Yesterday morning the English National Opera launched their new season as the last two years I popped in to see what the company has in store for the next year. The usual pitch by John Berry surely felt more confident but it was definitely missing the customary report on finances, which was relegated to a page in the press pack. But at least we had the chance to meet the new Chief Executive that was only appointed a few weeks back.
The overall artistic decisions are what seems a fight back on the criticism the company has received over the last few years. The performances at this season will increase to 170 from a measly 123 the past season. Which is clearly making the public subsidy seem better value than usual. For the first time in years the company will venture out of London (they do tour abroad individual productions from time to time, like Death in Venice to Dutch National Opera) but the presentation of Orfeo at Bristol’s Old Vic is a great idea and maybe opening the opportunity for more flexibility in future seasons.
The programming is a better mix, acknowledging the continuum of the medium and integrating baroque into the main offering, unlike the Royal Opera who farms out baroque like an embarrassment. In addition two new operas have been commissioned by two young female composers (Tansy Davies and Joanna Lee) which can only be a good thing after most prominent commissions going to the old boys network as a matter of cause. The season is also notable for the UK conducting debuts of Keri-Lynn Wilson (The Girl OF the Golden West) and Joana Carneiro (The Gospel According to the Other Mary) which again gives a glimmer of hope more women will be conducting in our opera houses and orchestras in the near future. So much so to make the news of such debuts non newsworthy.
The directing gene pool at ENO hasn’t been replenished this time round with many of the usual suspects showing up once more and even two productions each for David Alden and Richard Jones. But the return of Peter Sellars as the Director-in-residence is great news and will hopefully help sell tickets for his two productions. But getting Mike Leigh to direct The Pirates of Penzance is a much safer choice than many previous rookie opera director appointments. He has a well known love of Gilbert and Sullivan and it is very strongly cast.
The John Berry 360 degree policy change on broadcasting opera from the Coliseum that became ENO Screen continues with five productions this season (Otello/The Way Back Home/La Traviata/The Pirates of Penzance/Carmen). Apparently they are putting £1m to support that programme.
There was bemusement at the mention of Secret Seat and Opera Undressed initiatives. Which have not convinced most bystanders and commentators, including myself, that they are good value for money and that they increase new audiences. The 28% of ex Opera Undressed ticket buyers getting full price (I wonder) tickets is fairly negligible when you think of the damage of the ever-increasing prices, particularly for the cheaper seats at Balcony and Upper Circle levels. ENO does cover a niche for London operavores that will not be too willing to pay £155 for a Stalls seat. The management has to acknowledge that fact and find a better way to deploy their subsidy. So instead of making it into a lottery like those aforementioned schemes if the prices at Balcony were halved then more people who would think twice before buying tickets would give them a chance.
At least it was good that they managed to balance the books (with a large donation by a member of the board and another bail our by the Arts Council) and reported and increase of paid audience capacity from 62% in 2012/13 to %69 in 2013/14. The steady income from co-productions was also mentioned to be healthy which is great news.
Overall I think the ENO is turning a corner and despite the fact in the new leadership reshuffle John Berry is left as the sole despot of the company, at least he has reversed on some of his most silly ideas around cinema broadcasts and started to revive productions from before his tenure. Such as Nicholas Hytner’s outstanding Xerxes. Hope next season they can dig a bit more in the archive and try to revive more past successful productions and be as measured with new productions as they seem to have been this time.
A lot of online gossip centred on their announced venture into commercial co-productions with Michael Grade and Michael Linnit (who were also present at the launch) I think we’d better stay calm and see what their first collaboration will be and then we can see more clearly what they are trying to do with musical theatre. After all the Coliseum originated as a variety theatre and the black line between opera and musical theatre is still some strange apartheid that needs to be abolished.
You will find the full season listings on the following page: http://www.eno.org/news/listing-14-15
The season trailer
Some tweets from the launch