This morning while reading an interview of John Berry (artistic director of English National Opera) in The Independent. I was left underwhelmed and with a strong sense that the directorate of the company do not grasp what the public perception is and how they can improve and work with it.
He seems to find very PR unfriendly ways to disseminate his thoughts through the papers. A few months back he was quoted in having total indifference to cinema/big screen broadcasts with a dismissive: “of no interest to me”. Which make him look petulant and the ENO laughing stock within the media, for its apparent reluctance to not embrace the brave new world of digital distribution. Especially when ironically promotes itself as the forward thinking opera house in London, putting more challenging work. That made a disappointing read and another PR fudge to put on the pile.
Today’s article by Jessica Duchen (a writer who I enjoy reading and is a passionate promoter of orchestral music and opera) served a jumble of ENO press release waffle interspersed with Mr Berry’s jilted lover act. He seems to not want to acknowledge the fact they brought to life productions that were unnecessary and even damaging to their core brand. They used to be the house in London to see Handel, but after the disastrous attempt at Giulio Cesare last season, everyone present, would think twice before spending money there again. The fatuity and pointlessness of bringing a choreographer to direct baroque opera seemed improbable at season launch and it was certainly foolish in retrospect. They have to be more brave in admitting failure and move on. Covent Garden had a catastrophic failure with Judith Weir’s Miss Fortune, a feeble score accompanied by an expensive, largely irrelevant production. But they heavily discounted it and even added kebabs to the deal to make it more palatable (as if). Let’s call that the ROH’s ENO moment. The problem obviously is that the ENO does this kind of discounting and fire selling season after season. Which dents confidence in long-term fans of the company and surely has a box office impact when everyone waits for the inevitable ticket price drop.
ENO’s management should be more humble, even grateful and accept that they attract very important established artists not because they can match their pay scales but because the artists feel indebted to the company for either giving them a break early on or allowed them to perform repertoire that Covent Garden would never stage. Having this February Sarah Connolly perform Charpentier in the West End under the direction of David McVicar deserves to be a hot ticket (I got my top price seats back in October) but it has been very slow and they had to discount by 50%. The willingness by world-class artists to appear at The Coliseum despite the pay cut will be undermined in the long run by poor attendance. Such artists are accustomed and deserve sell out houses, which the current management can not provide.
Staff morale is low and the disastrous PR attempts are not helping. Tellingly, their posters for the last two years have featured silly designs (vaguely referencing the productions they are trying to sell) instead of the singers. Members of the company were exclaiming on Twitter that the Spring 2013 posters are all featuring singers, underlying how undervalued they feel and demonstrating a sense of isolation from the top brass. Let’s hope their design department will not change their mind and keep featuring the artists that make most people buy tickets.
They have to be more flexible with pricing, a flat rate for all productions is financial suicide. If Covent Garden can sell top price seats that cost £225 (if you want to see Nabucco with Placido Domingo) for £65 for both Minotaur and Written on Skin surely then can too. Obviously the ROH do get a much larger subsidy but they seem to reflect on the nature of the audience for new music, which is not as affluent and surely not as plentiful as the old crusties that book for -that- ancient Bohème (still sold at top dollar despite the underwhelming casting). ENO have lowered prices for a couple of new operas mid-season, so there’s hope someone is starting to understand how fundamental pricing is.
Fewer new productions is a must. ENO has the annoying tendency to create exciting productions and then confine them to the dustbin. How about Messrs Berry and Gardner looked back at the last twenty years and hand-pick revivals that were breakthrough productions for the directors or/and commercial successes. There is no point wasting the scant cash they have on putting so many new productions as they did last year.
Finally they have to find a way to distribute their product digitally.
He rightfully says:
“but it’s nice to reflect that our work is absolutely everywhere: Munich, Berlin, New York, Brussels, Madrid. If I’d said five years ago that we were going to do that, no one would have believed me.”
The obvious problem is that for the world to know what is happening night after night in The Coliseum, they can only rely on transfers of the productions to other venues. It is a shame that a fantastic chorus and orchestra have as their only mass media outlet the broadcasts on BBC Radio 3, making very little of its relationship with SkyArts. Since their programming is varied and frequently innovative, they have to stop being stuck in the 1940s and show they believe in it and care to promote the great work they do. The bloggosphere and reviewers are happy to promote how good they can be only to look on in bemusement when the management cannot find a way to promote their own product effectively. Hopefully the new Chairman will restore some semblance of order and make sure that the PR side of things improves hugely, they can’t afford to have Mr Berry giving disastrous interviews every few weeks shattering the public’s confidence in the management of the company.