Savage critics stifle opera, says ENO chief

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The Independent Culture

Opera in London is too conservative compared to Berlin and Paris productions, and is stuck "in a bit of a box", the artistic director of the English National Opera says.

John Berry said many film directors were discouraged from working in opera because the art form is "polarised" in the UK, and new work is often given a savage reception. As part of the ENO's 2008-09 season, unveiled yesterday, the actress Fiona Shaw is making her opera directorial debut with Riders to the Sea, a new production of Ralph Vaughan Williams's work set in the Aran Islands, which will mark the 50th anniversary of the composer's death.

The ENO is also planning to revive Madam Butterfly as a tribute to the film director Anthony Minghella, who died last month. In 2005, Minghella made his first foray into opera direction with Puccini's masterpiece.

Mr Berry believes Shaw and Minghella were unusual in that many creative people turn down the opportunity to work in opera because they fear it will be too difficult.

Mr Berry said: "With opera, it could be said it still feels it's polarised. Film directors feel it's in a bit of a box. A lot of film directors I've spoken to feel opera on the whole, especially in London, is quite conservative. I think things are quite conservative in London. If you go to Berlin or Paris there are less conservative productions. Film-makers feel that in London to go into opera would constrain them."

He added: "A lot of directors new to the art form turn it down. They're well aware how tough it is to succeed in opera. It's really tough, it's a really complicated art form. That's why Anthony Minghella was so brave – not only to come into opera, but to choose a very famous piece. If a director doesn't have a real inner confidence, you know you're in trouble from the beginning.

"The film industry is tough, but all of the film directors I've spoken to can't believe how tough and savage the opera world can be. It stops a lot of very fine artists from coming in."

Mr Berry said the ENO provides a supportive environment for directors. "We can create an environment where directors worried about all sorts of aspects of creating opera can take a jump and have a go," he said.

His ENO, which for many years has been in the doldrums both critically and financially, seems finally to have turned a corner. Ticket sales, which once straggled at just above 70 per cent, rose to 82 per cent in 2007-08, and the opera company is confident it will show a trading surplus of £1m for the past financial year.

In the past 12 months, Lucia di Lammermoor enjoyed the highest ticket sales for a "bel canto" opera in the ENO's history, Aida sold out and even Sally Potter's Carmen, another interpretation by a film director, achieved 90 per cent ticket sales despite mixed reviews.

The 2008-09 season includes 10 new productions, including a new version of Cosi fan tutte by the Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami, which will premiere at the Festival d'Art Lyrique in Aix-en-Provence, and the UK premiere of John Adams's political opera Doctor Atomic. Jonathan Miller is also returning to the ENO with a new production of La Bohème.

To celebrate the 350th anniversary of the birth of the great English baroque composer Henry Purcell, the ENO has commissioned Katie Mitchell to create a musical theatre piece based on his opera Dido and Aeneas, which will be shown as part of a continuation of a collaboration between the ENO and the Young Vic theatre.

Under the leadership of Mr Berry, the new young music director Ed Gardner and the executive director Loretta Tomasi, the ENO has also struck up profitable international partnerships, including a close relationship with New York's Metropolitan Opera.