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Crisis at the Coliseum

Richard Fairman charts the financial travails and artistic triumphs of the beleaguered ENGLISH NATIONAL OPERA.

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Illustration by Nigel Buchanan
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The vast auditorium of the Coliseum, ENO’s home theater
akg-images/VIEW Pictures/ Hufton + Crow

Think of a struggling opera company. For years it has bumped along from one financial crisis to the next. Now the bank manager’s patience is exhausted, and the loans are coming to an end. It does not help that there is another, glitzier “international” opera house a few minutes’ walk away. That one looks more stable, people say. Let the weakling fall.

Does this sound familiar? No, we are not talking about New York City Opera. This is the argument currently surrounding the fate of English National Opera, a company with which the late lamented City Opera had much in common. Like its American counterpart, ENO is one of two opera companies competing in a great metropolis and at a disadvantage to its glamorous neighbor. The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, is only a few streets away from ENO’s home at the Coliseum. (Singers have been known to dash between them in costume, playing roles at both houses on the same night.) The glittering rival’s elegance makes it attractive to private donors, and its star singers appeal to a wealthy, international audience. This is a David and Goliath situation. David’s chances, as you may have guessed by now, do not look good.

The crisis came to a head in July, when ENO’s artistic director, John Berry, stepped down — the latest in a series of abrupt departures. The exodus began in January, when ENO’s chairman, Martyn Rose, resigned after less than two years in the post. He was followed out the door two weeks later by the company’s recently appointed executive director, Henriette Götz. In an inflammatory private letter leaked to the press, Rose pinned the blame for the crisis on Berry, who was appointed in 2005, after ten years’ service at the company as casting director and director of opera planning. “For the very survival of the ENO,” Rose wrote, “Berry must leave, preferably soon. Let me be clear — John is in my mind the problem, not the solution, and no meaningful change will ever take place whilst he remains. Time is of the essence. We cannot wait any longer.” (opera news repeatedly asked Berry for a comment for this article, but he declined.)

Within a few weeks of Rose’s letter, Arts Council England, the state funding body, announced that the company would not be admitted into its national portfolio of organizations for 2015–18. As a temporary measure, a holding grant totaling £30.5 million (approximately $47 million) would be made available over the next two years while the company was in the last-chance saloon trying to mend its ways. “We have serious concerns about [ENO’s] governance and business model,” said Althea Efunshile, the Arts Council’s acting chief executive at the time. “We expect them to improve, or they could face the removal of our funding” — a potentially fatal blow to a company that depends on state support for more than fifty percent of its income.

In February, ENO’s coproducing partners, including the Met’s Peter Gelb, San Francisco’s David Gockley and the Mariinsky’s Valery Gergiev, signed a public letter that read, in part, “Rather than being criticized, Berry and his company should be applauded for their indefatigable efforts to keep our art form fresh. We stand together in support of him and his notable achievements.” But on July 10, ENO announced Berry’s resignation. No successor had been appointed at the time this article went to press. Artistic planning, according to the release, would continue “under the present team working closely with the board’s artistic committee.” A statement from Berry was included. “My work is now done,” he said, “and ENO is today regarded as one of the most creative forces in opera. The decision feels right to leave.…” 

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At the 2015 Olivier Awards, the ENO contingent included music director Edward Gardner, stage director Richard Jones and
ENO artistic director John Berry

David M. Benett/Getty Images

In the circumstances, Berry’s departure came as no surprise: no other arts organization in the country had ever been singled out by the Arts Council for such a humiliating punishment. “ENO is the sick man of opera,” says Norman Lebrecht, author of the arts blog Slipped Disc. “The company is in a perpetual state of siege. Fundraising has been poor. Media relations have been poor. Personal relationships have ceased to function within the company, leading to a drip-drip-drip of executives resigning, and the relationship with the Arts Council has broken down.... The level of hostility towards ENO at the Arts Council is astonishing.”

For Matthew Epstein, former artistic director of Lyric Opera of Chicago and a longtime follower of ENO’s work, there are implications even outside the U.K. “Every administration has these crises,” Epstein says. “The issue of funding in all European countries is complex and connected with politics. It is all about who you know. What is so important about the situation at ENO is that this is one of the most highly regarded cultural institutions in the world and artistically at a high point. It is not as if we are talking about losing a company in which standards are dropping.”

It is true that artistic standards have arguably never been higher. I have been an ENO regular since 1970 and have followed the company on its roller-coaster ride from the high ambition of the “Powerhouse” 1980s, down to its nadir at the turn of the century, and back up again with the high quality of recent seasons. Audiences at the Metropolitan Opera can judge for themselves the ENO productions that have come across the Atlantic — Improbable’s mesmerizing production of Glass’s Satyagraha, Anthony Minghella’s mold-breaking Madam Butterfly, Tom Morris’s staging of Adams’s controversial Death of Klinghoffer, and others. Back in London, we have also had a ravishingly beautiful Death in Venice from Deborah Warner, showpiece productions of Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust and Benvenuto Cellini by Terry Gilliam, and an unforgettable Mastersingers of Nuremberg, at once funny and touching, courtesy of Richard Jones. If one looks back at the past five years, it is the successes that stand out, not the failures.

Where did it all go wrong? Look back to 1990, and the company seemed to be flying high, reaching its apex with a very successful ambassadorial tour to Gorbachev’s U.S.S.R. Then it plummeted to earth. By 1995, nothing was going right. The ambition of the 1980s had not come cheap, and the company’s finances have not looked healthy since. Some complained that ENO’s productions started to lose the radical edge that had kept the company in the headlines. Others, with a more conservative outlook, answered that controversial productions had been the problem, driving away the old, faithful audience. Opera managements in many parts of the world will recognize both arguments.

Since then, in response to declining revenues, ENO has progressively been shrinking its operations. The number of productions each season has dwindled from eighteen in 1995–96 to eleven in the forthcoming 2015–16 season, a drop of more than a third in twenty years. There have always been visiting companies at the Coliseum in the summer, but a few years ago, English National Ballet secured a regular Christmas season — a move that one earlier executive had said would happen only over his dead body. If the company shrinks much more, it will disappear.

Peter Jonas, who was the company’s general director in the 1980s, blames a shift in government policy. “It would be unthinkable in a German company to see the prime issue being whether it makes a 3 percent or 5 percent deficit,” says Jonas, who went on to enjoy a successful term at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. “There is a great sense of shock in Europe about what has happened to ENO. A house which receives a government subsidy has a duty to do new work. You can’t ask it to do that and then penalize it if it gets poor results. Around 1990, the Arts Council ceased to be a supporter of its client companies and started talking about ticking boxes — political correctness and financial targets. If you ask me, that is where the problem lies.”

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Gwyn Hughes Jones as Walther in ENO’s award-winning staging of The Mastersingers, 2015
© Scott Rylander Stage/Alamy

Sadly, there seems little prospect of returning to the halcyon past, when state funding was ample and generous. Faced with a political impasse, where does ENO go? On one issue, at least, the company has made a decisive move. Older supporters have been increasingly dismayed to see ENO straying ever further from the social policy of Lilian Baylis, its founder, whose mission was to bring opera to the people. When the top ticket price hit £155 ($238) for Wagner’s Mastersingers of Nuremberg earlier this year, it was hard to see how the poor or unemployed might drop in for the evening. But for the forthcoming 2015–16 season, half the tickets have been reduced in price. More than 60,000 seats — 500 at each performance — will now be available at £20 ($31) or less.

Another issue is the Coliseum itself, the company’s home since 1968. It is London’s largest theater, and some people blame it for the company’s woes. Now is the time, they say, to admit defeat and move to a smaller house. Epstein disagrees. “I have always thought the Coliseum is a good theater for music,” he says. “The acoustic is good. Sight-lines are good. ENO moved there around the same time that New York City Opera moved to the State Theater, because its previous home, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, was too small. If ENO moved back to a smaller theater, the company would never be able to do the bigger-scale pieces, like the Ring or Parsifal, which have brought it such success.” 

ENO also owns the Coliseum, a major asset, thanks to the support of Prime Minister John Major’s government in the 1990s, and can earn money by leasing the theater to visiting companies. The company has sensibly started to shift some of its experimental work to smaller venues. Its “off-Broadway” shows in recent years have included a gripping production of Henze’s Elegy for Young Lovers at the Young Vic and this year’s premiere of Tansy Davies’s Between Worlds, an opera set in the twin towers on 9/11, at the Barbican Theatre — adventurous operas for audiences ready to venture beyond their usual theatrical haunts.

Then there is the defining characteristic at ENO. The company was founded to be accessible and offer opera sung in English, but there is a rising body of opinion that change is overdue. It is easy to understand the management’s reluctance to grasp this issue. So long as one opera house in London offers opera sung in the original language and the other opera sung in English, each has its own raison d’être. Take away ENO’s defining characteristic, and the enemy is let in at the gates — though progressives argue that, given London’s dramatic changes over the past two decades, some performances should now be given in the original language.

ENO policy under Berry’s leadership was certainly outward-looking. The company embarked on an ambitious policy of coproductions with leading opera companies around the world, originating many of the most adventurous and successful of them in-house. 

The statistics are proudly trumpeted: in the 2014–15 season, eighteen ENO coproductions were seen in seventeen different opera houses in eight countries, saving ENO millions by sharing costs and simultaneously broadcasting the company’s reputation worldwide.

There is no way to predict the future for ENO. Will the next two years bring world domination or total extinction? Will the company take control of its destiny at the Coliseum or move permanently elsewhere? Will it stick to its policy of opera in English or turn into an operatic Tower of Babel? Will its next managers emerge triumphant or be thrown to the wolves? spacer 

Richard Fairman has been a music critic for the Financial Times since 1988. 

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