Why bold ENO caught a cold: As once high-flying English National Opera faces a financial and artistic crisis, David Lister examines its record and interviews one of its leading sopranos

David Lister
Saturday 17 April 1993 23:02 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


'EVERYONE Needs Opera', according to posters all over the London Underground advertising English National Opera. It is a bizarre assertion at the best of times. Now, at the worst of times, it is almost hubristic.

ENO, the company whose dynamic reinterpretations of classical opera, allied to trendy design, aggressive corporate campaigns and (relatively) cheap prices, spearheaded the Eighties opera boom, seems to have fallen on hard times.

The company is in the worst financial crisis in its history. It has a deficit this year of pounds 1m and an accumulated debt of pounds 2.3m. Audience figures overall have fallen by 6 per cent, with some of the most adventurous productions doing among the worst: 60 per cent for Ken Russell's Princess Ida, and 41 per cent for Berg's Wozzeck, even though the latter received very good reviews.

To give ENO an extra twinge of doubt, the Royal Opera, with which was so often compared unfavourably to it in the last decade, is on an artistic roll. Tonight it will receive two Olivier Awards - for outstanding achievement in opera and best production. We know this because it has secured all eight nominations, and ENO, consequently, none.

The change in fortunes of the two companies prompts the question of whether it is a result of audiences returning to more conventional productions, or rather that the recession has meant that the new audiences of the Eighties can no longer afford to go.

Prices for ENO at the London Coliseum are much cheaper than at Covent Garden, but stalls seats at more than pounds 40 still constitute one of the most expensive nights out in London.

Peter Jonas, general director of ENO, puts the blame firmly on the recession and takes a revisionist view of one of the most overworked cultural phrases of the Eighties.

'I don't think there ever was an opera boom,' he says. 'You had a large growth in the Eighties when the economy was moving. A lot of that growth has been consolidated.

'We knew we were priced a little too high for our market and it would affect us. But I certainly don't think there's any movement away from adventurous opera productions or more interpretative opera productions. I believe that never again will the visual side of opera be taken any less seriously than it is now.

'Of course, when a recession comes the most adventurous work will suffer more than the comforting work because most people come to be comforted.'

Graeme Kay, editor of Opera Now, while largely accepting that the recession has stopped audiences taking risks, believes there are deeper reasons behind the fall-off in audiences than the lack of new technology in the box office. ENO, he believes, cannot absolve itself of all blame.

'Latterly I've felt that productions were not just controversial but showed a complete lapse of taste,' he says.

'Die Fledermaus was just plain tacky. The opera was completely submerged and overwhelmed by the design, chocolate-box hearts, flowers and kittens.

'Ken Russell's production of Gilbert and Sullivan's Princess Ida was cheap and nasty. It was done as a satire on the problems of the Royal family (with the Japanese taking over Buckingham Palace and turning it into a theme park) but it was an idea that was already passe.

'I think that recently they have actively been courting scandal rather than delivering interesting, experimental productions, which might attract controversy.

'And there has been a tendency for productions to develop in- jokes and self-parody, and that is deeply patronising to a loyal audience.'

At Covent Garden, musical standards have been improving over the past few years, with Jeremy Isaacs's determination to improve the chorus and bring in a roster of the best international conductors at last bearing fruit.

But for the mass of opera-

goers who cannot afford Covent Garden prices, and who still wish to see opera in English with an emphasis on the visual production style as well as the music, a healthy ENO is imperative.

Later this month, Dennis Marks, former head of music at the BBC, who takes over from Peter Jonas as general director in the summer, will announce his first season. The recession and the slight fall from grace of the company will leave him less scope to be daring than he might have wished.

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