Sir Nicholas Serota, Chair of Arts Council England. Transcript of press conference announcing 2023 funding, 4th November 2022:
“English National Opera (ENO) is one of the most dynamic and imaginative organisations working in the country, as we saw during the pandemic with, you know, Breathe and their drive in Opera at Alexandra Palace and whole range of other activities. And when they put in their application for the next three years, that application had within it continuation of work at the Coliseum, but also a very imaginative programme of work across the country.”
Terrific. All’s well. Cavaradossi (condemned hero of Puccini’s Tosca) isn’t going to be executed after all.
Oh, really? Big Chief Weasel Words then went on to fire live bullets, defund ENO pretty much entirely, instruct the opera company to jump on the HS2 to Manchester – incidentally, the bailiwick of Opera North, who may have something to say about this highhandedness – and dump their London Coliseum home, a piece of awkward, crumbly London heritage of which they have been responsible and uncomplaining custodians for yonks.
Like a Mafia protection racket maestro, he then dangled the prospect of insurance against destruction. £1m a month for a year plus £5m for the following two years, conditional on ENO agreeing to go quietly into their own version of that dark night.
One goggles at what the oleaginous Sir Nicholas might have done to ENO if he had been displeased by the opera company’s track record.
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ENO’s DNA is derived from two femmes formidables, Emma Conns, a 19th century suffragette and, later in the 1930’s, her niece, Lillian Bayliss, who re-opened the defunct Sadlers Wells theatre and founded the opera company from which ENO emerged in its present form. They were sharp-elbowing powerhouses from an age when polite women didn’t sharp-elbow. Fighters for their numerous causes.
Nearly a century on, two women are again responsible for ENO’s future, but this time, its possible demise. Both are warriors in the political front line. The first, The Rt Hon Nadine Dorries MP was Culture Secretary – an amusing oxymoron if this wasn’t so serious – in Boris Johnson’s government. The grunt work leading to Serota’s recent announcement, curiously delayed from October 26th, was largely carried out on her watch.
The second, The Rt Hon Michele Donelan MP, was appointed Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport by Liz Truss on 6th September. Rishi Sunak has kept her on. She is a Cabinet Minister to watch.
When incoming secretaries of state open the departmental cupboard doors all sorts of unpleasant things come tumbling out. I bet Donelan’s was bursting. Mixing metaphors, the Dorris ACE budget bun had been a-baking in the oven for too long for Donelan to do much with it when, “Ping”, it emerged, ENO-free.
Donelan is, however, in an enviable position. She can – even at this late stage – do something about the shambles. In spite of Pontius politicians increasingly washing their hands of decision taking, she comes to the job with a fresh pair of eyes, must surely spot a dangerous ambush, and will be well aware that her ability to make a lasting political impact has a two-year renewal date. ACE has provided her with an opportunity.
While ENO has been spurred into instant action to defend its position – a Bryn Terfel led petition has so far attracted nigh on 60,000 signatures – the company has been amazingly temperate in its reaction to this bolt from the blue. No operatic bad-mouthing. Ideal people, if you want to work constructively.
It has made clear the company will engage positively with its main funder, not least to preserve the jobs of orchestra, chorus and stage staff who have built a hugely successful company over the years. ENO is a good employer.
How best to handle? First up, the team should encourage Donelan to take a direct interest in what happens now, as discussions proceed. To expect a complete policy U-turn would be naïve, but ministers decide, and Donelan will at some point in the process, have to give the thumbs up or thumbs down as ENO enters its new arena.
Here’s what the Secretary of State should take account of.
ENO enjoys a growing international reputation. That’s down to the sheer quality of its work. Co-productions with New York’s Met have been house fillers and lauded to the critical heights.
Based on the success of the joint Philip Glass Akhnaten, production in 2016 the Met and ENO are co-producing the Met’s next Ring Cycle. Don’t take it from me, take it from Peter Gelb, the Met’s General Manager, who this week crafted a powerful, fact-filled defence for ENO in a letter to the Daily Telegraph.
There has been no consultation with ENO, or other opera houses about a long-term strategy for the art form in England. This is ridiculous. It rather looks as if Serota completely forgot about Opera North when he simplistically encouraged the rather larger ENO cuckoo to go occupy its Manchester nest.
High time for the Donelan new broom to put a strategy in place. Frame current ENO/Arts Council discussions in a proper long-term context. Make it clear to ACE, the eye of Donelan is sweeping the landscape.
The tanker-turning time for opera companies changing course is longer than the three-year window required by ACE of ENO. Extend the period to five years but make ongoing funding conditional on agreed year by year progress. If ENO plays silly buggers down the line, it’s back to the drawing board.
Ensure that enough funding is available to prevent structural damage to ENO in the meantime. The figures in the announcement are uninformed rabbits pulled from the hat of ignorance.
I would not be suggesting to Donelan that she step out on a limb unless that limb was strong. ENO has a stronger case to argue than most in the arts world.
“The ENO has never been as well run, or well governed” – Sir Nicholas Serota, ACE Chair. I rest my case, m’lud.
ACE twaddles that their decision is all about “levelling up”. Levelling up is not just about geography. It’s about bringing new audiences to an art form often accused of being elitist. ENO has pioneered that path with one initiative after another. It is a well proven portal to the arts world for the curious.
Their free-ticket scheme for under 21-year-olds has so far placed over 12,000 novice bums on seats. A TikTok opera attracted over 17 million viewers. They weren’t all in metro-land. The covid drive-in La bohème at Crystal Palace was innovative, and, literally, a hoot.
The company is reaching into the community, using the medium of opera to improve health care. The Breathe initiative, using singing techniques to assist Covid recovery, has so far signed up 85 NHS Trusts, has long passed the “gimmick” threshold and is becoming a fixture on the therapeutic landscape.
There is a glib argument that London has two opera houses anyway. Surely, we won’t miss one. The two houses have distinctly different missions. The Royal Opera House is international and, despite its growing reputation abroad as a viable co-production house, ENO is national. Anyway, many towns in Europe have three.
ENO brings on stage a different cadre of singers and instrumentalists from England’s flourishing music schools. Over 80% of operatic talent engaged by the company is British based, or educated; performing in English, making opera more accessible to newbie audiences – surtitles aren’t the whole solution to incomprehensible libretti.
Mounting new works – like It’s a Wonderful Life – that British audiences otherwise will not see has been a mission.
ENO has led the way both with 20th-century opera – staging the UK premieres of Janacek’s Katya Kabanova and Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, among others.
The house has encouraged budding composers, with new commissions, including Harrison Birtwistle’s monumental The Mask of Orpheus and Mark-Anthony Turnage’s The Silver Tassie. More recently it has championed American opera by John Adams and Philip Glass, mounting unexpected sell-outs of Glass’ Akhnaten and Satyagraha.
So, Secretary of State, put Sir Humphrey in his place. The future of ENO is your responsibility, your opportunity to forge a new future for the company and the opera medium in England. Change there must be. But not the ill-considered dogs breakfast left on your desk by your predecessor.
Pop up Whitehall when there is no evening Commons vote – it’s a six-minute ministerial limo ride – to see Eno’s latest offering. Gilbert and Sullivan’s Yeomen of the Guard isnot a piece of pantomime buffoonery, but a dark, critically acclaimed work of huge importance. I’m told Jo Davie’s new production is a stinger.
Go on, make a name for yourself. What about your legacy? Who knows? Michelle Donelan – The Opera. Now, where’s Mark-Anthony Turnage’s phone number when you need it?
And another thing!
Ned Rorem, the American classical composer who has died at the age of 99, was widely sniffed at by the cognoscenti because he wrote music people enjoyed.
Hard to believe he won a Pulitzer prize as long ago as 1976 for his Air Music: Ten Etudes for Orchestra. His copious output ranged from vocal art songs, through orchestral works and, surprise, surprise, opera. He loved poetry, so maybe opera naturally followed.
Miss Julie (1965), based on the play of the same name (1888) by Swedish playwright August Strindberg was about illicit 19th century sex in a cold climate community. Sort of Scandi-froid. Our Town, (2005) based on the Thornton Wilder play (1938), told a more conventionally romantic story about goings on in Grover’s Corner, a typical example of small-town America, if such a place exists.
Rorem’s operas are no longer widely performed, which is a pity. Musically, they are very accessible. They are suitably scaled for chamber opera companies and Our Townboasts some memorable melodic writing. Emily, the heroine’s, aria in Act III, Take Me Back, is a favourite stand-alone.
I’m sure Jake Heggie riffed off Our Town for his Christmas opera, It’s a Wonderful Life, based on the unavoidable Jimmy Stewart Christmas movie. I saw the opera, flying angels and all, at its premiere in San Francisco in December 2018. Even met Jake Heggie.
As it turns out, what an ironic title choice for this year’s ENO winter warmer opera. It’s a Wonderful Life opens at The Coliseum on December 7th. Just as ENO’s life is made hell by ACE. Reaction’s opera critic will be there to cheer the company, flying angels and all, on.
Maybe Clarence Odbody, the miracle working guardian angel who stops small town worthy, George Bailey, jumping into Fall River, thus earning his wings, can pull something special out of the festive hat for ENO, too.
Back to the point. Rorem made a huge contribution to 20th/21st century American classical music. He merits a revival movement.
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