Tag Archives: John Berry

ENO Season Launch 2014/2015

30 Apr

ENO new season 1415Yesterday 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

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ENO 2013/2014 Season launch by an eye witness

10 May

ENO 2013-14The 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.

Thomas Adès’ Powder her Face in a new production by opera first timer Joe Hill-Gibbins in a site specific staging away from the confines of the Coliseum is an intriguing prospect.
In the least desirable corner, my pick is the new Cosi fan Tutte (who knew we needed another new staging in London) especially when it’s libretto will be tortured by Martin Crimp.
Overall the programming is giving me a lot of fascinating productions to look forward to and many hours of Twitter fun while I’m trying to have a reasonable conversation why the company has something interesting to say aside for the odd turkey here and there. At least they have the balls to take artistic risks, just wish their financial standing was much more solid.
The season trailer
A few tweets from the launch

Arrrrrrrrrrgh ENO!

26 Jan

ENO BerryThis 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.

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