Leading Article: Not quite everyone needs opera

LAUNCHING English National Opera's new season yesterday, Dennis Marks, its general director designate, said the company was entering 'a period of renewal'. It was a nicely chosen phrase. The triumvirate that enabled the ENO to spearhead the opera boom of the Eighties is being replaced by a new team. Not all the productions of classics that delighted and shocked (not necessarily at the same time) when first shown in the Eighties have worn well. Reaction against them, coupled with the recession, has aggravated the company's financial difficulties, helping to create a burdensome deficit.

For the ENO to regain the loyalty of its fans, the new team must embark on a phased renewal of much of its core repertoire. To judge by yesterday's announcements, the emphasis initially will be on popular works. From the financial viewpoint, that makes sense.

The challenge to the company will be to invest these classics with fresh meaning in productions that will not date too quickly. Lately there has been a reaction against what is sometimes called 'concept' opera, in which the action is transposed into an unexpected, often identifiably contemporary era, or appears to take place in a largely abstract setting. At some ENO productions, such as David Pountney's of Verdi's Macbeth, one has had to close one's eyes to enjoy the performance. The new team must find ways of surprising audiences without alienating them.

Happily, the ENO's recent difficulties have been balanced by the emergence of the Royal Opera House from a dark period in which little seemed to go right. That success was symbolised by its monopoly of opera nominations for the recent Olivier Awards. At a lower price level, its success and acclaim have been matched by Welsh National Opera and Opera North. The first two in particular have built up large followings on their tours of provincial cities, with the Welsh company attracting Continental producers and conductors of the calibre of Peter Stein and Pierre Boulez.

Opera may be inspiring less hype than it did in the boom years, which featured Pavarotti in the Park, Nessun Dorma topping the charts, the wildly popular three tenors concert in Rome, Ada, Carmen and Tosca at Earl's Court, and a vogue for arias in television commercials. In the late, unlamented recession, the ENO's posters proclaiming that 'Everyone Needs Opera' seemed to mock beggars in London's Underground system while being disproved by the company's deficit. Broadly speaking, opera remains under-funded. But there can be little doubt that once the recovery is under way, it will continue its remarkable onward march in the nation's affections.