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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Fit for the future?

By Norman Lebrecht / January 29, 2004

I have seen the future and it is not yet ready to work. Walking around the hard-hat site that is the London Coliseum, I find it hard to imagine that it will open in three weeks' time, on February 21. The welders are still searing frames, the painters are daubing undercoats and miles of unlayed cables snake across uncovered mosaic flooring, a peril to builders' boots. 'It'll be touch and go,' admits Sean Doran, artistic director of English National Opera.

Reopening has already been put back a fortnight, wiping quarter of a million pounds of planned revenue from an over stressed budget. The first half season is built around a well-trailed Ring and sundry revivals. It will be April before the understated Doran announces a vision for the company's future and September 2005 before any of his proposed changes are seen on stage.

Revising the vision is critical, for ENO's problems are not casual but encrusted. The company has been in a precarious state for 12 years as deficits mounted and public support waned. Six years ago, New Labour proposed merger with Covent Garden. That outrage was resisted but the trauma of a £41m refurbishment brought the enterprise to the brink of closure. Last summer, on a financial cliff-edge, the company faced a brutal Arts Council demand (known as 'Plan B') for its disbandment. Only the fury of a united board, most of whose members had contributed generously to an £18m public appeal, rescued Lilian Baylis's cherished legacy of popular opera in the common tongue.

Facing disaster focussed minds on core purpose. What, exactly, is ENO for? In past difficulties it fell back on being a Volksoper - a people's opera that is cheaper and more cheerful than the international celebrity shuttle at Covent Garden. That defence no longer holds. The ROH has priced itself more competitively and the public will not put up with also-sangs. ENO's secondary function, as a nursery for English singers, has been maimed by its adherence to the vernacular. Singers of real promise resent learning their rep in a language that is unwelcome on the world stage; recent comets - Bryn Terfel, Amanda Roocroft, Ian Bostridge - bypassed ENO on their celestial ascent. Opera in English, a shibboleth to aging ENO supporters, is a vacant ideal in an age when seatback surtitles make every dialect comprehensible and the decline of front-of-mouth voice training makes porridge of the colloquial librettos that are sung at the Coli. Doran talks of raising £3m to instal surtitles.

The plan which is forming in his mind blends core values with unexploited potential. Doran, 43, an Irishman who earned his spurs in Australia, sees ENO as a bastion for operas written in English - the modest opus of Britten, Purcell, Handel and Vaughan Williams. He talks of extending the scope of opera - as the National Theatre did with Jerry Springer and the ROH with Sweeney Todd - and treating the restored theatre as an independent asset, separate from the performing company. The Coliseum, he argues, should be 'the home of the voice' - a showcase not just for operatic arias but for stars of world music and some of the more thoughtful denizens of pop. Unlike the ROH which hires out its stage in slack time to all comers, ENO would seek to 'curate' guest acts with programmes that 'stretch' the artists, or so the whimsy goes.

Certainly, Frank Matcham's Coliseum restored to a simulacrum of its 1904 magnificence, will be a magnetic attraction. The architects, Nick Thompson and David Wright (who showed me around the site) avoided the usual temptations of gold leaf decor and bordello upholstery. They revived instead the subdued hues of imperial confidence: brown and cream walls,brushed velvet purples that caress the eye, a dome that glows comfortingly with hidden backlights, family-friendly gargoyles. The auditorium has been slightly enlarged by 50 seats, to 2400, all of them with perfect sightlines and enhanced intimacy - all the way up to the 500 starspecks that are on sale nightly at £10 each.

The bars have been enlarged and fiercely branded (one of them will be known as the Bollinger's Bar) and the number of ladies toilets has doubled; each, for some reason, has twin loo-roll holders. The gents, once a celebrated hive of gay concupiscence with holes in the walls that extruded wierd?? exotic noises, have been made puritanically respectable. The rooftop glory is the restoration of Matcham's silver rotating ball, surrounded by naked slave boys. Those operagoers with the puff to reach the glassed-in roof atrium will feast their eyes on Nelson's Column, far below. It can lay claim to having the best view in town.

But will that be enough? The Coli will be besieged by curiosity seekers after opening and will do its damnedest to convert them into regulars. But ENO will be squeezed from opening night between the rock of ROH stardom and the unforseen hard place of Raymond Gubbay's new Savoy Opera which, without state subsidy, will present popular works with bright young casts at the same price range as ENO - £10-50. Gubbay maintains he is not pitching for ENO's natural audience, more for West End night-outers who have been scared off opera by its know-all aura and tribal rituals. It is this very populace of supposedly timid neophytes that ENO must capture to secure its future.

To distinguish itself from the Savoy, ENO will emphasize that it is a company which works together all year round, achieving greater cohesion than a cast of recent graduates thrown together for one production. It is a substantive distinction, but only to opera buffs. The critical public issue for ENO is, as it has been for a decade, the question of identity. The company is not English, except inasmuch as its singers mangle the vernacular. It is not National, lacking the resources to tour. And it is desperately keen to shed the corsets of Opera in the quest for new audiences and fresh relevance.

It is, in sum, a product in need of rebranding, a relic of a very different society that has failed to adjust to post-industrial demand. ENO has changed its name once before, thirty years ago when it moved from Sadlers Wells to the West End. It must change again, and soon; but it cannot rename without knowing where it is going, cart before horse. The Coliseum, on the eve of reopening, is an actor awaiting direction, a politician short on manifesto. As I write these words, I am phoned to be informed that ENO has cancelled its inaugural show, Nixon in China. When the house eventually reopens, it must deliver a vision that fulfils an inchoate need. It is a formidable task, and the outcome is by no means assured.

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001