The English National Opera seems to be a uniquely polarising company when it comes to critical opinion and bloggers in the UK. Most are very happy to point out its faults (most of the criticisms if inverted could be used against the Royal Opera rather easily, when it comes to programming) and all its missteps. I was invited to the launch for a second year and it was interesting to mark the change in atmosphere. Lots of vocal critics of the company are too happy to castigate the inadequacies of the arts journalists and their apparent failure to address burning questions on the financials and the artistic decisions there. What of course they make no allowance for is for all the things that ENO does very well and in some cases is a leader in the field. Frequently the feelings of overwhelming hurt uttered by some people online make me wondering what their true motives are.
A press conference is not the place to ask probing questions on the financial state of the company but surely a good place to try to discern what the atmosphere is like and to try to see beneath the veneer of rehearsed confidence. This time the managing trio of Gardner/Berry and Tomasi were surely much more subdued overall but clearly wanted to give an upbeat flavour to the announcements.
ENO has been a director led house since the 1980s with a more edgy outlook. If that is not what you want out of opera then maybe don’t waste your breath on complaining like a demented person. I am sure hearing Christopher Alden and Calixto Bieito call ENO an institution that understands their needs and becomes a base of sorts for them, must be like a red rag for the pithily referred to “regietheatre”. Like it or not, directors like Pierre Audi, Bieito, Richard Jones, David McVicar and the two Aldens have made an indelible mark in the operatic world of the last twenty years and no amount of circle jerking over tired productions by Zeffirelli and Ponelle will change that. Move on with the times or move along.
It is well known that John Berry likes to draw theatre, film and artists to collaborate into their first operatic directions. Some of them have been very successful, like the Anthony Minghella Madama Butterfly and Terry Gilliam’s staging of Le Damnation de Faust and some have bombed like last year’s Giulio Cesare by Michael Keegan-Dolan. It seems like a luxury for many but it seems also intricately linked to the current artistic outlook of the company. This season he has invited Joe Hill-Gibbons, a theatre director by trade to try his hand at opera with Powder her Face.
The vehement anti-ENO brigade seems to be too unwilling to acknowledge that they have artist development schemes for conducting, instrumental playing, libretto writing, singing and a newly announced young house composers scheme. They seem serious about opening the doors to more creatives into the world of opera and that can surely be a positive development for the future of the art form.
The financial state of ENO is apparently improving with the deficit down by two thirds (£800.000) and box office intake rising to £1.3m. The somber tone of their CEO Loretta Tomasi was indicative of taking seriously the situation and explained that they were successful into applying for a £3m fund (Catalyst Arts) from the Arts Council that hey have to match with a fundraising drive of £6m, which it stands currently at 85%. This expendable endowment will be used to fund production costs, which seems like a sound way to use it. The only alarming aspect was her emphasis not to be too over-optimistic if there is another funding cut by the government this June (it seems likely to be another 10% cut in tune with current government policy). Of course what is worrying is that the current losses are essentially wiping out their reserves. And while the Catalyst programme is a great idea it will not pay the staff or any other day to day costs of the operation.
Unfortunately they did not announce any changes to the core ticket prices just the continuation of the (rather naff) Opera Undressed scheme and the increase of ticket allocation from 100 to 200 per eligible performance. They seemed happy that 26% of participants in the scheme returned for more ENO shows. Also they announced the launch of Secret Seats (£20 paid and a seat allocated two days before the performance with a value of £27 or more, with Stalls and Dress Circle seats also part of it). That pushes the overall seats available for under £40 by 40% but of course it doesn’t address the constant discounts of top price seats and the all too infrequent sell outs.
The programme they announced is a mix of some reliable revivals, like David Alden’s Peter Grimes (with a starry cast) Penny Woolcock’s Pearl Fishers (with an enticing cast) Anthony Minghella’s Madama Butterfly and their much lauded Phelim McDermott production of Satyagraha which will shift a lot of tickets. The more searching and artistically dangerous/ambitious productions may come to grief ENO’s management in the coming months. but personally I am looking forward to the following:
Terry Gilliam’s take on Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini. Gilliam will come up with some odd ball ideas and the accomplished cast with Edward Gardner conducting should make it an enticing evening.
Calixto Bieito’s Fidelio will be an interesting proposition, especially the nights when Stuart Skelton is singing the lead.
Richard Jones’ take on Rodelinda, remarkably, only his second Handel direction to date, will surely be memorable and with a great cast. ENO’s time to prove that they can live up to their reputation for being the London House for Handel. And make us forget of that awful Cesare.
Julian Anderson’s Thebans directed by Pierre Audi will be an interesting new work. Gardner said at the press conference that it has some remarkable writing for the chorus, which is frankly a good omen for a work based on Greek drama.