Covent Garden has never seen the like. Seething with a palpable anger, the entire chorus of the English National Opera (ENO) went on strike last night and decamped to the parish church where they gave a free performance of Verdi's Requiem.
The industrial action was a response to the demands of the ENO's management for the redundancies of 20 choristers, a third of the chorus. In a remarkable show of support, 400 opera-lovers packed the pews of St Paul's Church in Covent Garden, London, to hear the concert. More than a 100 others crammed into the entrance to the building. Outside on the steps, Jonathan Miller, the writer, critic and opera director, was among dozens more straining to listen.
Before the performance, David Dyer, a tenor, spoke to the audience on behalf of the chorus. "This act of cultural vandalism will rip the heart out of a great company,'' he said of the redundancy proposals.
Mr Dyer said Britain and London needed "a full-time, fully staffed, repertory company performing in English''. He said: "This is not a requiem for ENO. Not yet. It's a wake-up call that demands to be heard.''
The chorus had been scheduled to give a performance of Berlioz's The Trojans – The Capture of Troy but the ENO's management was forced to cancel when the choristers pulled out. The vicar, Mark Oakley, said he was very proud to have the chorus perform in a building that is commonly referred to as the "actors' church''. He said: "It has a long tradition of trying to support and inspire hope for performers in difficult times.''
Ian McGarry, the general secretary of the trade union Equity, compared the achievement of the chorus in organising the free concert to the failure of the ENO management to properly organise its financial affairs. Martin Smith, chairman of the ENO, has insisted on job losses despite a recent emergency grant of £4.2m from the Arts Council. Mr McGarry said the choristers would have preferred to perform last night at the Coliseum but had been given no option but to strike. They felt "angry and betrayed'', he said. Equity believes that, after redundancy payments and hiring freelancers, ENO will save only £115,000 from the cuts; its turnover is more than £30m.
Among the audience last night was Michael Casey, who has recently retired after 43 years with the first violins in the ENO orchestra. He said: "The management are seeking to break down the backbone of the company, the people that produce the goods."
Peter Gale had travelled from Radlett, near St Albans. He said of the ENO management: "They don't need to waste money on lavish productions. We go for the singing.''
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