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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

How British opera is killing itself

By Norman Lebrecht / June 23, 2004

When it has finished knocking back the bubbly over the demise of upstart Savoy Opera, the opera lobby will wake up one of these days to find its stock of safe assumptions has been raided and laid bare. Ever since the Keynesian dawn of state subsidy in 1945, lobbyists have airily maintained that there is a mass public out there avid to experience the trills and spills of live opera. All it would take to restore opera as a popular art form would be to present it in the vernacular, unsnobbishly and at a price affordable to the family purse.

Savoy set out to test that thesis empirically. It pitched a pair of Figaro favourites - Rossini's Barber, Mozart's Marriage - at the heart of theatreland, six nights a week in newsreader's English at an average £35 a seat, several quid cheaper than many musicals and West End hits. It had the vociferous backing of Classic FM and the editorial endorsement of several national newspapers, one of which attacked its own critics for their 'elitism'. Yet Savoy failed, swiftly and irredeemably.

Worse, at no point in its abbreviated run did the box-office tick ever with anything like the rhythm required to sustain the belief of promoters Raymond Gubbay and Stephen Waley-Cohen in the myth of the great untapped opera audience. Savoy could have survived on a 50 percent house, uncommonly low for an industry where Glyndebourne breaks even at 94 percent and Covent Garden at 90. But in a catchment area of 15 million people it proved impossible to attract more than 300 a night on average to hear a couple of jolly good operas, decently sung and produced with notable commitment by a pair of men who lost their spare shirts on the enterprise.

There were contributory causes for Savoy's early closure. It opened at the wrong time of year, in a depressed West End, without a single star name on the billboard. The orchestra was meagre and sounded under-rehearsed. Most of the reviews were deprecatory, some predictably so. Nevertheless, beyond all excuses, one commercial fact emerged with incontrovertible clarity: in plain English, there is simply no demand for more opera. That revelation, arising from the first real test of the market in 60 years, will have drastic consequences. A view is forming, not unreasonably, that opera has reached saturation point in Britain, and most congestively in London where Covent Garden and English National Opera compete year round with visiting troupes at Sadlers Wells, the South Bank, the Barbican and the Proms, not to mention an incursion of festivals. Glyndebourne, for instance, plans to winter in London with a short Boheme season at the Wimbledon Theatre.

These ventures struggle to find a new audience. One of the leading summer festivals tells me that nine-tenths of its subscribers are past pension age. There is not enough money to stage new work that might attract fresh custom. Almost without exception, opera in Britain is mired in difficulty.

The exception is Covent Garden, which is ending an initially variable season in some prosperity - 92.5 percent box-office, a £10 million gift from South African businessman Donald Gordon, a new deal with the BBC that puts live opera back on TV and burgeoning plans to project big operas from the ROH to big screens around the land. Creatively, the company overcame a run of dodgy imports with a springtime of homemade hits led by the world premiere of The Tempest by Thomas Ades, an exhilarating staging of Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and a star-studded bankroller in Gounod's Faust. The ROH is not quite out of the woods - no British opera house ever is - but under Tony Hall's temperate management the company has achieved a clear idea of its objectives, its audience and its public responsibilities.

Superficially, the same might be said of Welsh National Opera which is shrewdly run by Anthony Freud, a former record producer, and his 27 year old music director, Tughan Sokiev. WNO will enter the new Millennium Centre in Cardiff come November high on confidence and low on prices, which are pegged from £35 to as little as £5 a seat. But WNO will play only 30 nights a year in its custom-built new home. Its survival is predicated on a pragmatic £6m grant from Arts Council England (half as much again as it receives from the Welsh Arts Council), in return for touring Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol, Southampton, Oxford and Milton Keynes. This convenient arrangement, complimentary as it is to Welsh voices, recognises that in the melliflous principality there will never be enough takers for a fine Traviata.

A similar conclusion has been messily reached north of the border. Last Thursday, ten minutes before it went on stage to sing La Boheme, the chorus of Scottish Opera was told it was to be made redundant. At the weekend, another 55 staff were given notice. The disbandment is part of a Scottish Executive policy, devised by the Scottish Arts Council chairman James Boyle, to dismantle the opera, reducing it to operating three months a year and filling the gaps with roaming bands from eastern Europe.

If a newly reconstituted state like Latvia were given the choice of saving its opera company or its football team, national pride would plump for the opera. Scotland, however, will always take the low road. Despite an acclaimed Ring at last year's Edinburgh Festival, Scottish Opera has woefully failed to persuade the nation that it is an essential amenity.

Which brings me to the lamentable anomaly known as English National Opera. ENO's troubles began with its transfer 30 years ago from Sadlers Wells to the Coliseum where, in a 2,500-seat arena, it struggled to sing out in comprehensible English or sell enough tickets to stay in the black. Since reopening the refurbished Coli in February, ENO has hit its 72 percent sales target for the current season but has missed the mark with almost every production. The first two parts of its Ring were critically mauled, its music director Paul Daniel is leaving prematurely. Sales for next season are reportedly abysmal and morale is at rock-bottom.

ENO's remedy was to fire its head of communications. The official line was that Camilla Nicholls chose to leave of her own accord, but I understand that she was called in by Sean Doran, the chief executive and artistic director, and given six weeks to turn around the company's fortunes. Sensibly, she walked, taking with her what remained of ENO's credibility. Nicholls is respected in the wider world for handling the Guardian newspaper's affairs during the Aitken libel trial. She was also well liked within the Coliseum.

Doran, whose job it ought to be to turn around ENO's fortunes, has conceived a dull new season that contains unsaleably long re-runs of old productions 12 performances, for instance, of Calixto Beito's tacky Don Giovanni. The inexperienced Irishman, hired from a provincial festival in Australia, can probably count his job secure for the moment since Martin Smith, the chairman who appointed him, would probably have to resign along with half the board. But the crows are gathering around ENO and paper solutions are starting to flutter. Arts Council England has already advocated the dismantling of the company. ENO's forthcoming gimmicks of open-air performances in the mud of Glastonbury and the traffic noise of Trafalgar Square cannot long defer the day of reckoning. There is a place for a People's Opera in London, but it is not the place presently occupied by Doran's ENO.

Some reduced solution will have to be found - perhaps back at Sadlers Wells where this week Opera North is giving an object lesson to the industry in productive, low-budget ingenuity. Its season of eight short, stylish and rarely-seen operas shows up the plodding mundanity of ENO's menu. Less, as the Leeds ensemble ably demonstrates, can often be more. And that is bound to be the remedy for Britain's operatic woes.

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001