David Lister: A bravura performance marred by a suggestion of financial melodrama

Wednesday 29 January 2003 01:00
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On Saturday I challenged the chairman of the crisis-ridden English National Opera to explain publicly what was happening at the company, and why he had had to beg the Arts Council for £10m extra cash.

I did not expect an answer to my challenge so quickly. But yesterday Martin Smith, the banker hired to put the ENO on a sound financial footing, gave the first press conference in his eight months at the helm.

What a telling sight it was. Once the public face of the English National Opera was its artistic powerhouse, be it the Jonas/Pountney/Elder trinity or a man with opera in his blood, such as Nicholas Payne.

Yesterday there was Mr Smith, flanked by Caroline Felton, the financial whizz brought in to help him make cuts, such as the proposed third of the chorus, and at the corner of the table, sitting uneasily, the once ebullient Paul Daniel, the company's hugely respected music director.

This is the new pecking order of governance at the ENO, and it is indicative of the new dominance of chairmen in our national arts companies. But one and a half cheers for Mr Smith. He has at least shown himself at last and expounded on his philosophy for the ENO.

His counterpart at the Royal Shakespeare Company has not so far deigned to give a press conference on the on-off abolition of the main theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. The chairman of the National Theatre did not make an appearance to present its annual report.

But back to Mr Smith. Alas, the businessman in charge of the budget for eight months since Mr Payne's departure had a sorry story to tell, or half tell. The company "would have died", he said, and faced going into receivership. It is still set for a £4m deficit and had gone to the Arts Council for a sum "nearer to £10m than £15m". Perish the thought he should specify how much extra taxpayers' money he wants. Let me help: it's £12m. What is behind this state of affairs?

Mr Smith takes the apocalyptic route. "The world economy is in terrible shape ... and opera companies are not immune," he said. The world economy does not seem to have ravaged the budgets of the National Theatre or indeed the Royal Opera House, both in good shape. Mr Smith also blames the ENO's troubled recent history. I have another challenge for Mr Smith: could he produce the figures for 1998-99 and 1999-2000? I believe they show surpluses. Would the company really have died? It's dramatic stuff – and a familiar refrain. The Royal Opera House also got a lifeline a few years ago when its chairman claimed it was near bankruptcy. The Government would not have allowed the ENO to die, but it should still point out that a prudent chairman should have foreseen this "bankruptcy", managed the budget better, and not have waited until "death" was just hours away.

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