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There was no surprise, nor much regret, when English National Opera was plunged once more last night into a turmoil that is largely of its own making. Sean Doran, its director of the past two years, got the heave-ho before (as he might reasonably object) he got much of a chance to show what he could do.
Not that many, except the board which selected and has now fired him, expected much. Doran was hired from an Australian festival, in Perth, where he had successfully entertained some influential British artists who talked up his credentials. Due diligence would have shown as good journalism duly revealed that neither his budgets down under nor his staff relations were up to scratch. But no questions were asked when Martin Smith, ENO's brash merchant-banker of a chairman, introduced this Irish ing้nue to replace Nicholas Payne whom any poll of professionals would have picked as the country's most competent and experienced director of opera companies, first at Opera North, then at Covent Garden. Payne, who obsessively planned alone, refused to share information with Smith who, having donated £1 million to the company, acted as if he owned it.
If Payne was ENO's Bismack, Smith was Kaiser Willy, dropping his pilot at the point of greatest peril, months before the company re-entered its Lottery-refurbished building. Doran flew in, all prattle and craic, telling the world he was going to make ENO play to its indigenous strengths the great operas of England from Purcell to Britten, and others yet unwritten. Smith, unable to understand the language sung on the Coliseum's vast stage, had surtitles installed so that we can now read English as it is being ululated, a negation of ENO's chartered purpose.
Doran promised to make the Coliseum 'the most exciting venue in London, bar none: not just for opera audiences but for theatre, visual arts and film audiences.' He fluttered an American musical Leonard Bernstein's On the Town and a filmic Madam Butterfly staged by Anthony Minghella and his English Patient associate, Carolyn Choa. Both sold out, despite decidedly mixed reviews.
His other innovation was The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, an Irish Arts Council commission from local composer Gerald Barry which added an entirely unnecessary and extremely loud orchestral track to Rainer Werner Fassbinder's cult film of lesbian love. The company was bussed down to sing Wagner at Glastonbury, which was good for morale and media profile but merely danced rings around the core issues of what ENO ought to be, and for whom. Few in the rockfest mud were ever going to glam up for an evening of Vaughan Williams at the London Coli.
Doran's flourishes and gimmicks were appropriate to a summer festival with a short span and small team. They were not the stuff that sustains an all-year opera house and Doran was soon leagues out of his depth with a cosmopolitan staff ten times as large as Perth's and senior colleagues who signalled their contempt by means of rapid departure. When Smith dropped Paul Daniel as music director, the best replacement Doran could find was Oleg Caetani, a middleaged salaryman working in Melbourne. British conductors refused to consider the Coliseum so long as Doran was in charge. It was an indecorous state of affairs. Doran, who was styled artistic director and chief executive, claimed more than twice his predecessor's salary.
Among multiple instances of inexperience, he scheduled Bitter Tears amid a run of Magic Flutes, one of the more delicate Mozart scores in rep. Gerald Barry kept demanding that the orchestra played louder in rehearsal. Players wore earplugs and were still suffering tinnitus during the next night's Flute, which was poorly received, understandably in the circumstances. Apart from the big Minghella draw, the box-office dried up in what is, across the performing arts, a particularly difficult season.
A curtain of half-truths dropped over the situation. When musicians challenged one particularly blatant misstatement from the management they were told, 'it's not a lie, we're playing blamey.' Handel's Xerxes lost its original conductor then its scheduled opening night when a chunk of masonry, disturbed by excessive production changes, dropped onto the stage. Happily no-one was hurt. ENO denied the incident. Then it denied that Smith had asked the press office last week: 'what's a good day to release bad news?' By this time, Doran's days were numbered.
He put up a last-ditch fight for better severance conditions and the face-saving device of being retained as 'artistic consultant' to the end of the season, although he is unlikely to be seen again at the Coliseum. ENO's non-executive board went to ground, switching off their mobiles. They bear a heavy responsibility for this disaster, as does the Arts Council of England, which welcomed Doran's 'inclusivism' and 'diversity' with open arms and gave the poor, over-promoted fellow every sign of sympathy until the budgets flooded red and his top executives withdrew their support.
The interim managemanagement of Loretta Tomasi (chief exec) and John Berry (artistic director) will need a great deal of luck and bluster to restore confidence both within the organisation and among the operaloving community. The company has been set back three years in its search for a defining purpose in an ultra-competitive, multimedia era. Doran's plan to use public subsidy to steal audiences from West End commercial theatres was as immoral as it was misguided. English Opera, even in a state-funded palace, is no match for Billy Elliott in the dregs of Victoria or the slick £3 million skills of The Producers.
If ENO is to survive and that is once again a critical question it must find a role that is distinct from Covent Garden's and is perpetually inventive. The directors Graham Vick and Francesca Zambello were once keen on the job. Both have the vision to regenerate ENO; Nicholas Kenyon of the BBC Proms, a recent board recruit, has confidence-building skills.
But first the stables must be cleared. Caetani can cancel his flight and the Gaddafi opera that Doran was planning may be kicked into the desert. The chairman, meanwhile, must examine his conscience. Like most British arts boards, the 13 directors around ENO's mahogany table exercise power without responsibility, seldom taking the rap for decisions that went wrong. This time, though, it's personal. Martin Smith sacked Nicholas Payne and picked Sean Doran as instruments of his own regime, which is more interventionist than is conventional in British opera. He has made two very bad calls, at the public expense. If Smith has honour, he should resign. If he won't, he must be voted out.
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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]