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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

An opera house by any other name

By Norman Lebrecht / April 9, 2008

You may need to rub eyes and pinch yourself after reading this paragraph, but I’m starting to believe that English National Opera has finally turned the corner. The basket-case of British arts, on life support for the past 20 years, is showing record attendances and a breakeven budget. Next week, it will announce no fewer than ten new productions for the coming season, of which two are 21st century operas. After a generation of comic mismanagement, internecine conflict, ruined lives and total confusion of purpose, ENO seems to have found an equilibrium and, perhaps, a survival mechanism.

Ticket sales at the Coliseum, which is London’s largest theatre, are above 80 percent this year after lagging in the low seventies. Private donations are on an upswing and there is no need to go begging for more bailouts – which is just as well since the Culture Department has made it clear that the next red line in the books may be the last. Cuts have been made to orchestra, chorus and staff, but the turmoil is over, the unions are onside and the company is free to recycle its work in all media without extra fees. A line has been drawn between then and now. Confidence is returning.

Co-productions have been signed with Chicago, Paris, Barcelona, Brussels and Prague – and no fewer than ten joint shows with New York’s Metropolitan Opera, which, since Anthony Minghella’s Madam Butterfly, has used ENO as a cheap development house for future blockbusters. ‘ENO is the organisation in London that the world is coming to for partnership,’ says artistic director, John Berry. ‘It has become prestigious to collaborate with ENO.’

Profitable, too, for the Coli since the foreign partner pays from one-third to one-half of the costs. This allows ENO to afford directors and designers from the worlds of film and fashion who, while sometimes offending regular operagoers, have drawn in under-30s to see Sally Potter’s Carmen and Zandra Rhodes’s turquoise Aida frocks.

Even when iconoclasm misfires, as it did in Potter’s smoke-free Carmen and (less forgivably) in Chen Shi-Zheng’s swim-suited Coronation of Poppea, the box-office booms. There was an 84 percent paid attendance for Carmen; 37,000 more watched it on-line. While Covent Garden and Glyndebourne are putting their shows in cinemas and DVD stores, ENO is taking opera live to an internet, film-literate generation. That, to me, looks like progressive strategy and, ultimately, to a fresh identity.

Next season, ENO will allocate Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte to the extraordinary Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami. The dangerous Richard Jones takes on the double-bill of Cavalleria/Pagliacci and Jonathan Miller returns after an inexplicable absence of two decades to tackle La Boheme. Europe will get its first sight of John Adams’ political opera, Doctor Atomic, and Kaija Saariaho’s wispy L’amour de loin will receive its UK premiere. There is more challenging stuff in progress with the Young Vic where ENO is presently showing Olga Neuwirth’s opera remake of David Lynch’s film, Lost Highway followed by Harrison Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy.

Much of next season’s detail has yet to be inked and more will be announced in a week, but ten new shows amounts to a bold manifesto from a company which, only months ago, committed one of the worst howlers ever seen on a London stage in the ineradicably awful Kismet. So what has gone right since then, and why am I inclined to believe that it will continue to go that way? There have, after all, been many false dawns over two decades and twice as many false claims of success.

Well, confidence is a funny thing, difficult to measure, impossible to bottle. A near-full house inspires some insiders, a perfectly paced Death in Venice does it for others. The irrepressible enthusiasm of a young music director, Ed Gardner, has turned many doubters to believers; solid competence from the management pair of Loretta Tomasi and John Berry, neither of them natural leaders, has kept fingers off the panic buttons. Conversations with people at every level of the Coli staircase suggest that, for the first time in a very long while, the pride is back in Frank Matcham’s palace.

Which is not to say that ENO is out of the woods yet, not by a long walk. Coming up is a Bernstein Candide that bombed at La Scala; unless it has undergone massive remedial treatment, expect a return of the Kismet cat-calls. Gardner, for all his brio, draws mixed notices from his musicians and has much still to learn. Some shell-shocked company members cannot shake off a bunker mentality and a shake-up is urgently needed in an all-sorts board.

And then there is the long-fudged matter of company identity, which has to be faced head-on and without fear. English National Opera took its present name when it moved to the West End 35 years ago. The name has never meant much to anyone outside the inner circle of arts administrators nor has it expressed the company’s function - less so now than ever before.

ENO cannot be English if much of its work is co-produced and bought in. It is not National when it never leaves London. And the constrictive noun Opera is a positive deterrent to the post-generic under-30s it seeks to attract. Even the defining act of singing in English must be re-examined now that the text goes up in surtitles and half the audience is multilingual.

Otiose, archaic and absurdly self-limiting adjectives have hampered London’s second opera house from fulfilling its potential and plunged it into perpetual crisis. It needs a new name, one that will separate ENO from its blundering past and project its future purpose.

Myself, I’d call it The Coliseum, the Coli for short. That does what is says on the box, which is to present public entertainment at an elevated standard. ENO is a brand of popular laxative. Coli is an earthy veg. A new name would signify a healthier lifestyle. When should it change the notepaper? Now would not be a moment too soon.

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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