The English National Opera is looking for a new leader after its artistic director, John Berry, announced that he is stepping down – leaving a legacy of critical success but financial and managerial turmoil.
Mr Berry said his “work is done” at the organisation after the ENO announced he is to quit after eight years in the post. “The decision feels right to leave at the end of a hugely successful season both from an artistic perspective and in terms of audience numbers,” he said.
His reign proved hugely divisive. Supporters lamented the loss of a visionary artistic director who saw the ENO punch above its weight, while detractors expressed a wish that his successor would be easier to work with. Critics claim his mismanagement has cost the organisation’s finances dear.
Cultural commentator Norman Lebrecht, who owns the classical music website Slipped Disc, said Berry’s departure was “miserable” news. “John had ideas, vision, ambition and imagination. What he’s achieved on limited resources has been phenomenal.”
“The big nights over the past eight years were right up there with the big nights of any of the world’s great opera houses.” In March, the heads of the most prestigious opera houses in the world signed a public letter supporting Berry’s vision and hailing the ENO as a “showcase for talent and innovation”.
The ENO’s creative work, especially over the past year, has been hailed by critics. Highlights have included The Mastersingers of Nuremberg and The Girl of the Golden West. But behind the scenes, there was turmoil.
One former board member told The Independent: “He was divisive. Artistically he was passionate and some of his shows were praised. But maybe he should have thought less artistically and more commercially. It’s about time he went, it has cost an enormous amount of goodwill between the ENO and the Arts Council.”
In February, Arts Council England took the unprecedented step of removing the ENO from its national portfolio of organisations and placed it under “special funding arrangements”.
The funding body cited “serious concerns” over the ENO’s business plan, and will fund the organisation for two years, rather than the previously announced three, if it fails to hit targets.
Management is currently working with the Arts Council to return to national portfolio status yet relations with the funding body and Mr Berry remained spiky.
The Arts Council stepped in following uncertainty over the management of the organisation. In January, the ENO chairman, Martyn Rose, quit after falling out with Mr Berry. The executive director, Henriette Götz, left days later, after further disagreements with the artistic director.
Mr Rose had sent a letter to president Sir Vernon Ellis calling for Mr Berry’s dismissal “for the very survival” of the ENO. The former chairman said yesterday that it was the “right decision” for the organisation “which I have long believed was in need of fresh artistic vision”.
“He has contributed to the turmoil, no question,” Mr Lebrecht said. “He has his flaws and he’s not easy to get on with. To an extent he’s the author of his own downfall. It’s a shame there wasn’t a chair and a board that couldn’t make it work.” Mr Berry leaves with immediate effect after 20 years at the company and said he would decide his next role over the summer.
A source close to the director said the departure was “amicable” adding: “The role will probably need someone used to dealing with bureaucracy and working with the Arts Council. They will also need to be used to dealing with smaller budgets.”
Yet, Mr Lebrecht fears for the organisation. “It is in a terrible situation. There is an acting chairman, an acting chief executive, no artistic director, an incoming chief conductor,” he said. “They’ve been decapitated and it looks bleak.”
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