Hilary Davan Wetton, appointed musical director of the Jersey Symphony Orchestra two years ago, said he was ‘staggered by the issue of the Opera House’ and ‘uncomprehending of how people in the government can’t see what an asset [it] is’.
Mr Davan Wetton was speaking on a visit to the Island to plan the orchestra’s summer concert – its first for 18 months – which will take place at Les Quennevais School hall in August before an audience of only 400 people because of the venue’s limited capacity.
‘I am staggered by the issue of the Opera House. Here is a building which is one of the best buildings in Jersey – an iconic building for the arts, a wonderful resource, famous well-beyond Jersey. Yet even though some money has been voted for it, none has actually been delivered and nothing has been done to assist in reopening it at the fastest possible speed, which is clearly what is needed,’ Mr Davan Wetton said.
He added: ‘[The theatre’s director] should have someone identified as being her support inside the government machine who should be available everyday to say “what’s the problem I can help you solve?”. That’s exactly what’s not happening.
‘It is a tragedy because a number of quite big cities in Britain would give their eye-teeth to have the Jersey Opera House situated in their city, and I’m just completely uncomprehending of how it can be that people in the government can’t see what an asset this is.’
Mr Davan Wetton’s comments follow those of Opera House chairman Pierre Horsfall who said last week that he was unable to say when work was likely to start or finish on the programme of repairs which are essential before the theatre – which receives an annual grant from the government of more than £1/2 million – could reopen to the public.
Two months after confirmation had been received that a maintenance grant of £2.2 million had been made from the Fiscal Stimulus Fund, Mr Horsfall said that the board of the Opera House was awaiting the government’s appointment of a project manager to oversee the processes for works to the interior and exterior of the building.
It was later confirmed that the Opera House theatre director, Jasmine Hendry, was already notifying some visiting companies that they could not proceed with bookings at the start of the 2022 summer season.
One of the local groups affected by the continued closure of the Opera House is the Jersey Symphony Orchestra, which had previously been advised that it could not continue to hold its three annual concerts at Fort Regent. It intended instead to transfer two of them to the Opera House using a smaller orchestra but it is now having to make alternative plans for its spring concert next year.
Mr Davan Wetton, who is also musical director of the City of London Choir and associate conductor of the London Mozart Players and appears regularly on BBC Radio 3, said he found it difficult to understand why the government was not more excited about the potential for the arts to exert a positive influence on the Island and its economy.
‘I have seen the effect of a really thriving arts scene. You have a fantastic transformation in Cardiff, an extraordinary transformation in Belfast – both places where I conduct. You see places which have been transformed into places of throbbing activity with huge economic generation which, at the centre of it, is a performing arts place so good that no one wants to resist it.
‘So, of course, it’s being used all the time, crammed with people who have never been to the arts before but because it’s such an exciting place they want to go and experience them. Now I don’t get the smallest sense that anyone I’ve spoken to thinks the [government] has any vision at all of how this could be a vital economic generator, as well as an enormous source of wellbeing for the people who live in Jersey,’ Mr Davan Wetton said.
Speaking of the Opera House, he said that it had great potential for the orchestra, which intends to combine two concerts there with an open-air summer concert in Howard Davis Park and a number of events for smaller ensembles. However, plans for the first concert at the Opera House have now stalled.
‘Why is there such an absence of urgency when it’s so urgent?’, he asked.