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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Fear and loathing at the opera

By Norman Lebrecht / May 17, 2006

Watching an opera, any opera, requires a willing suspension of disbelief. Watching English National Opera calls for nothing less than a complete renunciation of the critical faculties if one is to imagine that the company has turned a corner since the past year’s upheavals that swept away two music directors, a chief executive and a chairman in less time than it takes to make an opera.

Cagey candidates for the chairmanship are being interviewed this week by a panel of four board members, but any prospect of peace and reconciliation seems an awfully long way off. ‘A poisonous and negative atmosphere of distrust and intimidation,’ is how one company veteran characterises present pollution levels on St Martin’s Lane.

The able head of public relations, Sao Bui-Van, is leaving this week after just 14 months. There is a glaring vacancy for head of casting and twenty unfilled posts in the orchestra (‘no jobs at present,’ says the ENO website). A well-liked orchestral manager is fleeing to the BBC and the incoming music director, Ed Gardner, has told friends that he is dreading having to sack ‘so many musicians’ – an admission that sent terror through a fine ensemble that was hoping for stability and renewal.

The pit is pullulating with fear and loathing. Players who had been looking forward to meeting their youngest-ever music director are complaining that he has yet to give them the time of day. If ever a musician tries to approach him in a corridor, Gardner, 31, gets whisked away by top management, as if for his own protection.

Then there is the hushed-up matter of the orchestral lawsuit that cost the company the price of two new productions. It appears that in the first half of last year, 72 ‘extras’ – freelance musicians who cover for orchestral gaps - were overpaid by an average of £500 to £600 a head. The manager responsible was Ellen Gallagher, Head of Music Administration, who when she tried to recoup the error was told that the players were not legally obliged to repay. Gallagher tightened her purse-strings. When some horn players and a harpsichordist presented an agreed bill for £3,800, she refused payment.

Feeling out of pocket, the musicians took legal advice. Gallagher stonewalled them all the way to court, with barristers on either side and costs mounting by the minute. She submitted twelve hundred pages in testimony, only for her case to collapse after a day and a half with ENO agreeing to pay the full fees and both sides’ costs, a sum of at least £100,000 when preparatory work is taken into account - all this for a disputed £3,800.

What on earth were they playing at? If ENO had won, the victory have reduced some of its loyal, hardworking musicians to penury. Losing, it looks foolish, arrogant and wasteful. Gallagher was unavailable for comment and John Berry, the artistic director and her boss, said he was unaware of the details. A statement from the office of Loretta Tomasi, the chief executive, said settlement of the case ‘clarified the situation with regard to additional payments for the future’ – which is rather like saying that Trafalgar clarified Napoleon’s naval options and Hastings was an eye-opener for King Harold. Both Tomasi and Berry have voiced ‘full confidence’ in Gallagher, which leaves some of the musicians feeling like orphans in their own home.

What is clear is that an opera house that litigates against its own staff is not a happy place and any prospect of recovery from the hilarities of the Sean Doran era – when the chief executive would announce that he had a head full of brilliant ideas none of which involved orchestra or chorus – is stunted by enduring mistrust.

Berry and Tomasi, who flopped into the top jobs without due process when Doran was sacked, are doing their level best to keep the show on the road and maintain a facade of competence until a new chairman comes in. ‘We try to work in an open and even-handed way, which is not the way it used to be,’ said Berry when I caught him between rehearsals. ‘There are big challenges ahead. These are not going to be easy years for any orchestra in London and we are discussing freezing a number of positions, in addition to the existing vacancies, in order to save an amount of money across the company. Clearly, the musicians are worried, but this is not an unhappy orchestra. An unhappy orchestra does not play like I just heard them play in The Makropoulos (Case) rehearsal.’

Berry is off to Paris next week to catch Ed Gardner conducting at the Opéra and arrange for him to meet the ENO orchestra. He reiterated his support for Gallagher, saying the young conductor ‘will benefit from having someone of her experience.’

All of which makes good managerial sense so long as you ignore the variables that hover around ENO like touts at a Euro Championship final. The main variable is the vacant chairmanship where runners reputedly include Liz Forgan, the Heritage Lottery Fund chairman, Andreas Whittam Smith, the former newspaper editor and Vernon Ellis, the acting chairman and ally of the Berry-Tomasi axis.

While Ellis is refusing to say one way or the other if he is putting in for the hot seat, those in the know observe that if he weren’t he would surely have sat on the selection panel. A partner in the Accenture consultancy, Ellis has done a lot for ENO. Specifically, he gave it just over £1.5 million from a family trust during the 2004 solvency crisis, according to accounts lodged with the Charities Commission. That generosity should not count against him. However, at a time when it is no longer acceptable to buy a seat in the House of Lords with political donations, there will be public reservations about the acquisition of an opera chairmanship by apparently similar means.

Whoever gets appointed at a board meeting in five weeks’ time, the uncertainty will persist until ENO’s role is comprehensively redefined. The company exists at present to stage opera in English, which is hardly required in a surtitled house, and at cheaper prices than Covent Garden with which it cannot compete for top talent. The future, if any, must be different, smaller and elsewhere – a mission to make opera for a 21st century audience away from a vast West End theatre that it has never been able to sell out. The only way ahead for ENO is back to basics.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

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



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