Up to this point a lot of news items on the new season at English National Opera have been written, many of them by people who were not even at the press conference. Just recycling stock quotes from press releases in a newsroom or idle blog speculation. Since I had the chance to be at the launch, it makes sense to expand beyond a list of operas coming up this and next year at the Coliseum.
The main stand out feature of the launch was how John Berry, Loretta Tomasi and Edward Gardner emphasised the new artist schemes at ENO. At a time when the public subsidy (£1.8m less from the Arts Council) and discretionary spending by the core audience have gone down, this is a savvy tactic. Developing the future opera stars of the next 20 years has been part of the course but right now it seems as an additional way to relieve financial pressure. The investment in the schemes for new composers, orchestral musicians, outreach, young singers and conductors adds to both the artistic vitality of the company but also to balancing the books in the long run. A lot of tweeps and bloggers weighed in that the three Jonathan Miller revivals were maybe too much. Of course they are not in the directorial team’s shoes trying to balance creative adventure and reliable box office returns. Either we like it or not, Miller’s safe staging of The Mikado and La Boheme will be a good seller under any circumstances. That is a certainty an opera company under financial pressure needs. The same applies to the absence of Wagner from the season. With a plethora of expensive (and largely pointless) Ring cycles all over the world, the opera market is more saturated than even with Wagner’s work. Committing significant resources to staging it at ENO would have clearly meant that more adventurous commissions and more core repertoire would have to be shelved. Something the Royal Opera did last season with a non ending almost four-month marathon of Traviatas that filled the gap of two new productions that got cancelled. The directorial team at Covent Garden seem to follow a far too safe and essentially more dull strategy of bums on seats in the expense of repertoire expansion and excitement.
ENO had been taking risks in the last few seasons that have kept international collaboration at the forefront (currently their productions are travelling to over 30 other houses around the world). On balance, for every outright turkey like Two Boys there have been a Castor & Pollux, The Death of Klinghoffer and Jacob Lenz to balance it. As an opera fan I’d rather they took calculated risks with new repertoire than giving us 99 performances of a dull revival with uneven casts. Even when Covent Garden tried to emulate the ways of the ENO, we ended up with an ill-fitting Rusalka and a thoroughly disappointing Miss Fortune. The RO may think it’s the premier London opera company, but they have been delivering low artistic returns. Depending largely on starry casts and flaccid productions that don’t cut it in the 21st century. The latest Olivier Awards were hopefully a slap in the face for Sir Antonio Pappano and Kasper Holten and a stark reminder how shallow both their young artist programme and their recent artistic choices have been.
A sour little article by Rupert Christiansen showed up (and they seem to be an annual tradition) that did both a disservice to his intelligence and the great work ENO has done in the last few years. Gardner and Berry have both raised the musical and programming standards at the Coliseum but also look at opera as an art form with a vibrant present and a future. If one idly glances at the cast lists of the two institutions, it is obvious that the young artists at the RO are filling background bit parts in a number of productions with little consequence. Over at ENO the newly established Harewood Artists are entrusted with big roles in major repertoire pieces like The Magic Flute and La Boheme, giving them a great platform for exposure and adding excitement to frequent opera goers with the possibility to discover new British talent at the start of their professional career. Here’s the list of the ENO Harewood Artists for the 2012/13 season and roles they will take on:
Mary Bevan (Yum Yum)
Katherine Broderick (Donna Anna, Berta)
Elizabeth Llewellyn (First Lady, Michaela)
Rhian Lois (Papagena, Nerine)
Julia Sporsén (Julietta)
Kate Valentine (Mimi, La Boheme)
Catherine Young (Second Lady)
Ben Johnson (Don Ottavio, Alfredo)
Nicky Spence (singing in Billy Budd that closes 2011/12 season)
Benedict Nelson (Figaro, Evangelist)
Duncan Rock (Papageno, Morales)
George von Bergen (Obstinate, Herald, Lord Hategood)
They also announced that the first recipient of the Charles Mackerras Fellowship is Gergely Madaras who has been under the wing of Sir Mark Elder at the Hallé and will be immersed in the operatic repertoire for the next year leading up to his conducting debut with the company. The new Composer in Residence is Ryan Wigglesworth whom Berry called a major talent and a marvellous conductor. He commended his passion for writing for voices and his interest in opera. In the next four years he will hopefully write his first opera for the company.
Some of the pairings of director and work are rather interesting, Yoshi Oida + Vaughan Williams / Michael Keegan Dolan with Fabulous Beast + Handel / McVicar + Charpentier. We were also promised a reworking of the Geneva staging by Richard Jones of Julietta and by Calixo Beito for a re-imagining of his Carmen from the Liceu (he will apparently come to London for the full rehearsal period). The two new commissions by Philip Glass and Michel van der Aa sound also interesting on paper, Glass’s The Perfect American will be a full scale opera on the last years of Walt Disney’s life. It will be a co-production with Teatro Real. Van Der Aa’s Sunken Garden will be a smaller scale piece, staged at the Barbican’s Theatre. Incorporation of 3d and 2d film with live action, a co-production with Luminato Festival, Toronto / Opera de Lyon and the Holland Festival.
A number of notable conductors will be working during this season, like Martyn Brabbins (Pilgrim) Christian Curmyn (Cesare + Medea) and Nicholas Collon (Don Giovanni).
The season contains some varied and strong programming with young casts that will give their best to make an impression. Just hope the house will sell better across the board and not depend on generous discounts for bums on seats (something the Royal Opera has done a lot too, lately). The ENO has to continue to punch above its weight to keep itself relevant and to live up to its self-definition as the home of contemporary opera in London.