Arts: Paul Daniel: don't bring the curtain down on the ENO

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Paul Daniel is running the English National Opera at the most threatening moment in its history. In his first interview since taking over the helm, he tells David Lister why the company isn't ready to quit the Coliseum.

After tonight's premiere of Verdi's Falstaff, Paul Daniel, music director and acting artistic head of ENO, will come on stage and make a political speech. It will begin: "Ladies and gentlemen, you have seen tonight what it is that makes this company unique ..." He has been making that same speech after almost every performance for the past highly charged fortnight. He usually gets a thunderous ovation.

After several years of largely self-inflicted wounds, there is a buzz about the ENO again. Its audience figures are up, it is reacquainting itself with critical acclaim for standards of production and musical direction. It has dropped its deeply unpopular plan to apply for lottery money to leave the Coliseum and fund a new building outside the West End. And it has won lottery money to help pay off its deficit and make a fresh start financially.

And then along comes the Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, with a proposal that the ENO should leave the Coliseum and move into the Royal Opera House, which it would then have to share with both the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet.

The ENO's loyal followers and its loyal staff are appalled, fearing that a move to Covent Garden could lose it both its audience and its distinct identity - opera in English at reasonable prices (pounds 2.50 balcony to pounds 55 best stalls), nurturing home-grown talent, developing links with the community through much-praised education work, and championing new opera in its contemporary opera studio.

The Culture Secretary's proposals have to pass through Sir Richard Eyre's review committee, where they could still, in theory, be modified or even radically altered. But there is already a growing feeling of sympathy with the ENO, the feeling that they may have been dragged into the Government's determination to sort out Covent Garden, and may have been unjustly tarred with the same brush of managerial incompetence and profligacy - ironic when you consider that ENO has just had a massive vote of confidence in the form of a pounds 4.5m stabilisation award from the Arts Council.

And just at the time when the ENO needs a political streetfighter to lead its campaign to stay in its home, it finds itself without a general director following the resignation of Dennis Marks in September. And so the 39-year-old conductor Paul Daniel, who only arrived from Opera North in August, now finds himself in the bear pit of politics.

It sounds like a walkover for Mr Smith - until you meet Paul Daniel, and realise that the company, in its hour of need, has almost by accident found itself a most sincere and persuasive advocate and ambassador, with an honesty and openness that those more experienced in cultural politics tend sometimes to mislay over the years.

Paul Daniel is a tall, skinny enthusiast, his prematurely greying curls contradicted by a boyishly youthful face. He is hard to interrupt, so passionate is he in his championing of the ENO, where he began his operatic career back in 1982, before moving on to become music director first of Opera Factory in 1987 and then of Opera North, in Leeds, in 1990.

It must, I suggest, be odd to be thrust into such a political hotbed only weeks after returning to ENO as its new music director. "Yes, I don't do much music at the moment," he replies a little sadly, "and I'm not a politician. But something really interesting is happening. It's like in a war. What has hit me in the face with this company is the intensity of feeling within. The people here are all pulling together, though we don't actually know who we are fighting. The Treasury? No. Public taste? No. The Press? Certainly not. And absolutely certainly not Covent Garden. I'm determined this will not become a `them and us' situation. They need as much support as we can give them and vice versa."

Daniel, a newcomer to the rough-and-tumble and even sheer bad manners of politics, is still angry at the speed of the Smith announcement. "Our staff should not have woken up to hear me talking about it on the Today programme. That is not the way things should happen or people should be treated in the real world."

But now that he has digested the Smith proposal, he is intense and forthright in his dismissal of it. "The company is the most important thing. But if we go to Covent Garden, the company will be decimated. How do you identify with a company which is in a building for a bit, and in a caravan for the other bit, or indeed out of work? Our evidence will be that we need our base."

Yet, even giving proper evidence to the Eyre inquiry strikes him as requiring a leap of logic. "How can we comment on the Smith proposal? We don't know what is going to be in the new Covent Garden opera house. We haven't seen the plans. If they have got any sense, they will have made it work for the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet. There may not be things like sufficient office space for another company, orchestra rehearsal space, set storage, all manner of things. I've worked at the Royal Opera House and it's bad enough having to share it with the Royal Ballet. Ask Amsterdam what happens when you try to merge companies."

Merge? Isn't that the dreaded word everyone is avoiding, and Smith is positively ruling out? Again, Daniel is too honest to ignore its likelihood. "Of course some of the activities would merge. The box-office, for example. Our box-office staff are bursting with what this company stands for. But what happens when you've one batch of box-office people? You've lost one of your best lobbying groups."

The lobbying group for the ENO is likely to be a vociferous one. But it, like Daniel, has certain questions to answer. And he does not dodge them. First, there is Chris Smith's strongest argument: the lack of touring by supposedly national companies. Daniel admits: "It is a problem that the company is called English National Opera and is not seen to be national. But people forget two things. Opera North actually started out as English National Opera North and it fulfils that role. Also, it was the Arts Council that stopped ENO touring in the Eighties, so that there could be `spheres of influence' for small-scale companies."

Nevertheless he is clearly aware of the perceived anomaly and says that the company is exploring both touring and a short residency outside London.

Then there is the awkwardness for the ENO that, up until recently, its management was telling the world how much they wanted a new theatre and to get out of the Coliseum - the same Coliseum in which they are now so keen to remain and which their audiences so adore.

Thankfully, that particular piece of foolishness is now history. Daniel explains: "If you're offered the chance of having a study to see if you could do better, then you take that chance. Of course you take money to investigate a theatre where you could perform every single night of the year. But the new building is off the agenda. The Coliseum has enormous strengths, marvellous sightlines, and it's always acknowledged that it's the best from the audience's point of view."

There is also the not unpersuasive argument that the Coliseum would make an admirable national dance house. Daniel does not duck this. "First, I would say that the English National Ballet [who do a regular season at the Coliseum] has been ignored in all of this. ENB is important. A dance house is part of the delicate equation. We can use that. We can do things. If the dance season happens during Christmas weeks, that gives us the opportunity to do other things in other places."

It is a slightly guarded answer. But it would seem to suggest the possibility of a Coliseum housing the ENO but giving more weeks to dance.

Daniel also has to face the fact that the last music director (Sian Edwards) resigned with no explanation, as did the last general director - not a signal to the public of a wholly stable company. "Yes, I can see that," he answers. "But that makes my job doubly important, because I have got to stand up and fight for what I believe in."

I put to him one other problem. For all the talk of ENO identity, it seemed to have, with its radical, updated interpretations, a much more distinct identity in the Eighties, during the so-called "Power House" era of the Pountney/Elder/ Jonas regime. Daniel is bullish on that one. "OK, what was it? And how many productions can you name that made that identity? In fact, it lasted about four years, that period in which people knew they were on a roller-coaster ride."

And, he implies, our collective memory does play some tricks. "David Alden was nothing to do with the Power House regime. Rigoletto [Jonathan Miller's perennial New York mafia production] came out of George Harewood's regime. It's important to remember that this company had a much longer evolution. And actually there's a much stronger sense of people here knowing what they stand for than they did in the Eighties."

Even when he returns full-time to musical duties, Daniel is not looking for change for its own sake. "Musical standards here are very high. I think revolution is a very mediocre way of behaving," he says somewhat memorably.

He is adamant that he will not be applying for the vacant general director's post. He wants to concentrate on music direction when this crisis is over. Perhaps music and politics don't mix easily.

Now it is his turn to interrupt. "But music has always been political. Verdi was political. He emptied theatres."

Matthew Warchus's new ENO production of Verdi's `Falstaff' opens at 7.30pm tonight at the London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, WC2 (0171-632 8300)