Daily News Portal

Trouble at English National Opera — will the drama ever end?

In 1937, while Lilian Baylis was trying to build a home for English-language opera in London, her star soprano asked for a pay rise. Baylis was a strong character — she occasionally haggled over money with John Maynard Keynes. She firmly refused the pay demand. “I am really honest when I say I would like to give you more money and would do so gladly if there were any . . . but if those who work for us thought first of money, our work would not be alive.”

Such tight-fistedness helped Baylis’s vision of opera for the masses survive the first world war and the Great Depression; it would survive her death and the second world war too. English-language opera flourished, when it moved from the Old Vic theatre to Sadler’s Wells and then to the London Coliseum in 1968. There it took on its current identity: English National Opera (ENO).

But the underlying problem has remained the same. Opera is the ultimate artistic extravagance — a sumptuous combination, in one theatre, of all other art forms. As Susie Gilbert recounts in her history Opera for Everybody, whatever money has been available for ENO, it has rarely been enough.

A year ago, the music nearly stopped for good. Nadine Dorries, then UK culture secretary, ordered that £24mn a year of public arts funding be shifted away from London institutions, as part of Boris Johnson’s levelling-up agenda. In London, only the Royal Opera House, the Southbank Centre and the National Theatre received a bigger subsidy than ENO; they were deemed less moveable. On November 3 2022, Nicholas Serota, chair of Arts Council England, called in ENO’s chair Harry Brünjes and informed him that the axe had swung in his direction. ENO’s annual grant of £12.7mn would disappear within five months.

“The initial sensation was just shock and disbelief,” says Brünjes, a doctor and medical entrepreneur who is also an amateur pianist. The risk of ENO collapsing altogether was “extremely real”. Fifty-five years of opera at the Coliseum looked set for a tragic curtain call. When the news became public, the orchestra played Tosca with tears in their eyes.

The entrance to a grand theatre building at night
The London Coliseum, home of English National Opera since 1968 © Harry Mitchell

A rearguard action ensued. Nearly 90,000 people signed an online petition organised by the bass-baritone Sir Bryn Terfel. Brünjes secured a reprieve: ENO would receive some funding, and would have until 2029 to find a new base outside of London. “Without Harry, I think this place would have gone under,” says one trustee.

But the recriminations have not stopped. ENO’s music director Martyn Brabbins, whom orchestra members respected not least because he bothered to learn their names, resigned stormily last month. He protested that the revised settlement was “a plan of managed decline”, not one to maintain world-class opera. Performers complain that top executives rarely come down to the pit, and don’t understand the artists’ passion for their work. “There are two cultures: those who do the work and those on the board,” says Mark Wigglesworth, a former music director. A senior arts figure who knows ENO well says of Brabbins’ departure: “That’s what you get with luvvies. Luvvies want to be loved. They don’t want to take difficult decisions.”

If this seems overly dramatic, it’s because opera lovers feel the whole genre is under attack. Thirteen years of Conservative government have not been kind to the arts. Arts Council cuts mean that Glyndebourne has stopped touring, while within England the Welsh National Opera doesn’t go north of Birmingham. The Royal Opera House, ENO’s richer, posher rival, says it is facing a £15mn annual deficit that is forcing it to consider sponsorship of its iconic building in Covent Garden. “Unless you, Mr and Mrs Die-hard Don’t Want to Change Anything, want to give us another £10 million each and every year, what do you suggest we do?” its chairman Lloyd Dorfman told Bloomberg last month.

People gathered on a street in the evening. In the foreground, a man in glasses looks towards the camera
Opera-goers outside the Coliseum last month. New plans would mean ENO would perform for just five months a year in the capital © Harry Mitchell

Meanwhile, New York’s Metropolitan Opera is cutting performances and dipping into its endowment. “We still have to get beyond the impact of the pandemic on the older audience, which may be a lasting one,” its general manager Peter Gelb said in June.

Opera, Baylis believed a century ago, could inspire moral improvement. Today, as art forms multiply and stark economic calculations are made, is it doomed to be an extravagance too far?

Germany has more than 80 opera companies. Berlin has three of international renown. In Britain, opera has never been as inculcated into the cultural mainstream or funding priorities. “In Germany it feels like an opera house is where a society meets, whereas in the UK it is more about entertainment,” says Frederic Wake-Walker, artistic director of Mahogany Opera, which produces contemporary operas.

London, a city twice the size of Berlin, has managed to sustain two opera houses: the Royal Opera House and English National Opera. Their regular mishaps and irregular finances have led to occasional suggestions of merging the two. Luckily, the relationship between financial stability and artistic success has never been a particularly strong one. Indeed, at ENO, it has often seemed the inverse.

The glory years were the 1980s. On its website, ENO boasts that in 1984 it became the first British opera company to tour the US (performing in Texas and New York). It doesn’t mention, as Susie Gilbert’s history does, that the travelling party consisted of 360 people and seven scenery containers, and that the resulting financial loss nearly pushed the company into insolvency.

In 1992, John Major’s government bought the freehold of the Coliseum for ENO, ensuring it had a long-term home. But refurbishing the grand theatre near Trafalgar Square cost more than expected. In 2003, the Arts Council had to save ENO again, with a £10mn bailout.

Under John Berry, artistic director between 2005 and 2015, ENO’s creative ambitions swelled once more. Simon McBurney directed The Magic Flute; Terry Gillian, Benvenuto Cellini. A deal with the Met to co-produce operas took some of the financial strain.

Four people apparently in their twenties stand outside the opera building. One leans against a wall, another looks at his phone
Last season, 12 per cent of ENO’s audience was under 35 — ‘which means that 88 per cent wasn’t’ © Harry Mitchell

But the managers fumed at the costs. In January 2015, chairman Martyn Rose resigned, saying that “no meaningful change will ever take place whilst [Berry] remains”. The Arts Council put ENO in special measures, citing “serious concerns about their governance and business model”. It cut its funding from £17mn to £12mn a year — barely above the grant 20 years earlier, with almost no increase for inflation.

Under new chair Brünjes, to keep costs down, there would be fewer productions. The chorus accepted a pay cut, after initially threatening not to sing in part of a performance in protest. Berry was forced out in 2015. Wigglesworth resigned as music director after just a few months in post, saying ENO was “evolving into something I do not recognise”. Again, it seemed impossible to combine sound finances and artistic excellence.

After a few years, ENO’s reviews improved: it was, in the words of FT opera critic Richard Fairman in 2022, “picking itself up after one of its periodic plunges into artistic gloom”. The company expected audiences to return to pre-Covid levels by 2024. A four-page feedback document from the Arts Council said it had “all the hallmarks of a well run charity” and had provided “a well thought out, realistic” plan for its future, including more opera outside London.

But the die may already have been cast by the cost-cutting. In 1974-75, there were 244 performances; in 2013-14, there were 117; in 2022-23, there were just 82. With fewer performances, a full orchestra and chorus would become harder to justify. “They are barely in the Coliseum for 20 weeks a year,” says one former senior ENO figure. “They walked completely into the Arts Council’s hands.”

Then came the 2022 push for levelling up. The Arts Council, a supposedly arm’s-length body that administers arts funding, had realised that it could not meet the mandate of moving £24mn out of London by salami-slicing. Dorries has disowned the decision, saying the Royal Opera House had changed her “working class prejudices” about opera and that ROH and ENO “have been the front runners in levelling up for a very long time”. But one person involved in the process is adamant that she knew the consequence: “We told her we would have to take out a large organisation.”

A bluntly titled Rejection Letter told ENO that there was “no appeals process” and no requirement for it to “deliver any public facing work” after April 1 2023. To the opera company, the decision seemed ignorant. Singers are typically booked two or three years in advance. It was impossible to relocate away from London as fast as the Arts Council was implying. “There is no sense of how an opera season is created,” says an ENO trustee. “It seemed genuinely to take them by surprise.”

People walk past the box office in the Coliseum foyer
In 2018-19, the public subsidy for every ENO seat was roughly £82 © Harry Mitchell

Brünjes, ENO’s chair, and its artistic director Annilese Miskimmon set about making the case that they needed more time to shift opera out of London. “You can underestimate Harry because he has lots of ba-boom-type jokes. But he is extremely tenacious,” says a friend. In January, they won a reprieve of £11.5mn to put on a season of opera at the Coliseum in 2023-2024. In July the Arts Council agreed to £24mn over three years, taken from the pot of National Lottery funding, and to give ENO six years to complete its move outside London.

The new plans would mean that ENO would perform for just five months a year in London, so the orchestra would only be offered six-month contracts. Moreover, 19 of the 69 positions would be eliminated, as would four of the 40 chorus roles. Last month, three opera grandees wrote a letter to the Times saying that large-scale productions would be “impossible”. This bottom-up pressure may have been what forced Brabbins to resign as music director. His contract was due to expire in March and he had already completed his major conducting role of the season, Peter Grimes. (Brabbins declined to comment for this article.)

ENO said it was “surprised” by Brabbins’ departure, given that he had helped draw up the restructuring plans. In response, various classical music fans and luminaries expressed outrage that the company had not thanked Brabbins for his service. They demanded that the board itself resign, for failing to protect one of Britain’s great cultural institutions.

Down in the pit, the orchestra fumed. “Half of their hearts is saying that we want to strike and not turn up for work,” says one artist. “The other half is saying we need audiences to stand up for us, and we have to make a point that we are still world-class.”

On a rainy Saturday afternoon this autumn, more than 1,800 people filtered into the Coliseum for Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe. They cheered when, in a brief prologue, a fireman welcomed them to “the home — and still home” of English National Opera. They cheered too when the Fairy Queen, faced with the possibility of sentencing all other fairies to death, cried out: “I can’t slaughter the whole company!” The staging added in bawdy jokes and characters resembling Boris Johnson and Nadine Dorries. It felt a bit like Private Eye magazine brought to life, in a good way. Since then, a return of La traviata has received four-star reviews (while, due to the continued financial upheaval, the company’s accounts were three months overdue).

Opera-goers in the Coliseum foyer
Even some in the ENO audience admit to watching streamed opera in the cinema © Harry Mitchell

For the Arts Council, the problem at ENO is not what happens on stage, or even backstage. It is the stage itself. “The elephant in the room is the Coliseum,” says one person close to the process. “However good the individual performances have been, it’s not been a perfect fit,” says another. The theatre is the biggest in London’s West End, with 2,359 seats. It opened in 1904, commissioned by Oswald Stoll, a man convinced that the new London Underground lines would bring in audiences from the edge of London.

In 2023, is it too big for opera? Last year the Arts Council’s chief executive Darren Henley wrote that younger audiences were embracing opera in new ways: “opera in car parks, opera in pubs, opera on your tablet”. ENO’s property costs, including renovation, are £3.7mn a year. It could sell the Coliseum and use the proceeds to buy or rent a smaller property.

Brünjes insists this has never been on the table. Moreover, he insists there is no need: capacity was 73 per cent last season. “I can’t see us being any more expensive than the National or the Southbank or the Barbican.” There’s a strong case that moving out of the Coliseum would reduce ENO’s relevance. If it were performing in a smaller venue, total audiences would fall further. And that would make subsidising an opera company look ever less attractive.

In 2018-19, the last year before the pandemic, ENO’s grant from the Arts Council was £12.4mn and 150,644 people came to watch its operas. Crudely calculated, the public subsidy was £82 for every seat — even the ones that already cost three figures. To anyone making cuts, the conclusion is obvious: theatre, galleries or almost anything else offers better returns. Brünjes insists: “Subsidy per seat has not cropped up in any conversation in the last year with me.”

Of course, ENO does more than simply put on operas. It works with schools. It supports young artists. In the pandemic, it offered its singers’ breathing techniques to the NHS in dealing with long-Covid patients: the scheme, ENO Breathe, has treated more than 3,000 patients.

What would a smaller company on six-month contracts mean? “It’s very hard to get back what you’ve lost,” says Wigglesworth, who resigned in 2016. “If you bring strangers into a room, you can reach a high level quite quickly. But you can’t reach the more profound level that these pieces require to communicate with an audience. Experience gives the opportunity for risk, and risk gives the opportunity for something special.” Mahogany Opera’s Wake-Walker says: “If you said to a Premier League team ‘You can only train half the season’ — they wouldn’t survive.”

A view of the stalls and boxes inside the Coliseum theatre
The Coliseum is the West End’s biggest theatre, with 2,359 seats © Harry Mitchell

Next month, ENO will announce whether its new base will be Birmingham, Liverpool or — the favourite — Manchester, where it would sit alongside Opera North. The venue is unlikely to attract the same audience as the Coliseum. Something may turn up to improve the company’s prospects. A Labour government is likely to view the arts more favourably, but it is unlikely to see London-based opera as a priority. ENO’s haggling means that its subsidy over the next three years will fall not by the feared 65 per cent, but by 5 per cent, which is less than the Royal Opera House’s 10 per cent cut. Overall London is still getting a third of Arts Council England funding.

In the audience of Iolanthe, however, there was resignation. One man admitted that he now normally watched streamed operas at the cinema. The woman sitting behind me sighed that Gilbert and Sullivan didn’t appeal to younger members of her own amateur group. Two other visitors were from Eastbourne, whose own Gilbert & Sullivan Society has cut back its performances due to cost. ENO offers free tickets to under-21s. But putting on opera in English, with surtitles, jokes and free tickets, still doesn’t necessarily make it accessible. Last season, 12 per cent of the audience was under 35, which means that 88 per cent wasn’t.

ENO’s defenders occasionally permit themselves envious glances at Germany’s generous state funding. “The company’s always been a bit of a punching bag for the left and the right. When a German politician goes to the opera, they get applauded. When a British politician goes, they have to sneak in the back,” says Wigglesworth.

It took Lilian Baylis several decades to build the belief that English-language opera was viable. It may take ENO’s next leaders a similar amount of time and hardheadedness to rebuild it.

Henry Mance is the FT’s chief features writer

Read More:Trouble at English National Opera — will the drama ever end?