It ends in Bitter Tears - turmoil at ENO as chief stages departure

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The Independent Culture

He has wowed audiences with a sumptuous production of Puccini's Madam Butterfly directed by Anthony Minghella, and infuriated traditionalists by introducing English surtitles, a performance of Wagner at the Glastonbury Festival and the programming of popular musicals such as Leonard Bernstein's On The Town.

Yesterday the tensions that simmered throughout Sean Doran's three-year tenure at the helm of the troubled English National Opera ended abruptly, with his departure announced at the end of the current season.

The controversial Irishman, virtually unknown to opera aficionados when he secured the second-biggest job in British opera in 2003, will act as artistic consultant for the remainder of the season.

Doran said: "While I am sad to be leaving, I am proud of what I have achieved. I have greatly enjoyed my time at ENO and leave it in a much stronger position than when I joined."

But his swift departure raises questions. The company has been bailed out of financial chaos by the Arts Council twice since 1999, suffered the indignity of a late reopening of its home at the Coliseum after refurbishment, and has been bedevilled by internal bitching, epitomised by the decision of a senior executive to publicly boo the final performance by the outgoing music director Paul Daniel.

But in recent months, reports of internal discontent over the management of the company had increased, with Doran in the firing line. One source said: "He doesn't have the experience and he doesn't know how to plan a season."

After discussions at the board meeting earlier this month, Vernon Ellis, its deputy chairman, had been in the Coliseum observing the day-to-day workings of the company. He met Doran last week. It is understood there were further discussions involving Martin Smith, board chairman, before Doran indicated his intention to leave on Friday.

It is hoped that stability will be assured by leaving John Berry, the company's respected director of opera programming, confirmed as artistic director, with Loretta Tomasi, the executive director who was formerly managing director of Really Useful Theatres, the new chief executive. Last night, Smith and Tomasi paid tribute to Doran's "inspiration and vision".

There were rumblings of discontent as soon as Doran was chosen in 2003 to succeed Nicholas Payne. Doran had formerly run the Belfast Festival and the Perth festival in Australia, but many considered him insufficiently knowledgeable to run a major opera institution receiving £16.5m of taxpayers' subsidy a year. As chief executive and artistic director, he was responsible for both its business and the artistic success.

For some, those fears were reconfirmed this year when he announced a new programme including a controversial opera about lesbian lust adapted from the Fassbinder film, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, and other little-performed works, such as Vaughan Williams' Sir John in Love, thought unlikely to draw the crowds.

Yet fans pointed to his willingness to attract new audiences with box-office hits such as On The Town, which he defended on the ground that no commercial company could have mounted it. Booking for the second run of the Minghella Butterfly next spring opened early after enormous demand.

Sky and artsworld have only just renewed the biggest corporate arts sponsorship deal in Britain with the company. After investing around £3m in the past three years, Sky is to plough a further £1.95m into ENO by 2009.

What happens now will be watched with a certain sense of déjà vu by fans sadly grown accustomed to turmoil.

Two years ago, ENO was given £10m to stave off bankruptcy and put in an Arts Council-run stabilisation programme. The company was due to report back to the Arts Council on its finances at the end of this financial year in March. Whatever the plain figures, its fortunes certainly looked gloomy yesterday.