Opera lovers unite to demand resignation of ENO chairman

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The Independent Culture

The chairman of the troubled English National Opera company will be formally challenged to resign today in an open letter to the board signed by some of Britain's most distinguished musicians and artists.

David Pountney, who triumphantly co-ran the ENO in the 1980s, the tenor Philip Langridge, the composer Jonathan Dove and the writer Jeanette Winterson are calling for the chairman, Martin Smith, to be replaced just as the Prince of Wales is due to attend a gala performance of Anthony Minghella's Madam Butterfly tonight.

In their letter, the signatories point out how Prince Charles's visit to the ENO's home at the Coliseum, to raise funds for the Prince's Trust, is taking place "against a background of widespread criticism of chairman Martin Smith". They continue: "He has lost the confidence not only of the world of opera, but of stakeholders at large. Mr Smith's style of chairmanship, we believe, has been most damaging to this important institution and has brought about a crisis point. Sadly, the very survival of ENO is now openly questioned and an urgent change of leadership is necessary to ensure a better future."

Privately, the despair and bafflement felt by many in the opera world about the fate of the company is being expressed in much stronger terms. Many cannot understand how a board including Nicholas Kenyon, who runs the Proms, Lesley Garrett, the opera singer, and businessmen such as Peter Bazalgette and the chartered accountant John Nelson, are still backing their chairman.

The latest crisis began with the abrupt departure of Sean Doran, the chief executive and artistic director, who Mr Smith appointed less than two years ago after ousting his predecessor, Nicholas Payne. Mr Doran was immediately replaced from existing staff, with Loretta Tomasi made chief executive, and John Berry named artistic director - in clear breach of Arts Council guidance that posts should be advertised.

With a deficit said to be about £1m and technical staff currently balloting on industrial action over pay, the ensuing row has plunged the company back into turmoil less than two years after it had to be bailed out of bankruptcy by the Arts Council.

Philip Langridge said they were not writing the letter to be awkward. " But I think Martin Smith has made so many mistakes. It's not an easy situation for them to be in, I understand that, but we really care about the ENO," the tenor said.

Mr Pountney said the record of the board was "extremely poor" and questioned the practice of bringing in people from business to control artistic companies. "It's very peculiar to get together these big chiefs of industry who have been used to running their own show and they're there to be a non-executive board," he said.

"The role [of chairman] requires a certain grace and bully-boy businessmen are not going to be ideal candidates to run a non-executive board. It's not in their nature to be hands-off."

Mr Smith, a banker who has given his own money towards the ENO, is also an amateur conductor. He has insisted the board acted to preserve stability. But one of the criticisms levelled against him is that he has been too hands-on. But Mr Pountney said: "The last thing the company needs is another bout of instability and speculation. A new chairman should be put in place and consideration should be given as to whether the situation is regularised."

Another informed observer said the only sensible course was for Loretta Tomasi and John Berry to admit proper procedures were not followed and that they were interim appointments. But to steady the ship, a period of six months to a year should be set before the posts were advertised and filled permanently.

Possible contenders have been named, including the director Richard Jones, possibly in conjunction with Grange Park Opera founder Wasfi Kani, the trio Martin Duncan, Steven Pimlott and Ruth Mackenzie, who have just stepped down from the Chichester Festival, and Graham Vick, of Birmingham Opera, who was a contender last time.

One source said the most gloomy theory was that the Arts Council would allow the company to go into liquidation, forcing out the chairman and allowing the company to be rebuilt from scratch. Though the Arts Council insists it cannot make decisions for the ENO management, it, too, has come under fire.

Mr Pountney said: "I think the Arts Council is a very enfeebled body and I don't think Martin Smith would have been allowed to get away with what he has done if the Arts Council were a much more vigorous and authoritative body."

Other signatories included Libby Purves, the broadcaster, and Ashley Page, the artistic director of Scottish Ballet.

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