Lend us a tenor: What can be done about the ENO's lack of cash?

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Despite a consistently rewarding programme, the ENO ran up a £2.2m deficit in the last financial year. But there is a way forward, its artistic director, John Berry, tells Jessica Duchen: international collaboration.

John Berry, artistic director of English National Opera, is at his desk, soul-searching. Beside him are a number of strange-shaped objects made of glass or stainless steel: trophies scooped by the most go-ahead opera company in the UK, which in 2012 won every award in town.

Prizes, yes; money, no. Now the headlines are all about filthy lucre, or the lack of it.

The accounts for the 2011-12 financial year revealed that ENO had run up a £2.2m deficit. Of that, £1.3m is the amount by which Arts Council England reduced its grant. But audience figures for the period amounted to only 71 per cent. Has ENO perhaps been flying too close to the sun?

The amazing thing is that the company has been able to mount its trademark adventurous productions at all. ENO, which performs all its operas in English (except for Philip Glass's Sanskrit Satyagraha), functions on what is, by European standards, a threadbare public subsidy; its fundraising is increasing, but falls well short of the levels of comparable organisations in the US. Berry, though, has latched on to another way forward: international collaboration.

Since taking office in 2006, Berry – a tall, bearded northerner who radiates intensity and nervous energy – has built relationships with more than 20 leading opera houses around the world with which ENO can function as co-producers. In partnership, two or more companies share the costs of staging or commissioning an opera; each presents the result in turn. Thus they can deliver work that perhaps none of them could afford alone. The extra financial capability this has provided, Berry says, amounts to some £20m over the past five years.

So many of the individuals involved in these co-productions are British – they often collaborate with theatrical, design and dance organisations, such as Improbable, Punchdrunk and Fabulous Beast – that ENO has effectively become a crucial international showcase for British creative talent. Slashing funding to all this brings to mind an unfortunate combination of knives, faces and noses.

"Our international profile and brand now means that we're flying the flag for the British arts internationally," says Berry. "We're one of the biggest exporters of creative work in the UK. That £20m over five years is money we would have had to find elsewhere if we hadn't had partners, which would have been impossible. True, not everybody likes our work – but we've had something to say and we've really delivered."

ENO's joint efforts have meant that the work of top British directors like Richard Jones and Deborah Warner are being disseminated across the world. And it's not only directors. The video projection company 59 Productions started at ENO, providing work for a staging of Handel's Messiah, co-produced with Lyon Opera; they went on to work not only for the ENO co-commission with the Metropolitan Opera, New York, of Nico Muhly's opera Two Boys, but also for the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Improbable, the experimental theatre company, collaborated on Glass's Satyagraha, which sent its work to the Met, where it was rapturously received. Now the British novelist David Mitchell is writing the libretto for Sunken Garden, a new commission from Michel van der Aa, the Grawemeyer Award-winning composer; it will be given in April in a new collaboration at the Barbican and is co-commissioned by the Holland Festival, Toronto Luminato Festival and Lyon Opera. That's just for starters.

In return, ENO can bring the finest international efforts to London.

Next on the cards is Verdi's La Traviata, a co-production with Opera Graz in Austria directed by Peter Konwitschny: a figure of extraordinary standing in the opera world who has never created a production for London before. And in June, the company will present a newly commissioned opera by Philip Glass, The Perfect American, based on Peter Stephan Jungk's novel about the life of Walt Disney, in partnership with the Teatro Real, Madrid.

ENO's mission, under Berry's rule, involves surprise and experimentation, challenging audiences and attracting newcomers to a vital and thriving art form. It draws top-name directors from theatre and film to reinvigorate works familiar and unfamiliar. Above all, it takes risks. This doesn't always work, but it can be spectacular: nobody who saw it, for example, will forget Terry Gilliam's production of Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust in a hurry. Meanwhile, under music director Edward Gardner, the orchestra and chorus have reached new levels of excellence. That makes the financial situation all the more infuriating.

"Having ambition and delivering it can be very different things," Berry admits, "but it's nice to reflect that our work is absolutely everywhere: Munich, Berlin, New York, Brussels, Madrid. If I'd said five years ago that we were going to do that, no one would have believed me."

There's one problem with co-productions. Audience expectations vary enormously from country to country. So do types and levels of resources and the public's attitude towards them. The Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich receives lavish state funding and its audience expects to be challenged, believing that subsidy exists to support boundary-pushing work. But in most of the US, taste remains pretty traditional – even more so than in Britain. One size won't fit all. Some conservatively minded opera-goers tend to dismiss adventurous, director-led opera as "produceritis" or, sometimes, "Eurotrash".

Berry acknowledges that it is a tricky balancing act: "The relationship with Munich has been about choosing directors that we think can go over equally well in both cities. Dmitri Tcherniakov, for instance, is one of the great iconic directors in Europe." Tcherniakov directed a subtle, sharp-edged and updated production of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra which was bound to be more controversial here than in Germany. "I had to make a decision about whether we could handle that," says Berry. It opened at ENO in June 2011; some critics hailed it as "extraordinary", others as "pallid". At the opposite end of the spectrum was Glass's Satyagraha, with the Met: "That was never going to shock anyone. Improbable designed it in the most eloquent, beautiful way and we felt it was always going to work."

Rameau's Castor and Pollux in autumn 2011 was another matter: "That was one of the most defining productions in London for 20 years," declares Berry. It was directed by Barrie Kosky in a co-production with the Komische Oper Berlin and its core concept was to transform the Greek myth's literal descent into hell into a terrifying psychological equivalent. "I knew it would be perceived as a strong concept that not everybody would like," says Berry. "That was tough for London, because that sort of work just isn't seen here, not even in straight theatre.

"In Germany, it's what they expect. Again, I took a risk. It won an Olivier Award [for Best New Opera Production] and the last three performances were totally sold out."

Times have changed at a previously unimaginable rate. "In 2009 we sold out Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre. That wouldn't happen now. And with hindsight, I ask myself whether it was right to do The Passenger and Caligula." An unknown work by a relatively obscure composer, Mieczyslaw Weinberg, set partly in Auschwitz, The Passenger was a thorny prospect and required four international partners, spearheaded by David Pountney at the Bregenz Festival. Berry had faith in it and it opened the 2011-12 season – "but I couldn't sell it," he says, crestfallen. Caligula, a 2006 opera by Detlev Glanert about the rise and fall of the murderous dictator, likewise didn't pull the crowds.

The challenge may lie in persuading the public to spend money on seeing something it might not like.

ENO has been using its reserves of £2.6m to stay afloat – and Berry insists that the company is financially stable, since it accumulated those reserves during the boom years. "What we'd like to do, of course, is build those reserves up again."

Still, he says, he has no choice but to rebalance the programme: "Any productions for which we don't have partners now look vulnerable."

Ticket prices may be tweaked, some falling while others rise. And selling more seats is vital. ENO's home, the London Coliseum, is the biggest theatre in London, seating 2,358 people – so a 71 per cent house is equivalent to a capacity crowd somewhere smaller. Berry has already staged selected productions at the Young Vic and Sunken Garden will be a first collaboration with the Barbican. We can expect more such ventures.

Meanwhile, a long, hard examination of ENO's marketing and digital output is essential. It has had a propensity for clangers, such as an invitation to young opera-goers to dress down for the evening – in case they think it is "too posh" – though many already do. And a poster earlier this season showing a condom packet and captioned "Don Giovanni: Coming Soon" fell foul of public prudery. The company may be doing fabulous work, but it needs to consider how it puts its message across. As for digital developments, Berry says he has big ideas up his sleeve – but we will have to wait for them.

'La Traviata', London Coliseum, London WC2 (020 7845 9300) 2 February to 3 March

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans has been confirmed as the new host of Top Gear
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Top of the class: Iggy Azalea and the catchy ‘Fancy’
music
Arts and Entertainment
Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters performs at Suncorp Stadium on February 24, 2015 in Brisbane, Australia.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans had initially distanced himself from the possibility of taking the job

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
British author Matt Haig

books
Arts and Entertainment
Homeland star Damian Lewis is to play a British Secret Service agent in Susanna White's film adaptation of John le Carre's Our Kind of Traitor

Film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map
    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
    Paris Fashion Week

    Paris Fashion Week

    Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
    A year of the caliphate:

    Isis, a year of the caliphate

    Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
    Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

    Marks and Spencer

    Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
    'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

    'We haven't invaded France'

    Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
    Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

    Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

    The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
    7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

    Remembering 7/7 ten years on

    Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
    Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

    They’re here to help

    We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
    Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

    Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

    'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
    What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

    What exactly does 'one' mean?

    Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue