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English Touring Opera Not Renewing Some Freelance Contracts Over Diversity Concerns

The UK opera company is aiming to “increase diversity,” citing this as the justification for not renewing contracts of nearly half its orchestra members


The announcement came in a letter sent to 13 players, aged 40 to 66, from the English Touring Opera’s (ETO) director James Conway.

“English Touring Opera is committed to increasing all kinds of diversity within its team, and while good and steady progress has been made on stage in this area, we have prioritized increasing the diversity within the orchestra," the letter reads. "This is in line with the firm guidelines of the Arts Council, the main financial backer for ETO tours."

The Arts Council England which funds ETO at £1.78 million a year responded to their mention, saying it never encouraged the company to sack its musicians.

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

The letter was received by 13 white musicians, some of whom despite being employed on freelance contracts, have performed with the ETO for over 20 years and consider it as a permanent position. 

In response to various media coverage after the announcement, the English Touring Opera wrote a statement further explaining the situation:

"English Touring Opera engages freelance orchestral musicians for seasonal work, on the basis of excellence, in the same ways as singers and technical staff are engaged for seasonal work. For decades, English Touring Opera has worked with different players for different repertoire and with specialist period, contemporary and chamber groups. When players are engaged for a season, they are advised that a seasonal booking bears no obligation for player or company for future seasons.

This summer English Touring Opera held open auditions for orchestral musicians in order to continue to hear the very best artists in this country, and strengthen the broad pool of players on whom the company calls.

English Touring Opera Director James Conway wrote to a number of players who had performed on tour with the company in seasons 2018 and 2019, but who were not going to be asked for Spring 2022, to advise them of this, to thank them for their work in other seasons, and to indicate that English Touring Opera could ask them to perform in future seasons.

The company recognizes that many of these freelance musicians will have been disappointed, but will always treat people fairly and based on their performance over 50 highly talented musicians will be offered contracts for the forthcoming ETO productions."

Currently, there are no musicians in the ETO of a non-white background as the company prepares to resume shows next month. Founded in 1979, ETO’s performances and educational programs reach nearly 50,000 audience members each year.

Conway’s letter to musicians also states the appointment of ETO’s new Music Director, Gerry Cornelius. Cornelius will oversee plans of “shaping the modern orchestra” and was a panel member for recent open auditions for new orchestra members.

“I know that you are not likely to read gratitude into this message,” wrote Conway. “But I assure you that I do feel grateful for what you have brought to ETO in the seasons during which you have played so far.”

The action taken by ETO received condemnation by the union of British musicians which stated that they were “appalled” by the letter. “Sacking half the workforce under the guise of ‘improving diversity’ is insincere and bad practice,” said union member Jo Laverty.

In light of the responses to their proposals, the ETO are turning to the musicians union to provide further resolutions: “We recognize the [MU’s] mission to champion all their members and are confident that the Union will continue to find us a supportive and fair producer.”

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