World’s greatest opera houses defend under-fire English National Opera boss John Berry

Last month Arts Council England threatened to withdraw ENO’s public funding because of 'serious concerns' over its business plan

Nick Clark
Monday 09 March 2015 01:06
John Berry, artistic director of the English National Opera
John Berry, artistic director of the English National Opera

Heads of the world’s most prestigious opera companies, including La Scala and the Met, have condemned attacks on the English National Opera (ENO), saying that London’s status as a cultural centre would be threatened by any potential closure.

The opera world was stunned last month by the news that Arts Council England had threatened to withdraw ENO’s public funding because of “serious concerns” over its business plan. This followed a very public spat at the top of the organisation and the departure of its chairman.

After the Arts Council took the unprecedented step of putting the institution into special funding arrangements, the global opera scene has rallied behind what it described as “one of the UK’s greatest cultural ambassadors”.

In a letter seen by The Independent, 33 signatories from some of the world’s biggest opera houses and festivals – from Russia to the US and across western Europe – said they were “alarmed” by the questions that had arisen about the ENO and its artistic director John Berry.

Acclaimed opera figures Valery Gergiev, of the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, Peter Gelb, of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and Alexander Pereira, of Teatro alla Scala in Milan, said they stood “together in support of [Mr Berry] and his notable achievements”, adding that he should be “applauded not criticised” for trying to keep opera fresh.

“At a time when it has helped to further embellish London’s reputation as a leading centre of cultural creativity,” the letter continued, “it doesn’t seem fair for the ENO to now be under fire.” Other signatories included Bernard Foccroulle, director of Festival d’Aix-en-Provence and the Paris National Opera’s Stéphane Lissner.

“It is not the fault of the ENO that it is suffering from the same financial woes that many international opera companies are facing,” the letter said. “Under Berry’s strong 10-year leadership, the ENO is today regarded as one of the most creative forces in opera.”

The ENO, which traces its roots to the 19th century, has become increasingly valued internationally. By the end of this season alone, 18 ENO co-productions will have travelled to eight countries and 17 different opera houses from New York to Perth.

Despite the ENO’s former chairman claiming the company had lost £10m under Mr Berry’s watch – the ENO disputes that figure – opera leaders said international co-productions had saved it “millions of pounds”.

The ex-chairman Martyn Rose left last month after clashing with Mr Berry, followed soon after by executive director Henriette Götz. Mr Rose had demanded the board sack the artistic director “for the very survival” of the ENO, in a letter that was leaked.

Following the senior management shake-up, Althea Efunshile, acting chief executive of the Arts Council, said the funding body had “serious concerns about their governance and business model”.

The Arts Council will now fund the ENO for just two, rather than three, years if it fails to hit targets.

It has also been dropped as a national portfolio organisation, meaning it would not have access to further public funding if it fails to satisfy the Arts Council by the two-year deadline.

A former ENO insider said at the time of the row that the organisation “is like an opera, it’s so dysfunctional”.

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