English Touring Opera’s non-renewal of 13 musicians’ contracts: Racism and sexism dressed


The English Touring Opera (ETO) has cited “diversity” to justify not renewing the contracts of 13 musicians, nearly half its orchestra. Though employed on rolling freelance contracts, many of the players had been with ETO for 20 years or more.

Screenshot of a June 5 tweet by the ETO asking for applications to join its pool of freelance musicians (Credit: @ETOpera)

The players have made a long contribution to the excellence of the ETO orchestra. As their playing was already known, they were not expected to audition at a recent call for new players. But this now suggests a longstanding intention to remove them, and to replace them based on racial or gender-based criteria.

This divisive move dismisses the qualities of the musicians involved and attacks the very basis of artistic accomplishment. Such “quota-filling” positive discrimination does nothing to address the historically determined divisions that stem from the very foundations of an unequal, class society, but serves only to fuel the racial divisions it claims to oppose. It is a gift to racists and the right-wing.

The announcement came in an unexpected letter to the 13 players, aged 40-66, from ETO Director James Conway last week. In it he wrote of “significant changes” at the company under new Music Director Gerry Cornelius, making it “likely that ETO will not be in a position to offer you a freelance engagement in the Spring 2022 season, even if we would like to leave the door open for freelance engagements in the future.”

Conway explained that these changes involved a commitment “to increasing all kinds of diversity in the team,” and that the company had “prioritised increased diversity in the orchestra.” This was “in line with the firm guidance of the Arts Council… and of most of the trust funds that support ETO.”

Arts Council England (ACE), the primary funder of the ETO’s extensive touring programme, swiftly denied any responsibility or support for the move, suggesting that ETO’s actions might actually have compromised the arrangements of its £1.78 million funding: “We did not instruct the English Touring Opera to send this letter. We are now in conversation with ETO to ensure no funding criteria have been breached.”

The orchestra’s tours, with live productions and education projects, reach nearly 50,000 people each year.

Veteran British classical music journalist Norman Lebrecht has described the move as setting “a dire precedent across UK arts.”


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