Nightmare at the Opera: Or, Massacre at the Coliseum. An ENO tragedy in three acts

Featuring a bewildered cast, noises off, much falling on swords and a lot of histrionics. A David Randall and Anthony Barnes production
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The Independent Culture

If the English National Opera wanted a real sure-fire box-office winner this year, it could do a lot worse than commission an opera based on events within its own company.

Since the music director Paul Daniel resigned, with cat-calls from another senior executive ringing in his ears, events have taken on a life of their own. The artistic director has gone, and a Greek chorus of the great and good penned a letter of open revolt aimed at the chairman. He duly resigned in December. Then 94 per cent of the staff voted last week to strike. Yes, if it's strife you want at the opera, then the Coliseum is the place to go - and you don't need opera glasses.

We present, therefore, the synopsis of "A Nightmare at the English Opera" - a potential tragedy in three acts:

OVERTURE

Dark and foreboding notes swell from the pit. Then the orchestra stops talking and starts playing. Their melody begins buoyantly enough, but then a wailing oboe signals the events of 2002, when the ENO's current crisis really started.

ACT ONE

The curtain rises on a scene of an avant-garde bacchanal, in the midst of which is the master of these revels, artistic director Nicholas Payne. He is popular and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of his subject, but suffers stinging criticism for his choice of ultra-modern - and occasionally salacious - productions that struggle at the box office.

Enter, without ceremony, chairman Martin Smith, who banishes Payne and puts a stop to these fun and games. There follows a lengthy search for Payne's replacement. All kinds of curious places are searched by a frantic chorus, until the new man enters, to a perky jig: affable Irishman Sean Doran. His is an unexpected entrance: he has no experience of guiding a permanent organisation, let alone an opera house. His nackground is in festivals, most recently the Perth Arts Festival.

Noises off signal the critics' disapproval of Doran, particularly as many of the big names in opera havenot bothered to apply. The murmurs of discontent are taken up by the chorus and soloists who grumble that the place is sliding disastrously under Doran's leadership. He rarely attends rehearsals and sits in his own red velvet-upholstered private box tucked at the back of the stalls for performances.

A masked company insider enters to sing: "He didn't seem to grasp the significance of being artistic director. There were jokes going round that he couldn't find his way to the dressing rooms. He couldn't be questioned on artistic matters because he didn't know the answers. He didn't regularly attend dress rehearsals."

As this chorus of dissatisfaction swells, a shadowy figure is seen at the back of the stage, flitting from person to person. It is ENO vice-chairman Vernon Ellis, sent in to monitor the feeling on the ground and view Doran's work, whose days are now numbered. He is given his marching orders in November. He has still not agreed a programme for the 2006/07 season, months after it should have been signed off.

The stage empties, yet the curtain does not fall. "Has something gone wrong?" calls a voice. "Yes," comes the answer. And only then do the tabs close.

ACT TWO

The curtain rises, to reveal the entire company. There is music. But they are not all singing from the same book. Some are not singing at all. They are shouting. Doran's post has now been split into two, Loretta Tomasi becoming chief executive and John Berry artistic director. But neither post has been advertised, against the advice of the Arts Council England, a major funder. A furious duet between Smith and the Arts Council ensues, as the off-stagecritics lament the actions of chairman Smith. Staff, unions and ENO sympathisers join the fray, as chorus members tear their hair and chant their disapproval of the actions of an organisation that receives £16.5m each year in public subsidy.

Novelist Jeanette Winterson, former ENO head David Pountney, broadcaster Libby Purves and others sing in counterpoint: "Mr Smith's style of chairmanship, we believe, has been most damaging to this important institution and has brought about a crisis point."

The management will not let these malcontents take centre-stage. A "management source", represented by a figure dressed in threadbare raiment, steps forward. "The board had to act quickly," he intones. "If there were interim managers there would be a situation where no one would be sure if the people in charge would still be there in another six months. There had to be continuity."

As this last phrase dies on his lips, the clamour for Smith to fall on his sword (and by now the props department is running out of such devices) crescendos. With a cry he grabs the weapon and runs himself through. He collapses, but as he tries to rise to his knees one last time, a messenger arrives to say that Oleg Caetani, the musical director whom Smith appointed as musical director, will not be joining the company after all. With no more resignations left to be announced, Smith expires.

The chorus of masked insiders steps forward again. "Here we have," they sing, "an opera company with no chairman, no music director and an artistic director and executive director who some people believe may have difficulty running the company."

They repeat this refrain several times before the lights go down, one by one. ENO's technical staff have voted for strike action over what they see as a "derisory" pay offer. Blackout.

ACT THREE

Broadcaster and writer Norman Lebrecht enters and, in a solo, confides that the mood within the company is "wretched". "It's a really glum scenario and it is not going to go away," he groans. "The staff feel they have been very badly led, and much as they want to put the past behind them, they don't know where to start. They are not going to get out of this without some sort of inquiry."

A deus ex machina, the chairman of the Culture Select Committee, John Whittingdale MP, finally descends. He and his parliamentary colleagues have discussed holding an investigation. "There is nothing planned at the moment," he confesses, "but I certainly don't rule it out."

Exeunt all, in confusion.

THE CAST

SEAN DORAN Stepped down as artistic director and chief executive of ENO, having come in 2003 from the Perth Arts Festival.

MARTIN SMITH Quit last month as ENO chairman after the latest furore. Many blame company crisis on his autocratic leadership.

VERNON ELLIS Deputy chairman of ENO who stepped in as acting chairman while a replacement is found for Martin Smith.

JOHN BERRY Joined ENO in 1995 as casting director, then director of programming. Artistic director since November.

OLEG CAETANI Conducted Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Withdrew from succeeding Paul Daniel as music director.

NICHOLAS KENYON Former music critic; BBC Proms director. A board member of the ENO, heads hunt for a new music director.

PAUL DANIEL Former music director and chief conductor who gave last performance in May after eight years with ENO.

NICHOLAS PAYNE Popular former artistic director sacked by Martin Smith in 2002 and succeeded by Sean Doran.

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