EN … Oh.

In Classical Music, Opera on March 25, 2016 at 11:49 am

Most people who visit the opera expect to see the drama unfold on stage. Yet English National Opera more consistently creates more interesting drama off-stage than it does for the paying public.

Just when you thought the company and its management might get at least a short period of respite having averted a strike by the chorus, ENO has now lost its Music Director.

It’s an organisation be-devilled by constant crises. Not since Handel’s day, I reckon, has an opera company been more threatened with bankruptcy, failing box office receipts as well as back stage and corridor shenanigans and bad behaviour.

Personally, I think it’s unfair to completely and wholly blame the most recent management teams for the current crisis. There has been financial insecurity at ENO since the so-called ‘powerhouse’ years. There’s no denying that some great and memorable productions were created in that period. But at the same time, the cavalier fashion in which they wielded the finances is at the root of ENO’s current malaise. And if I am honest, it’s a bit disingenuous for those people associated with that period to come out now and be critical of recent attempts to secure a more stable footing.

But it is rather like bemoaning spilt milk. Whether you call it financial naïveté, ignorance or bad decision making over the years,, the result has been a company often forced to accept short-term respite over long-term security. Desperate times always result in desperate reactions and such has been, and remains the case, at the London Coliseum. Indeed occupying the building itself seemed more foolhardy at the time than a wise and calculated decision. Accepting bail-outs from Arts Council England – more about them later – was all well and good, but rather than stabilise the company properly, the money was over-spent on over ambitious plans that couldn’t hope to realise the consistently high box office return required from every single production.

Granted some management choices are questionable – the appointment of Sean Doran and Oleg Caetani for example. Both appointments took longer than they should and ultimately Doran left the company prematurely and Caetani never actually stepped through the door. But I will say that in aftermath of Doran’s departure, the board did the right and proper thing. Yes, they appointed without a proper selection process, but it could be the one and only time that the board acted decisively and with the future of the company first and foremost in their minds.

It created stability for a period. Stability that ENO hadn’t enjoyed in quite a while. However, that temporary stability came to an abrupt end with the departure of Loretta Tomasi. She might not have been everyone’s cup of tea, but she was an able, tough yet fair administrator who kept a tight rein in the company’s finances. The company’s error was not to replace her and to allow John Berry – undoubtedly creative but not a man for whom details matter – complete sinecure at St Martin’s Lane.

It’s also too easy the blame the board. It’s unfair to think that they are just a bunch of rich old men and women who convene once a month and criticise management. I won’t say they’re behaviour hasn’t at times seemed churlish, and sometimes they overstepped their duties, but you cannot fault their commitment and passion for both the company and the art form itself. And let’s not forget their own financial contributions in times of need.

Yet I do feel that their recent appointment at a senior level within the company smacks of the “better do something quick” rather than a thought-out plan. I’m sure Cressida Pollock is very able in some environments. I’m just not sure this is one of them. Now confirmed in her tenure, it seems that Pollock seems unwilling or incapable of owning a decision, as the recent conflagration with the chorus shows. Reading the coverage and her own blog – clearly not one media outlet was willing to print her authored piece or was not asked – there is not only a lack of understanding of what ENO stands for.

She seems to have found some more money with regards to the chorus but one has to wonder if this is another reaction rather than a strategic decision. Whether the package helps or hinders is yet to be seen. There will be costs associated with helping the chorus find ‘summer work’ for a workforce already spread thin.

And what of Mark Wigglesworth and his decision to quit a job after just seven months? Surely he knew what he was getting into or did he naively not ask the right questions in his interview? And did no one at St Martin’s Lane take note when he wrote “Cutting the core of the company – musicians and technicians alike – would damage it irreparably”? Did the ENO’s press office not read the draft?

Whatever happens next at ENO, Wigglesworth must accept a share of the reaction for the decision he has made this week.

So, Arts Council England? In turns cast as Mosostratos, Scarpia and Iago. It’s fair to say that no brave decision has ever been made by ACE with regards to ENO. Rather a series of random acts of little coherence. Even Henley’s weak-penned apologia seemed more aimed at the Treasury and Spending Review than in the interests of the company or ‘Culture UK’.

So, what is left to come? And what denouement would either be a fitting tragedy or lieto fine for the audience to witness?

What about total closure? Is it really that unpalatable? London has another opera house and also plays host to other UK opera companies as well as companies from overseas. And, in this multi-cultural, multi-platform, variegated ‘Google-translate’ world we live in, do we really need to hear opera performed in English. Lilian Bayliss’ mission had a purpose when the company was originally founded, but does it have that same purpose today? With soaring ticket prices, ENO can hardly still be seen as providing ‘opera for everyone’ and the released funding could be distributed to other non central London-based opera companies.

But if not closure, then what about a reduced company? Rescued in size and scale but not quality or ambition. A company that finally accepts it must leave the Coliseum to the lions at ACE and seek a home – transient, seasonal but definitely smaller – elsewhere – even occasionally outside London. This could take more than a few years and tears to realise, and will result in short and potentially medium-term hardship. However, a transformed company could emerge triumphant with renewed purpose and an identity still true to its origins but firmly focused on the audience, and potentially more attractive to sponsors and philanthropists with a more sustainable economic model.

Or do we just leave ENO as it is? Stumbling along creatively and artistically. Lurching from one month and year end to the next. Reacting rather than acting. Slowly fading away until it is a company of no consequence. Ultimately a burden, by when the decision will be inevitable.

Surely, as a management consultant, Ms Pollock must consider even the most radical ideas even if this means her footnote in the history of St Martin’s Lane is more Queen of the Night than Tannhauser’s Elizabeth.

Personally not having ENO in my own future would be a disaster. Yes, I don’t like everything they do. Or say. This government is doing it’s damnedest to snuff out culture one candle at a time and while that is not acceptable is it acceptable to spend public money in this way?

But perhaps it is time to ask the last person out the turn off the lights.


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