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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Save our People’s Opera

By Norman Lebrecht / March 28, 2007

Just when you thought things could get no worse at English National Opera, they do. Plans for a ten percent staff cut have been stalled by procedural chaos and a memo, circulating at the Department of Culture, recommends that Tessa Jowell should scrap the company to save money for the Olympics. In a history fraught with survival threats, this may be ENO’s lowest moment – and it’s starting to show.

Inside the Coliseum, confusion reigns. Retirement notices were issued a fortnight ago to five members of the orchestra, and redundancy warnings to 25, only to be withdrawn because they flout recent age-discrimination laws and a sheaf of internal agreements. A call for voluntary redundancies in the band yielded so many applications that all were turned down - all but one, a 64 year-old horn player who decided to get out while the going was good. The job carries no pension, and anxiety is rife.

The confusion has sapped confidence in the managing director Loretta Tomasi, but even more so in the incoming music director Ed Gardner, whose failure to protect his players rankles with an unsettled emsemble. Gardner, 32, has proposed to play a cycle of Mahler symphonies at ENO – this in a city with a glut of symphony orchestras, and to be conducted with a playing force of 55, when the smallest of Mahler’s works requires 85. Like much else at ENO, Gardner’s revivalist idea comes from cloud-cuckoo territory.

Tensions came to a head last Friday lunchtime when the artistic director, John Berry, had a rush of blood in the ticket foyer on St Martin’s Lane. ‘How dare you question my artistic policy?’ he exploded at a fellow-administrator, in full view of passing colleagues and queuing members of the public. Word went round within hours that Berry was losing the plot, though some company members treasured the incident as the most assertive sign of human life at senior level since the invisible Tomasi and Berry were shoehorned into the top jobs without due process in December 2005. One way or another, the siege mentality at the Coli is spilling out onto the street and across Trafalgar Square, where the Culture Secretary is being advised by her best suits and skirts to make ENO the first sacrifice on the 2012 Olympic altar, saving some £20 million in annual subsidy and netting perhaps £100m from selling the building, which underwent a sumptuous £41m Lottery-funded refit as recently as three years ago.

The proposal is gathering departmental momentum even as you read these words and the craven Arts Council of England, which ought to be rallying in ENO’s defence, has made it clear that the company cannot expect further support, financial, political or moral. ACE’s priority in these Olympic-hatchet days is to save its own worthless skin with plastic bus-pass holders that it is handing out to bewildered commuters. At the highest levels of arts policy, ENO is now in imminent danger of being written off.

Loath as I am to tweak Tessa’s ear, there are a few things she ought to know before New Labour’s arts record is brought down in disgrace. First, there are plenty of signs that ENO this season has turned a vital corner and is heading for recovery. Attendance is up, box-office is good, and while there is likely to be a £750,000 shortfall come July it has been provided for in advance and the company is going to turn in a set of balanced books for the first time in 18 years.

Yes, you have read that right. Every year since 1989 ENO has turned in a loss because its ambition was greater than the resources to hand. The deficit was twice covered by the Arts Council and many more times by individual members of the board. The proposed cut of 45 jobs should enable the company to trade equably in future.

Artistically, measures are afoot to improve a patchy output. A blockbuster Jenufa was followed by a cleverly recast Figaro which had flopped last season and triumphed on revival. There is a fizz to the improved revival of Bernstein’s On the Town and next week’s UK stage premiere of Satyagraha by Philip Glass has the potential to attract a younger, more eclectic audience. Significantly, the show has been put together by an independent production company, Improbable, and costs are shared with New York’s Metropolitan Opera, which will stage the work in April.

Berry is driving artistic policy to greater openness and wider collaboration, much in the manner that British television was diversified in the past decade by independent quotas (at the expense, albeit, of editorial quality). If his glasnost works, it will recast the Coliseum more as a receiving house and less as the rigid box-ticker of English-sung, second-rank opera. Changes at board level this summer should replace diehards with fresh thinkers. Given another year of life, ENO could be a phoenix risen.

These are all strong reasons for Tessa to ignore the axemen at her elbow, but the strongest is that if New Labour were to scrap the People’s Opera it would also abandon its own pretension to provide arts for all, at an affordable price. It has tinkered with abolition before, when Chris Smith psought to merge ENO with Covent Garden, and it has yet to accept that a city of London’s size and importance requires more than one outlet for each of the performing arts. ENO has brought itself to the brink of an abyss. But it is the Government that will stumble if it kills the goose just as it finally begins to lay gold.

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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