ENO looks to the future to banish woes of its turbulent recent past

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It has faced debt, disaster and downpours but yesterday English National Opera embarked on an attempt to shrug off the past two years of turmoil.

It has faced debt, disaster and downpours but yesterday English National Opera embarked on an attempt to shrug off the past two years of turmoil.

Having fended off bankruptcy and survived delays in reopening after a £41m refurbishment, the much-troubled ENO will be hoping the black clouds that wrecked last year's scheduled show in Trafalgar Square have been finally banished.

Sean Doran, its artistic director, emerged to face down the ENO's critics by announcing a new vision which will put 400 years of English opera from Purcell onwards at the heart of its programme.

Benjamin Britten is to be considered the "house composer" with one production every season, starting with Billy Budd followed by the ENO's first staging of Death in Venice.

And there will be a renewed focus on finding and developing young British singers as well as welcoming back stars such as Felicity Lott who have not worked at the London Coliseum for some time.

Mr Doran, who outlined his vision for the future of the company in an interview with The Independent, said he had spent the 18 months since his appointment considering what each of the words in the company's name meant. "What does it mean to be English? What does it mean to be national?"

Although singing in the language of its audience was a founding principle of the company, the ENO had to be about more than that, he said. "Articulating our point of difference as just being language was not good enough. The ENO is where English artists should get their international platform. And at the core of our work will be the operas of our own culture. But we won't be exclusive."

Singing in English has sometimes been regarded as a deterrent to attracting big-name international performers, because some are unwilling to learn a role in English solely for the ENO. But Mr Doran said he hoped to create such a buzz that this problem would be overcome, partly by being more imaginative about translations. He suggested, for instance, that he would like the Israeli writer Amos Oz to translate Schoenberg's work Aaron and Moses.

And he even hinted at the possibility of having some operas performed in the language in which they were written. "I have a commitment to [singing in English] but I don't believe in any sacred cows."

The 2005-06 season, sponsored by Sky and Artsworld, includes the operatic directing debuts of Anthony Minghella, the director of films such as The English Patient, and Antonia Bird, whose work includes the television film The Hamburg Cell. Steve Chandra Savale, of Asian Dub Foundation, is writing a new work for the ENO on Colonel Gaddafi of Libya.

The season will open with a controversial work by Gerald Barry inspired by Fassbinder's play, later made into a film, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, a story of lesbian love.

About half the operas in the season were written in English. They include Sir John in Love by Vaughan Williams which has not been staged professionally since the ENO premiered the work nearly 50 ago.

"Vaughan Williams is the striking example of neglect in opera houses. But pre-1970s, there wasn't much Handel around either, and now he's a house favourite," Mr Doran said.

Mark Morris, the American dancer, will direct and choreograph a production of King Arthur by Purcell, which the ENO has never staged before. It will place ballet at the core of the work as it would have originally been performed.

Mr Doran rejected suggestions that these were scatter-gun, headline-grabbing ventures, insisting they were part of a move to bring opera into the 21st century with contemporary writers on contemporary issues as well as in collaborations with talents from other art forms.

There was nothing new in this, he said, pointing to Britten's own interest in the music of other cultures and in working in other media such as film. "The 20th century has happened. Other voices and other cultures have come to the fore - and there are sophisticated and learned voices, such as Asian Dub Foundation, writing this music," he said.

Donald Mitchell, who was Britten's publisher, said it seemed "a historic moment", when many of the ideas with which Britten himself had struggled in his life finally looked set to be fulfilled through the ENO.

"He would be absolutely delighted to be chosen as house composer. It would have given him great pleasure, but what would have given him even greater pleasure was this vision for the future," Mr Mitchell said.

One final highlight of the next season will be the return of the conductor Charles Mackerras who started work with the company 60 years ago as a second oboe player and will mark his 80th birthday with the first new production of Janacek's The Makropulos Case at the ENO since 1982.