Dark days as ENO gets a fright at the opera

Huge debts, dwindling audiences, grumbling unions, no director ? it all seems to be going wrong at the Coliseum, says Catherine Pepinster

Wednesday 15 January 2014 05:27

When Willard White took to the stage of the London Coliseum last year, the audience was held spellbound by his powerful performance as Field Marshal Kutozov in Prokoviev's War and Peace. But neither they nor the staff of the English National Opera would have thought how resonant his words would become. "When," he sang, as he prepared to order the retreat from Moscow, "shall we see an end to this terrible nightmare?"

The past weeks have indeed been the stuff of nightmare for the opera company. It has lost its general director, Nicholas Payne, amid rows over falling box-office revenues, widespread criticism of its artistic standards and questions over the future. Audiences have been averaging just 60 per cent this season, at a time when ENO needs to fill seats to cope with an alarming £500,000 deficit. So far it has failed to find its form, despite efforts to produce innovative interpretations of classic operas, as well as new work. Payne left just weeks after ENO's production of A Masked Ball was rubbished as a distortion of Verdi's masterpiece. One tenor walked out after refusing to appear naked in a production which included homosexual rape and opened with a dozen men sitting on lavatories.

The company is also due to leave its London home, the 2,300-seat Coliseum in St Martin's Lane, in the heart of the West End, while a £41m refurbishment takes place. ENO's chairman, Martin Smith, is thought to be considering using the Coliseum for ENO opera for just six months a year, so that it would no longer need permanent staff. Technicians – wig-makers, costumiers, lighting engineers, carpenters and electricians – would become casual workers. And the singers on the ENO's books would see their once-safe jobs disappear, too.

That would not only be a blow to the individual singers concerned, and the ENO audience, but to the world of opera. For the past 30 years, ENO has been a vital testing ground for opera in this country. Young singers have the security of a permanent position, a steady income and unbeatable experience. Its studio and education programme are invaluable. Young singers also get the chance to perform roles that at Covent Garden go to international stars.

Which is why the mere suggestion that ENO might dispense with its permanent chorus caused shock throughout the opera world last week. "It would be a devastating blow," said one agent. "There is nowhere else like it. Unlike in Germany, France and Italy, we have very little opera here. We do have plenty of conservatoires producing talented singers, yet there are very few places in Britain where they can perform."

"ENO plays a vital role in maintaining the health of opera in this country," said another. "Lengthy closure would be a catastrophe." And Raymond Gubbay, producer of opera spectaculars at the Royal Albert Hall, warned: "It's hugely important for the future of opera. Without it, you lose opera's bedrock."

How did ENO's troubles become this bad? Thirty years ago, it was extraordinarily successful, producing a magnificent staging of Wagner's Ring cycle, followed by similarly acclaimed modern productions under the triumvirate of David Pountney, Peter Jonas and Mark Elder during the Eighties. In the late Nineties, when Covent Garden was racked with crisis, ENO seemed by far the happier house around the corner. It might not have matched the Royal Opera for glamour, but it produced affordable, watchable opera which wowed the critics, too.

The Coliseum is not only its great asset but also its liability. The 1904 palace of varieties had never been intended as an opera house. Its backstage is too small, front-of-house facilities poor, and acoustics wanting. And, just as Covent Garden found, comprehensive refurbishment makes closure, albeit temporary, inevitable. And what has caused jitters among the staff of ENO is that closure may afford the chairman, Martin Smith, an opportunity to change the culture of the company.

He is believed to have ordered cuts of £700,000 and wants the company put on a more businesslike footing, including using it for more corporate entertainment. It would also mean making the place a receiving house for half the year. The technicians' union, Bectu, has already come out fighting, warning that a part-time ENO will mean it effectively ceases to exist. Nicholas Payne refuses to talk, but his hint in February that he would have no truck with closure, may explain the sudden resignation.

What of the future? Payne's job is being temporarily filled by Caroline Felton, a management consultant. There are vacancies at the top of ENO in finance, artistic direction and general management. Running the company in its straitened circumstances will be tough. Indeed, running any of our publicly funded arts organisations has become a near-impossible job. Ask any of those who have struggled at Covent Garden, the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company in recent years. Their financial taskmasters demand they not only produce popular shows, but also work that is artistically challenging.

One former director of such a company said: "A change has occurred in the last 10 years. We have become bedevilled with performance indicators, league tables and management reports. The top job is now all about being accountable."

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