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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Can ENO Win Again?

By Norman Lebrecht / October 16, 2002

The people's opera has lost its boss and is £3m in the red. But the start of a new season signals a major rethink

Whenever a dark cloud hovers over the London Coliseum - which is more nights than not in the past decade - it yields a spattering of commentaries headed, Who Needs English National Opera? The question is worth asking, since the ENO has plainly lost its way.

It used to be the People's Opera against Covent Garden's toffs, honest English tenors and none of your lah-di-dah divas. But the lines have blurred and ENO took leave of its three defining purposes.

Today, the company is English only in the sense that it sings in the vernacular - albeit so indistinctly that many patrons are now demanding the installation of surtitles, a device that would mock the original object of singing in the common tongue.

Its national status went down the tubes when the Arts Council refused funds for touring and the BBC gave up televising opera. As for ENO's version of Opera - the 'exotick and irrational entertainment' of Dr Johnson's dictionary - parsimony has reduced many of its sets to a kitchen-sink meagreness in which the only exotic component is the comic wobbling of a cardboard wall.

Opera on the cheap is not opera at all. Instead of banishing our woes, it thrusts them in our faces with menacing insistence. The last ENO director-but-three would shamelessly appear before the curtain begging for contributions to fix a leaky roof.

The case for keeping an English national opera has been further weakened by a decade of weak administration and mounting debt. The last chief, Nicholas Payne, resigned in July after having an Arts Council-approved financial consultant foisted upon him to mind his shillings and pence. Payne, a cosmically knowledgeable opera professional, took a calculated risk with avant-garde productions that were meant to rekindle a sense of the unpredictable, and predictably outraged sections of the press. There were losses at the box-office, though nothing too severe.

What did for Payne was the double burden of keeping the company on stage while redeveloping its building. The Coliseum reopens this week after a three-month cloure; it will shut again next July, reopening in January 2004 in modernised splendour. That's the plan, at any rate. But when the board studied the financial projections for the coming 18 months, they saw a black hole, a terrifying replica of Covent Garden's closure-year catastrophes.

The deficit, I'm reliably informed, has topped £3m. There is no cash in the kitty for new productions and the box-office is slow. These are bleak days at the Coliseum. Even the neon roof-sign is perpetually on the blink.

So why keep ENO going? Because it's the only place this side of Paris where you can see professional opera for a fair price - between £6 and £60 a seat. The ROH may have massaged some prices, but a decent seat for Verdi or Wagner will still set you back £140. ENO is the only option for students, nurses, neophytes and the average West End night-outer. It is also the only stable singing ensemble (ROH casts are international fly-by-nighters) and the only training company for up-and-coming British singers, conductors, designers and directors. Without ENO, the most populous part of the country would be at a loss for lyric art, at the mercy of commercial marauders.

Demographics, however, are not enough of a reason to sustain a failing enterprise. If ENO is to survive, it must use the next 18 months to rethink its entire role, to the point where it may have to change its nature and even its name.

Any analysis must start with what ENO does best: British opera, for British audiences. The company is unsurpassed in Britten, inventive in Gilbert and Sullivan and unwavering in its faith in new composers, a faith richly rewarded by Mark Anthony Turnage with The Silver Tassie. There is nothing so organic in art as the sight of a national ensemble grappling with major national issues before an audience attuned to the faintest nuance.

Some of ENO's shortlived directors have sought to recast it as a populist Volksoper in relation to Covent Garden's elitist Staatsoper, producing native operas, musicals and operettas and experimental stagings of staple repertoire. That might work in subsidy-rich Vienna, but London's cultural economy is too diverse for ENO to predicate its future on continental solutions. It must be free to pick its own rep, and especially to play epic works like Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (Shostakovich) and War and Peace (Prokofiev) which show off the giant Coli to best advantage.

As a training ensemble, it was always absurd for ENO to confine itself to singing in English. Any youngster with half a future has to relearn roles in the original before standing a chance of conquering the world stage. Many have consequently bypassed the Coliseum. None of our current stars - Terfel, Bostridge, Eaglen, Roocroft - was raised there. To attract and develop new talent, ENO may have to break its iron rule of singing in English - not necessarily in all operas but in enough of them to appeal to the cream of the next generation.

Abolishing the linguistic barrier will, in turn, attract a wider audience across London's polyglot and multicultural communities. It will also justify surtitles - not a £200,000 proscenium screen that few can read, one hopes, but a proper £2.5m seat-back system with four options, including Japanese and Gujarati. In a society like ours, it's the logical way ahead.

The company needs to recut its cloth in order to afford the new productions that will bring back a paying audience. Many question the need for a salaried orchestra of 80, when London is milling with underemployed musicians. A band of 45, Mozart-strength, should suffice, more to be hired as casuals.

These are just a few of the nettles that are growing around the board table at the Coliseum. They will have to be grasped firmly if the company is to revive. The Arts Council has promised a £16m subsidy contingent on reform, a veiled threat that does little to restore public confidence. The acting chief executive, Caroline Felton, will wield the axe, leaving a slimmed-down ENO to the next artistic director, for whom the search has just begun.

The board itself is feeling besieged, having drawn a hail of abuse from opera buffs over Payne's departure. It needs to stem a reddening balance-sheet and raise £41m for the builders by next September, a daunting task in straitened times.

But the ENO governors, unlike any other arts board in Britain, have put their money ahead of their mouths. They have already raised 90 percent of the development money, and fully half of that was donated by members of the board. The chairman, Martin Smith, led the way with a seven-figure cheque on the day he took office, and others followed suit. These 17 men and women firmly believe in the need for an ENO, albeit a very different form of people's opera for a fast-transforming population.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001