Tim Benjamin

composer, writer, storyteller

How I raised the funds to put on my new opera

I have never thought of myself as a gambler, with little more than the occasional lottery ticket and the odd stock market flutter to my name. However, I’ve currently got the price of a nice car riding on a sure thing.

I’m talking about my new opera, Emily, which is currently in rehearsal (world premiere on 4th July). This is a full-scale, 2-hour work that will have taken the best part of 3 years of my life from the first drop of inspiration to curtain-up. It’s not a commission, and it’s not being produced by a major opera house. I’ve been asked to write about how one goes about financing an opera like this, outside of any institution.

I’m in the fortunate position of having a reasonable income through a small software business I set up years ago. I’m by no means a fat-cat but the business buys me time to compose, and provides a willing sponsor for performances. From 2004-2007 I ran a very good new music group called Radius (featuring Daniel Rowland of the Brodsky Quartet, Oliver Coates, Adrian Spillett, and others of similar calibre). Our first gig was at Wigmore Hall and we played a fair number of concerts in those years and made one record. We never asked for a penny of state subsidy, our tickets were inexpensive, and our programmes free, but we did ask for donations from like-minded concert-goers, several of whom were really very generous.

Fast forward to 2011 and I’m trying to think how to stage the opera I’m writing. The subject is Emily Davison, the Suffragette, and one of the many things that drew me to her was that she, perhaps like me, decided to do something about the things she wanted, and not to merely sit and talk about doing them. She never took “no” for an answer and of course this ended tragically on the racecourse at Epsom, but she’s been a tremendous inspiration, and the motto “Deeds Not Words” is inscribed on her gravestone.

I put together an opera company – a tiny non-profit organisation with a bank account, secretary, and treasurer – and set about working out the budget for the show. I need to keep the numbers confidential, but I can tell you, predictably, that it’s an awful lot more expensive to put on opera than chamber music concerts. This time, I did apply for funding, from the PRS for Music Foundation and the RVW Trust, both of whom generously gave grants and we are extremely grateful to them for believing in us. We also received a good number of small donations from local businesses. The not-inconsiderable remainder of the budget came from my own money.

Having “done business” for a few years, I’m no stranger to spreadsheets (although I’m not an accountant), and the financial plan for the opera shows that, should 300 people come each night, we’ll do alright. Much less than this, and we’ll make a loss. The capacity of the venue is 450 and it’s the kind of small-town place that’s usually full (although our show is hardly Joseph or Cats, so it’s harder to predict what the local reaction will be!)

I’ve kept an extremely tight grip on costs. Not for us the mega-bucks marketing budget of a major opera company: the marketing manager is a friend helping me out for nothing. As, indeed, are many of those involved: enthusiasts, friends, volunteers. It’s a tricky area when volunteers are working alongside professionals but we were very clear from the start with everyone involved. The chorus and crew are made up of local (and extremely enthusiastic) volunteers while the soloists are professionals. I’ve negotiated special discounts with local suppliers ranging from printers to hardware merchants, and we’ve begged or borrowed many of the costumes and props. I’ve sold advertising space and I’ve trudged up and down rainy high streets with my dad putting flyers in shops. My neighbour, a retired engineer, is in charge of building the set in his barn – and while it’s no Met Machine, it’s still a major piece of construction! But this is Yorkshire: every negotiation is hard-fought, certainly, but open-mindedness and generosity of spirit are in abundance.

I’m particularly grateful to my alma mater, the Royal Northern College of Music: audition space, wardrobe, props, and they’ve even sent out press releases on our behalf. We are employing a number of their students on the project, who are all first-rate young professionals.

So the answer to the question “how does one finance a new opera?” does rather look like an epic episode of The Apprentice, but hopefully with a bit more competence and talent on display. The answer, in short, is to put your money where your mouth is. If you believe in what you’re doing then it’s easier to convince other people to help. Once you’ve got willing assistance, it’s a simple matter of months of gruelling rehearsals, endless promotion, late nights, and good luck. It’s unquestionably easier to do this in a small town like Todmorden; it’s the first time that an opera has been put on since the town’s theatre opened in 1908, and there’s a distinct sense of civic pride in putting on the world premiere of an opera (no less!) of a kind that I have never felt in London.

We’ll know for certain in a few weeks whether this immense project is a financial and artistic success. It doesn’t feel like a gamble, although chance will play a strong part, as it does in any live music. And I’ll do without the “nice car” – what I’ve won instead is the most incredible roller-coaster ride you can imagine, dozens of new friends, and, with luck, a memorable show of real artistic merit.