It has entranced its audiences with scenes of passion, tension and intrigue in the finest of operatic traditions. But yesterday the increasingly tragic drama at the London Coliseum spilt over into public acrimony as the chairman of English National Opera stood down.
The millionaire financier Martin Smith announced his much called-for resignation as he simultaneously delivered a vitriolic broadside against the media and members of the arts establishment. In a letter to ENO board members ahead of yesterday's board meeting of the troubled company, Mr Smith, 62, said he had been the victim of a "vigorous" campaign. He will be replaced by the vice-chairman, Vernon Ellis, while the board searches for a successor.
Despite the crescendo of voices demanding that he go, sources at the company suggested Mr Smith had been digging in his heels, hoping he could tough it out until the end of the season next summer.
In his resignation letter, Mr Smith accused the media of neglecting his achievements at ENO and of acting with "persistent hostility" towards him.
He added: "This has provided a continuously unpleasant and unhelpful background to our efforts to rebuild ENO and, since we announced our latest management changes three weeks ago, the intensity, inaccuracy and personal nature of the attacks have all escalated substantially."
Crisis gripped the company following Mr Smith's invitation in November for the artistic director and chief executive, Sean Doran, to stand down. He outraged the chairman of the Arts Council of England, Sir Christopher Frayling, by appointing his successors internally without a formal process. Sir Christopher said the board had accepted his resignation "in the best interests of the company".
Mr Doran's sacking followed two other high-profile departures. The artistic director, Nicholas Payne, was forced out in 2002, while the music director, Paul Daniel, left in June. One of the first challenges facing Mr Smith's successor will be formally to advertise the posts held by the chief executive, Loretta Tomasi, and the artistic director, John Berry, sources said.
In addition to the revolving management door, the company is also beset with industrial relations problems. It is facing possible strike action by technicians, production and front-of-house staff that could result in the halting of productions in January. Staff have already dismissed a 2.77 per cent pay offer as "hopelessly inadequate".
The ENO is already in the grip of a cash crisis, narrowly averting bankruptcy by securing a £10m rescue package from the Arts Council in 2003. The three-year deal lapses in April 2006. The council will also review the company's annual grant of £16.5m in 2007.
Mr Smith was appointed chairman in 2001 and was invited to continue for a second term in March. He admitted that the past four years had "not been easy" and that he now found himself in a "bizarre situation".
He said: "The company is in the best shape that it has been in for many years ... we are artistically at the top of our form ... yet the media together with certain members of the arts community, virtually none of whom has ever met me or shown any interest in doing so, are campaigning with restless vigour to force me to step down."
Last week, some of Britain's most distinguished musicians and artists challenged Mr Smith to do just that. Among them was the former ENO chief David Pountney, the tenor Philip Langridge, the composer Jonathan Dove and the author Jeanette Winterson. They claimed the chairman had lost the confidence of the opera world.
However, ENO's autumn season, which included Madame Butterfly and Billy Budd, was a critical and popular success. ENO reports that audience numbers are up 43 per cent on the previous year with attendance levels at Madame Butterfly reaching 98 per cent.
A major drain on the company's energy has been the recent £18m restoration of its home at the Coliseum. But it was completed on budget and on time, and in November ENO renewed its £1.95m sponsorship deal with Sky and Artsworld.
Martin Smith's resignation letter
The following is an extract from the letter from Martin Smith to the board of English National Opera
These past four years have not been easy. However they have been a period of extraordinary achievement at ENO of which I believe we should all be very proud.
Regrettably, for most of my chairmanship, the media's interest in the company ... has focused obsessively on the management issues, with persistent hostility towards the board, and in particular to me. This has provided a continuously unpleasant and unhelpful background to our efforts to rebuild ENO, and since we announced our latest management changes three weeks ago, the intensity, inaccuracy and personal nature of these attacks have all escalated substantially.
I find myself in a bizarre situation. The company is in the best shape that it has been in for many years. Its underlying operating platform is hugely improved, we are artistically at the top of our form with box office and development income rapidly rising, and I believe we now have in place the best management team that the company has had in my time as chairman. Yet the media together with certain members of the arts community, virtually none of whom has ever met me or shown any interest in doing so, are campaigning with relentless vigour to force me to step down.
... Sadly, it is clear now that my ability to continue helping ENO in future has been damaged by a campaign against me and that, however unjust I may feel this to be, a point has been reached where I feel it would no longer serve the best interests of ENO for me to continue in office ...Reuse content