English National Opera: something had to give

For night at the opera, read plight - the English National Opera is in a mess and this week its young music director, Sian Edwards (left), resigned after three difficult years in the pit. David Lister goes behind the troubled scenes at the Coliseum
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The Independent Culture
Three years ago, the departing triumvirate that ran the English National Opera produced a book commemorating their success in spearheading the so-called opera boom of the late Eighties.

With the supreme confidence that surrounded the ENO in those years, they entitled their book Powerhouse - the English National Opera Experience.

In their last paragraph, Messrs Peter Jonas (general director), Mark Elder (music director) and David Pountney (director of productions) proclaimed their certainty of a rosy future for the company they were leaving.

They wrote: "The company now has the enormous psychological buzz of owning its own theatre and this raises great prospects for it to be developed into the kind of friendly, accessible and popular home for culture that Lilian Baylis would have loved. It has an exciting and innovative new team at its head."

This week that exciting and innovative new team was cut in half. Sian Edwards, the young music director quit suddenly, refusing to add to a bland five- line farewell statement, leaving most commentators to speculate that three years of decidedly mixed reviews was cause enough for her departure.

And behind the scenes, the ENO was considering leaving that "friendly, accessible and popular home for culture". The dream, if not in tatters, is certainly looking ragged.

What has gone wrong since those days of the Jonas regime when opera was said to have found a young audience, when its time shift productions either delighted (Rigoletto set among the New York mafia) or scandalised (a special mention for the critic who called one production "the chainsaw Mazeppa")?

Jonas was succeeded by Dennis Marks, a man who came from the BBC where he had achieved much as a producer televising opera. But he was new to running a national company.

To the surprise of many, he decided not to renew the post of director of productions - even though it was the visual side of ENO, the production concepts, that had largely won it its young audience in recent years. He axed that post, and the board appointed as music director Sian Edwards, in her early thirties and with relatively little operatic experience.

It was a high-risk strategy. As Graeme Kay, editor of Opera Now, said this week: "Her appointment was a trendy appointment, a rather facile appeal to the youth culture. This was not her fault, but it did mean she had to learn how to be a music director of a national company on the job, while Dennis Marks was also learning how to run an opera company."

Attendances in Marks's first year loitered at around 60 per cent at first; production after production received poor reviews. And then, in February of this year, a committee set up by the Arts Council and headed by Tate Gallery chairman Dennis Stevenson wrote that the ENO should reduce its programme: "London contains a larger opera audience than can be satisfied by one house, but not enough for two."

The ENO, which had drawn up a lottery bid to redevelop the Coliseum, bought for it by the Government in 1992, is now changing its mind and might move into a new home, perhaps in a theatre yet to be built at London's King's Cross.

Amid all the flak from critics and officialdom, relationships between Marks and his young protegee became increasingly strained. One of them had to go - and she did. A replacement will be appointed in January, with Richard Hickox, who runs the City of London festival, among the favourites.

That is one way of reading the saga that is "The Trouble at the ENO". But there is a radically different version of the story. This would have it that the damage was done long before Marks and Edwards arrived on the scene. This version opens with the charge that in its last couple of years, the Jonas administration let things slide rather. It bequeathed to Dennis Marks an unhealthy deficit of pounds 3.1m. The repertoire of Marks's first season, which got low attendances, was commissioned by the Jonas team. Added to that, the recession and the end of opera's flirtation with trendiness and the World Cup meant that audiences would decline.

Marks valiantly attempted to change the perception of ENO for the Nineties. He wanted it to be the place for the finest singing and musical achievement with, implicitly, less emphasis on production gimmicks.

Under his regime, audiences have, despite the recession, moved back up to over 80 per cent. Seat prices are cheaper than they were when he took over. He has increased the size of the roster of permanent principals to nurture British talent.

And the current production of Carmen, conducted, ironically enough, by Sian Edwards for its opening performances, has become the ENO's most successful production ever and has taken pounds 1m at the box-office.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between these two versions. Certainly Marks did not inherit a bed of roses at ENO. He had a deficit to contend with, and audiences were declining. Also, he was right to see that the ENO's house-style of the Eighties, exciting as it was, had become a cliche. A radical rethink was needed.

Nevertheless, Marks has made mistakes. His plans for redeveloping the Coliseum included painting the blue auditorium red, and changing every seat cover to restore it to its Edwardian original. As it happens, the original was a music-hall not an opera house, and such a change would be a waste of lottery money.

At the first night of Life with an Idiot earlier this year, satire turned into farce. A faulty stage truck was being given an oil-change when the curtain was meant to rise. When it did rise a bath was lowered from the flies and left hanging in mid-air.

Close observers point to low morale in the company and the lack of firm leadership. They point to the contrast between the bullying but charismatic Peter Jonas and the likeable but not always decisive Marks. Sian Edwards - "bubbly, great fun and very able" in the words of one friend - was simply too young to take on the role given to her.

The fault may be neither party's. Some close to the company point the finger at a board that is split on many matters.

The ENO has a devotedly loyal audience; it has raised pounds 500,000 for the company in individual donations. But that audience needs a clearer perception of just what the ENO stands for now.

The challenge for Dennis Marks is to give the company a sense of purpose, stability, and a house-style that continues to bring a new audience to opera. An exciting production style is likely to rank in importance with the quality of singing for this audience.

He could also start to give the ENO a new identity by concentrating on the "N" in its title. To have both our national opera companies based in London for the entire year is an insult to the taxpayers who fund them. The Arts Council should help by giving the ENO a touring grant.

Sian Edwards, meanwhile, can hone her craft as a guest conductor without the distractions of helping to run a company in transition. And Dennis Marks should ease that transition by appointing experienced lieutenants, re-emphasising a distinctive production style and articulating a philosophy for the ENO's uniqueness.