'What is there to be proud of at the moment, given this mess?': Dame Sarah Connolly on Brexit

Andrew Green
Tuesday, July 6, 2021

The internationally-acclaimed mezzo-soprano talks to Andrew Green about the impact of Brexit on musicians

'It seems our Brexit negotiators are still not listening': Connolly marches in London
'It seems our Brexit negotiators are still not listening': Connolly marches in London

An air of suppressed rage laced with scarcely concealed frustration hovers over the Zoom conversation with Dame Sarah Connolly. The fifth anniversary of the Brexit referendum finds her as strident as ever in her views on the ill-fated Remain campaign. ‘I remember Bob Geldof saying before the referendum that musicians need to wake up, protest and understand that a vote for Brexit would mean drastically curtailed touring in the EU.

‘The truly awful thing was that Brexit-supporting politicians were saying the exact opposite, that we’d be able to access the single market and almost everything would be as it was previously. People — mostly politicians! — say you shouldn’t call politicians liars, but it was a dreadful and capricious lie. We were told categorically that musicians didn’t need to shout their concerns and yet it became apparent after the referendum that we really would need to shout. More and more I was persuaded that we were in the hands of charlatans and incompetents.’

This Dame was never defeatist. She wrote constantly to her MP, marched for a People’s Vote and spent many a day in Parliament Square, vocally making her defiance plain. You don’t need top-level voice-training for that battle with the Westminster traffic...but it helps. When performing in Europe, she has raised the subject of Brexit and its aftermath with politicians. After one concert in the Berlin Philharmonie (‘Yes, German politicians frequently and openly support concerts!’ Dame Sarah wryly notes) she apologised to a senior German political figure for the UK government’s ‘crass wartime rhetoric and the embarrassing negotiating tactic of trying to big itself up in the eyes of British people who respond to jingoism. This man looked at me very gravely, without smiling and said “I’m sure we will be friends, one day.” I was chilled to the bone, because there was no sense here of the post-Brexit difficulties being just “teething problems”. Several years on from that, it seems our Brexit negotiators are still not listening. Unfortunately musicians are collateral damage of this lunacy in curbing freedom of movement and making our European interactions an immigration issue…when it isn’t!

No surprise then that in May, Dame Sarah joined with other music industry representatives for a meeting with culture secretary Oliver Dowden. She added her voice to those impressing upon the minister the need to show the greatest urgency in resolving the string of crippling obstacles which continue to stand in the way of British musicians’ trouble-free access to work in the EU.

The build-up to the meeting didn’t bode well, Dame Sarah recalls. ‘Originally, each of us who were to speak were given three minutes... then it was two...then a few hours before the actual meeting: “Oh, just one minute”. I thought “Are you trying to put us on the back foot?” What we had to say required time to put across. I used my minute simply to speak from the heart about the damage being caused to the reputation our musicians have enjoyed in Europe, and to the prospects of young musicians emerging from music colleges needing what Europe has to offer them.

‘Oliver Dowden was very sincere and listened well. I believe he’ll do his best, but there’s great confusion as to who’s in charge. Lord Frost [Brexit minister leading negotiations with the EU] has shown very little interest in resolving our plight and nor is he listening to Oliver Dowden, who’s representing our interests. There’s nothing wrong with having a negotiator who isn’t particularly turned on to classical music, but for Frost to ignore the huge financial contribution the arts make to UK GDP is hard to understand. The bottom line is that many Brexiters have no interest in the arts. We’re on the back-burner as far as discussions with the EU are concerned.’ And as the most recent press reports suggest, Lord Frost is even prepared to slug it out with Elton John on the issue, jibing that he enjoyed a decent career before the UK threw in its lot with Europe in the 1970s.

" There’s nothing wrong with having a negotiator who isn’t particularly turned on to classical music, but for Frost to ignore the huge financial contribution the arts make to UK GDP is hard to understand "

Dame Sarah describes as ‘a myth’ suggestions there has been any real movement in the past six months on the main issues, such as visa/work permit arrangements with each of the EU countries and the residence restrictions which mean a UK musician can only spend 90 days in any 180 within the Schengen area — a particular problem in the area of opera productions. Dame Sarah regularly picks up tales of woe from colleagues near and far. ‘As far as I know there have been only a smattering of new long-term fest contracts signed with British singers at European opera houses, on account of the residency problems. Earning money from other work — outside of remuneration from the contract —- could be forbidden. And I keep hearing there’s a reluctance in Europe to audition young British singers and instrumentalists. There are two hundred EU opera houses of varying grades, 83 of them in Germany. In the UK there are only five fully contracted equivalents, so we desperately need to have our young singers gaining experience in Europe. That’s how I built my career over six to seven months each year. EU opera houses still want to know who the up-and-coming British singers are, but will they be offered a chance given the confounding administration and costs involved?’

Well-travelled British musicians are used to the idea of having to make embassy visits in London or elsewhere to secure visas relating to engagements in non-EU countries, surrendering passports for a period as part of the process. However, Brexit adds 26 countries for which this is required (Finland being the exception where no work permit is required if musicians offer pedagogy or training as well). The problem is exacerbated by the regularity with which British musicians would normally expect to work in Europe — a stumbling-block measured in the need to acquire a ‘reserve’ passport and in significant visa processing costs, observes Dame Sarah. ‘This is especially going to hit the younger generation coming through. We already hear of musicians re-training for different careers, which is a great loss for our country and its world standing’.

One solution touted several times by the UK government is that music industry figures should lobby hard via European contacts for EU governments to ease the situation from their end. ‘I don’t think there’s any harm in doing this,’ reckons Dame Sarah, ‘but it will only work if our authorities treat EU citizens arriving in the UK with respect, which appears not to be always the case.

‘I certainly will do what I can when I’m in Europe, asking why exactly difficulties exist — extreme in countries like Spain. But I wouldn’t lay the blame on the EU authorities for these problems. I think they’re simply standing firm at a time when it’s perceived, for example, that the UK is talking about breaking the agreement on Northern Ireland protocol. I can understand them not wanting to capitulate, giving in to provocation.’

" I wouldn’t lay the blame on the EU ... I think they’re simply standing firm at a time when it’s perceived that the UK is talking about breaking agreements "

Dame Sarah is sensitive to the proposition that her stance is somehow “unpatriotic”. ‘Look, I’m a patriot. We’re all proud to represent the UK as musicians, sportspeople or whoever, but what is there to be proud of at the moment, given this mess? The nationalistic tone displayed by Brexiters — the exceptionalism — sickens me. Every country is special in its own way.'

That barely suppressed rage will not be evaporating any time soon, then. However, for all her forthrightness Dame Sarah is acutely aware of the need to keep the tone of the debate within bounds. ‘Deborah Annetts, chief executive of the Incorporated Society of Musicians, has rightly said that it’s important we don’t antagonise members of the government. Constantly pushing them away with insults isn’t going to get us anywhere. To be constructive, I’ve volunteered to put on a miniature concert for visiting EU delegates, to highlight our plight. Is this not an example of Britain’s “soft power” of which our government might wish to take advantage?’