Welsh National Opera (WNO), and smaller funding increases (in monetary terms) for others, such as the Birmingham Opera Company and English Touring Opera. It also featured the removal of the ENO from the investment programme entirely. Instead, ACE said it was offering the ENO £17mn over three years to relocate out of London (ENO was previously receiving around £12.6mn a year as a national portfolio organisation).[7] The ENO’s then chief executive officer, Stuart Murphy criticised the plan and argued that it should be reversed. In addition, the Stage magazine declared the opera sector “the biggest loser” in ACE’s funding decisions.[8]

Changes have been agreed to ENO’s funding settlement since then. In July 2023, a joint statement by ACE and ENO confirmed that the organisation would instead receive a significantly larger sum of £35.46mn between 2023–26 and would be given longer (until March 2029) to establish a base outside of London. The statement said that “the shared ambition is for the ENO to be in a strong position to apply to the Arts Council’s National Portfolio of funded organisations from 2026”.[9] In December 2023, ENO announced this new base would be Manchester, but that it would still also run performances from the London Coliseum:

Following a transition to this new business model over the next two years, ENO will be firmly established within Greater Manchester by 2029, delivering performances, wellbeing and learning activity with multiple partners and venues across the city-region, whilst continuing its substantial opera season every year at its London home, the London Coliseum.[10]

The March 2024 analysis report commissioned for ACE highlighted real terms decreases in ACE funding for most opera institutions.[11] It said that even where nominal funding levels hadn’t been reduced, the relatively static nature of the funding over the last few years has led to real terms cuts due to the impact of inflation. The following table shows this for some of the main institutions that received regular funding since 2015/16 including Glyndebourne and the Royal Opera House:

Table 2. Change in regular funding from Arts Council England to opera and music theatre organisations, 2015/16 to 2023/24

Nominal % change from 2015/16 to 2023/24 Real terms % change from 2015/16 to 2023/24
Birmingham Opera Company +79% +35%
British Youth Opera +17% -11%
Buxton Arts Festival Ltd +2% -23%
English National Opera -3% -27%
English Touring Opera +22% -8%
Glyndebourne -51% -63%
National Opera Studio +2% -23%
Opera North +3% -22%
Royal Opera House -10% -32%
Streetwise Opera +2% -23%
Tête à Tête +2% -23%
Welsh National Opera -35% -51%

(Source: Arts Council England, ‘Let’s create: Opera and music theatre analysis’, March 2024, p 48)

In addition, the same report highlighted that many other forms of grants have more or less dried up, including local authority grants and funding previously available from the EU.

The report stated that organisations were trying to cover this grant funding gap through ticket sales, fundraising and theatre tax relief (theatre tax relief allows a deduction in corporation tax payable in specified scenarios).[12] However, the report noted that income streams from tickets and fundraising were also under stress. In addition, it expressed concern about the potential impact of planned reductions in the tax reliefs, explaining:

Theatre tax relief rates were initially set at 20% of the ‘loss’ for non-touring productions, and 25% for touring productions. From Autumn 2021 to April 2023 rates were increased to 45% for non-touring productions and 50% for touring productions, and this increased rate was then extended for a further two years to April 2025. In April 2025 rates are due to be reduced back to 30% for non-touring and 35% for touring, with a further reduction planned in April 2026 to 20% for non-touring and 25% for non-touring. Orchestra tax relief has seen a similar increase, and a similar reduction back to original levels is planned.

Adding to these financial pressures, the report noted that opera organisations were also facing increasing costs.[13] This included the costs of making productions (including the costs of raw materials), touring costs (such as fuel, accommodation and venue hire) and the costs of running and maintaining venues and equipment. It also said that real terms wage and fee depression for those working in the sector was “unsustainable in the long term” and “placed a disproportionate burden on individuals, particularly freelance workers”.[14] Indeed, in January 2024 it was announced that musicians and singers at the ENO would be striking over changes to employment terms.[15]

As an example of the impact of these financial pressures, in April 2024, the WNO announced it was withdrawing a number of dates from its 2024/25 season due to the financial challenges it was facing. It stated:

The decision has been taken due to the challenging economic times facing all sectors, as well as substantial reductions in WNO’s public funding, which have meant the Company needs to introduce substantial budget efficiencies.[16]

Similar issues have affected other opera organisations. For example, back in January 2023 Glyndebourne announced cuts to its schedule based on the ACE funding reductions.[17]

3. What other issues are facing the sector?

The analysis report commissioned by ACE highlighted a number of other issues affecting the sector. This included a lack of diversity among workers and the audience, failure to connect with contemporary society, barriers to producing ‘new work’ and problems with talent development.[18] It also said the sector was still “heavily geographically skewed towards London and the South East”.[19] It did note efforts to improve these issues but said that progress had been slow. In addition, the report said that concerns had been raised that music education had been “diminished in state schools” and there were “fewer opportunities to learn Western classical instruments and engage with other activities which might introduce children and young people to opera and music theatre”.[20]

Summarising ACE’s position on these issues, the analysis report stated:

The Arts Council wants to see a publicly funded opera and music theatre sector in this country that presents high quality innovative productions that engage a wide range of people—both as audiences and performers. Much of the sector presents high quality work but the progress on engaging a wider range of people is more limited. Parts of the opera and music theatre sector address Arts Council’s ambitions very directly because they are audience and community-centred in their approaches, and there is evidence of work taking place in these companies to enable more diverse talent and leadership to come through over time. Parts of the sector which focus on more main-stream presentation of opera and music theatre also recognise these issues, but progress in key areas like a more inclusive and diverse workforce—particularly within leadership and decision-making roles—is slow.

In May 2024, the Stage magazine published comments from opera director Adele Thomas about the importance of dealing with these issues to ensure the future of the sector:

When asked how the sector should respond to this funding crisis, Adele Thomas, a leading opera director who has worked for companies such as the Royal Ballet and Opera and Glyndebourne, told the Stage: “The thing that will kill opera is homogeneity.” She added: “Finding diverse, radical new voices, even at the risk of angering people, is vital to opera’s survival.”

For Thomas and a number of other leading figures in opera and classical music, progress on diversity and inclusion cannot be postponed until the sector weathers its economic challenges, but rather is essential to its continued existence.[21]

The article also shared comments by a number in the industry raising concerns about what they claimed was ongoing sexual harassment, misogyny and a lack of inclusion in opera. For example, it reported the following comments from the general secretary of the Musician’s Union (MU), Naomi Pohl:

Despite noting more conversations about inclusivity within the sector, Pohl told The Stage that sexual harassment was still a “live issue”, and that she still sees “regular reports” to the MU’s Safe Space service, where musicians can share instances of gender-based discrimination.

Pohl’s comments follow a survey by the MU last month, which revealed that half of women in music have experienced gender-based discrimination, with a third alleging they have been sexually harassed.

Pohl also identified a lack of progress on the inclusion of disabled musicians in orchestras. “It feels depressingly like the sector can only take on trying to improve things for one group of people at a time,” she said. “Inclusion is about equality for everyone.” Pohl added: “The fact is there are people in positions of power who want to protect their positions of power. There is a will to change, but it takes time, and actually sometimes it takes people stepping aside in order for new voices to come through, and [leaders] aren’t very inclined to do that”.

“The orchestral sector and the opera and ballet sectors are facing a funding crisis at the moment, which might mean that the focus is not really on changing the culture but just on survival. But that’s not an excuse. We still need to do this important work”.[22]

4. What has been said about supporting the sector and its development?

In response to a written question in July 2023 about funding reductions for the opera sector, the parliamentary under secretary of state for arts, heritage and libraries, Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, said the government recognised the importance of people having access to a “diverse range of cultural opportunities”.[23] He detailed the funding ACE was providing to the sector, including to the WNO, and the support offered by the government’s tax reliefs:

Arts and cultural bodies receive funding through a wide variety of sources, including through ACE, an arm’s-length body of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and the Arts Council of Wales, which as a Welsh Government sponsored body works within a strategic framework agreed with the Welsh Government.

In addition to the £4.6mn it received from the Arts Council of Wales each year, the WNO will receive £4mn of public funding through ACE’s 2023–26 investment programme, and was also successful in its application to ACE’s ‘Transform Programme’, through which it will receive an additional one-off payment of £3.25mn. This means the WNO will receive over £15mn of public funding from ACE between 2023 and 2026.

Cultural organisations across the UK such as the WNO are also benefiting from the two-year extension to the higher rates of theatre, orchestra, museums and galleries exhibition tax reliefs announced at the [March 2023] budget. This extension will continue to offset ongoing pressures and boost investment in our cultural sectors. They will encourage investment in productions across the UK, support cultural organisations to tour, drive economic growth, and allow the sector to maintain its international competitiveness and reputation.

ACE remains committed in its support for opera, and its 2023–26 investment programme has 13 organisations (an increase from the previous round) receiving a share of £30mn per annum (a figure which counts just 50% of the Royal Opera House grant, as that organisation is also home to the Royal Ballet). This represents around 40% of the programme’s total investment in music (around £76mn p.a. when including 50% of the Royal Opera House’s funding).[24]

However, the minister also stressed that funding decisions were the responsibility of ACE, due to its status as an arm’s-length body.

Commenting more recently, in March 2024 ACE published a statement outlining its funding objectives alongside the publication of the analysis report it had commissioned:

Between 2023 and 2026 we will invest £130mn in regular funding for 14 opera companies, in addition to many awards to smaller organisations and individuals who work in the sector through our National Lottery Project Grants and Developing Your Creative Practice programmes. As England’s Development Agency for Culture and Creativity, we want to ensure we invest our resources in ways that meet the long-term interests of both the public and the opera and music theatre sector in this country.[25]

ACE said that it would be having discussions with the sector over the coming months to reflect on the content and ideas raised in the analysis report. The report included suggestions for opera institutions to explore alternative business models. It also suggested those institutions seek to improve collaboration and collective working to deal with issues facing the sector, such as funding, talent development, equality and inclusion, and audience engagement.[26]

ACE said these discussions would contribute to plans for the future of the sector, including a formal ACE report responding to the analysis, and would inform future funding plans:

[The discussions] will provide a forum in which we can begin to develop actions we can take, separately and together, to ensure that opera and music theatre play a central role in delivering Let’s Create, and in enriching the cultural life of this country into the future.

The insights from these roundtables will also contribute to the development of a formal Arts Council response to the analysis, which we expect to publish this summer. That response will help us think about the role that national lottery project grants might play in supporting the sector going forward. We also expect that the conversation we have with the sector over the next few months will help inform the investments we make in our new national portfolio that will now start in April 2027.[27]

However, ACE also stressed that the discussions would need to acknowledge three key themes:

  • Publicly funded opera and music theatre—in common with other parts of the publicly funded cultural sector—have seen significant real-term reductions in national and local funding over the last decade. While this has been offset for some organisations by welcome tax credits, recent rises in the cost of living mean that financial pressures on the sector are currently very significant. This necessarily limits their ability to invest in innovation and risk-taking.
  • Current demands on Arts Council budgets are high, and we expended all our unallocated reserves to support the cultural sector during the pandemic. This means that any changes that we—Arts Council or the sector—wish to implement as a result of these discussions will almost certainly need to involve a repurposing of existing funding, rather than allocating significant additional resources.
  • The Arts Council’s current strategy, Let’s Create, will run until 2030. This strategy shapes the way we work and invest across all the areas of creativity and culture for which we have responsibility. It recognises that audiences are generally not loyal to a single art form and encourages us to think about the way that different artforms and disciplines can and do interconnect. We also believe a single cross-cutting strategy helps identify how practice in one art form or geographic area can influence that in another. We will not therefore produce separate artform (or genre) strategies to supplement Let’s Create.[28]

5. Read more

This briefing was initially prepared for the following question for short debate the House of Lords was due to consider on 6 June 2024:

Lord Murphy of Torfaen (Labour) to ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to support opera.

This debate will now not take place at this time due to the dissolution of Parliament.

Cover image by  Gabriel Varaljay on Unsplash


  1. Arts Council England, ‘Let’s create: Opera and music theatre analysis’, March 2024, p 16. Return to text
  2. As above, p 41. Return to text
  3. As above, p 44. Return to text
  4. For a definition of ‘music theatre’ see p 6 of the Arts Council England report referenced above. Return to text
  5. Arts Council England, ‘2023–26 investment programme’, accessed 23 May 2024. Return to text
  6. see: Lords Library, ‘Arts Council England: Funding and regional distribution’, 8 December 2022. Return to text
  7. BBC News, ‘English National Opera fights ‘absurd’ plan to relocate to Manchester’, 9 November 2022. Return to text
  8. The Stage (£), ‘Opera emerges as biggest loser in ACE funding round’, 4 November 2022. Return to text
  9. Arts Council England, ‘Joint statement from Arts Council England and the English National Opera’, 27 July 2023. Return to text
  10. English National Opera, ‘ENO and Greater Manchester announce plans for new home in city region’, 5 December 2023. Return to text
  11. Arts Council England, ‘Let’s create: Opera and music theatre analysis’, March 2024, pp 46–9. Return to text
  12. As above, pp 48–51. Return to text
  13. As above, pp 51–2. Return to text
  14. Arts Council England, ‘Let’s create: Opera and music theatre analysis: Executive summary’, March 2024, p 3. Return to text
  15. BBC News, ‘English National Opera musicians and singers to go on strike’, 17 January 2024. Return to text
  16. Welsh National Opera, ‘WNO announce changes to 2024/2025 season’, 16 April 2024. Return to text
  17. BBC News, ‘Glyndebourne: Opera tour cancelled due to arts funding cuts’, 6 January 2023. Return to text
  18. Arts Council England, ‘Let’s create: Opera and music theatre analysis: Executive summary’, March 2024, pp 3–11. Return to text
  19. As above, p 10. Return to text
  20. As above, p 4. Return to text
  21. The Stage (£), ‘Opera in crisis: Leaders warn sector issues go beyond funding woes’, 7 May 2024. Return to text
  22. As above. Return to text
  23. House of Lords, ‘Written question: Opera: Finance (HL9337)’, 31 July 2023. Return to text
  24. As above. Return to text
  25. Arts Council England, ‘Let’s create: Opera and music theatre analysis: webpage’, March 2024. Return to text
  26. Arts Council England, ‘Let’s create: Opera and music theatre analysis: Executive summary’, March 2024, pp 11–13. Return to text
  27. Arts Council England, ‘Let’s create: Opera and music theatre analysis: webpage’, March 2024. Return to text
  28. As above. Return to text