Why we should say farewell to the ENO

Wave goodbye to the ENO, redistribute its millions, and you will see an encumbered art form bloom

7 February 2015

9:00 AM

7 February 2015

9:00 AM

It’s easy to forget what a mess of an art form opera once was. For its first 100 years it had no name, it had no fixed address, it didn’t really know who it was or what it was doing. You’d find it at schools, at weddings, at political functions. It was an artistic whore for hire. Embroiled in an epic tug-of-war as to which of the three art forms — word, music or dance — should be primary, it was also lithe and experimental. In fact, it was more like performance art than anything you’ll witness in a modern opera house.

Why this historical detour? To remind us not to despair over the possible demise of the English National Opera (which has lost two of the more capable members of its senior team in the past week and whose receipts have taken a nosedive). Opera is a durable beast. It doesn’t need opera houses. It doesn’t need opera companies. It doesn’t even need subsidies to survive. Some of its most heroic moments have been in the leanest years. Think of the flourishing of Purcell at the art form’s dawn or the arrival of Britten’s Peter Grimes a few weeks after the end of the second world war. At neither point did this country have a single fully functioning (let alone subsidised) opera house.

Besides, aren’t we supposed to love challenging establishment institutions in the arts? We should. All the great turning points in opera were ushered in by economically independent enterprises swooping in on the carcasses of sclerotic creative cartels. Without a visit from an entrepreneurial troupe of Italians to Paris in the 1750s, the comic revolution that swept aside a French state monopoly on what opera should look like (and paved the way for Gluck, Mozart and Rossini) might never have happened. Without Philip Glass’s risky commercial punt on his five-hour Einstein on the Beach (1976) — which saw the composer personally take on debts that he only paid off when he was in his 40s — post-war opera would be missing its greatest work.

This American masterpiece, by the way, when it finally received its UK première in 2012, was turned down by the ENO. I’m reliably told that the ENO knew the unionised chorus and orchestra wouldn’t give way to the specialist Philip Glass Ensemble, if it meant that the ENO orchestra and chorus would go unpaid for the duration of the residency. The production was instead snapped up by the Barbican Theatre — and sold out. Says it all really.

To an extent I feel for the ENO. It is hamstrung. Set up on 19th-century principles, the ENO is incapable of doing justice to contemporary opera, so much of which rejects the bread-and-butter set-up — chorus, proscenium arch, song.

Of the dozen or so new (or newish) operas I’ve seen over the past few months only one — Glass’s tidy, forgettable The Trial (2014) — was produced by an opera company. The most exciting, Salvatore Sciarrino’s Lohengrin (1982) and Simon Steen-Andersen’s Buenos Aires (2014), both received their UK staged premières courtesy of itinerant music ensembles performing at the ever-excellent Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.

Opera-house set-ups would have been silly for both. Not just because of the delicacy of their scores — Sciarrino’s is made up of the wispiest tendrils of sound — but because neither contains any real singing. (There is a precedent for this: the 18th-century German Melodram, a popular operatic sub-genre, substituted singing for speech.) Steen-Andersen’s ingenious investigation of why an art form as hemmed in and as ostensibly absurd as opera still has the power to move delivers two memorable climaxes: a reconstruction of a Rossini quartet sung through electronic voice boxes and a love duet for two golf balls played out on a remote-controlled mixer.

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s operatic fragment ‘M.2062’ at the Fondation Louis Vuitton

But why not angle our lenses even wider. If early opera was performance art, might not performance art be opera? Consider opera as Gesamtkunstwerk — as an act of accounting how we see, as well as how we hear and how we think — and the art gallery is about the only place where opera is really taking place today. Witness the shape-shifting work of Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster or Jimmy Merris and you will see the true inheritors of early operatic experimentalism. They talk a lot about opera in the art world. If only the opera world would listen.

That said, there is one firm believer in the operatic tradition of the 19th century, who 20 years ago wrote a masterpiece for it. And that’s James MacMillan, whose gothic tragedy Ines de Castro (1996) just finished its run at the Scottish Opera. But MacMillan is the exception that proves the rule. Very few others have faith in the past like MacMillan. And even fewer have the ability to meld tradition with modernity. Complex percussive landscapes — a bewitching wash of flexatones and thundersheets, mark trees and tom-toms — sit side by side with thuggish brass fanfares and counterpointed chant.

So let’s wave goodbye to the ENO. Redistribute its millions, Arts Council, and you will see an encumbered art form bloom.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

An earlier version of this article said that the 'unionised' ENO chorus and orchestra would not 'give way' to the Philip Glass Ensemble 'even for a week'. We accept that the decision not to host the Philip Glass Ensemble was made by the ENO management team, not the ENO orchestra, chorus or trade unions. We are happy to clarify the matter.

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  • Guest

    I will deal with the argument of this article once the author has tidied up the numerous factual and conceptual errors embedded in this “historical detours”.

  • Barbara Eichner

    I will deal with the argument of this article once the author has tidied
    up the numerous factual and conceptual errors embedded in his
    “historical detours”.

  • Zoltán Hootenanny Smith

    Not sure about the argument ‘cut funds to encourage the art form’. Maybe that might have some effect if the money actually went to other opera outlets, but it is more likely it would disappear completely.

  • Dominic Stafford Uglow

    To paraphrase: Its easy to forget what a mess The Spectator once was. For it’s first few decades, it was distributed in coffee houses, it’s founders, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, earning no money from its composition and publication; but doing so in order to get political preferment. So we should not worry too much about The Spectator going to the wall and underpaid, or unpaid, journalism taking its place….

  • Peter Foggitt

    Are you seriously suggesting that MacMillan is the only remaining heir of the 19th century operatic tradition? Here’s a little list of operas for you to listen to: The Tempest (Ades), Written on Skin (Benjamin), The Devils of Loudun (Penderecki), Anna Nicole (Turnage), Gawain (Birtwistle), Taverner (Maxwell Davies). Off you go.

    The Spectator should be embarrassed to have printed such un-informed nonsense.

  • Henrietta Bredin

    Unfortunately this article is so replete with ignorant, erroneous and ill-founded opinions that it defies rational response.

  • Toby Spence

    The reasoning behind this opinion piece is flimsy and ignores many key factors; not least, the often frequent success ENO has in presenting new operas on a scale that could not be achieved by Huddersfield Festival let alone an itinerant music ensemble. I regularly work in the top opera companies of the world and believe I can say with considerably more authority than the author (who he?) of this poorly considered article that ENO represents something unique, special and adventurous within the art form in global terms. If we were to lose it we might never get it back and that would be a tragic loss for London.

    • Guest

      Let London pay for its upper class folly then, not the nation.

      • Guest

        Put your name to your comment otherwise it looks like you’re ashamed of your own opinion.

        • Andrew Ellis

          The irony.

      • IainRMuir

        In reality, it probably does.

    • Andrew Ellis

      The ENO is about as adventurous as a can of Heinz Beans.

    • Miss Darkside

      Oh dear, poor London. Anyone would think that the rest of the UK simply doesn’t exist. Opera generally and the ENO specifically should be self-supporting like other branches of music.

      • Guest

        Why would I care about an opinion shot from the dark? Stand up and be counted or sit down and stay quiet.

      • IainRMuir

        Does that also apply to Opera North in Leeds, established originally as an offshoot of the ENO?

  • tina

    c’mon, everybody – just say it. What an incredibly negative article by an incredibly pompous git

  • tina

    It would be presumptuous to add to Toby’s comments, but he’s right, absolutely

  • Richard Burrows

    I went to a recent ENO production and realised that surtitles make English translations redundant. Why would you want to hear especially Italian opera in English now? And wasn’t opera in English a principal reason for the formation of the company?

  • David Nice

    How anyone within the classical music sphere could wish ENO good riddance defies belief. Toby Spence sets the record straight by pointing out that there are plenty of new works that couldn’t be done on a shoestring outside this company’s magnificent abilities. For every argument here there’s a counter: who brought us the world premiere staging of John Adams’s rich The Gospel According to the Other Mary only a couple of months ago. And I would remind Igor that he did write on The Arts Desk ‘Glass really is a load of old bollocks’ – a sentiment with which I heartily agree, though that’s beside the point.

    Anyway, last night’s Mastersingers is a total refutation of everything that’s written here. What is it, click-whoring, or what?

  • Peter Jonas

    The recent vicious shenanigans within the Board of ENO, its outgoing chairman and the Arts Council of England (ACE) have developed into a dangerous spinal disc herniation directed at John Berry, ENO’s artistic and (yes, that is what he really is)
    General Director. The press has jumped on this bandwagon careering out of
    control. Even Igor Toronyi-Lalic has dipped his quill into a puss mixed from
    gossip and factual error rather than the ink of serious polemic. This slur
    campaign hurts artists and all those working in the theatre. It is one thing to
    take brickbats from an unsatisfied audience on the chin quite another to be
    told that your artistic skills, talent, hard work and training should count for
    nothing in today’s or tomorrow’s world.

    Full-time opera companies producing adventurous and edgy interpretations do not fit into the muddy melange of a mid-Atlantic fudge between the US funding system, which hinders aesthetic adventure and risk, and the continental European system that rewards and requires innovation, controversy and ticket price accessibility as an essential part of the bargain.

    As the distinguished American Opera Director, David Alden, puts it: “ENO has been
    chronically under-funded for decades but cutting edge work always comes through
    due to dedicated overworked staff” How true! ENO, its trials, tribulations and
    triumphs, is about the people who make the performances happen: the dedicated
    stage staff, orchestra, chorus, soloists and support personnel. It is not about
    an unseated chairman with an axe to grind. As for John Berry, whose editorial
    decisions and tireless work have led to thrilling successes, a few honourable
    failures and the occasional stinker (under-par for the course), he is an
    “intendant” of talent, credibility, taste and energy all of which have gained
    him and the company admiration throughout Europe and even across the pond at the risk-averse, privately funded MET. That Berry might be stubborn and skilful on
    behalf of the company in the face of intrigues – well, these are attributes
    that Intendants are required to have. I was one for over 30 years in those
    three funding systems: Chicago, ENO and Munich, and stubbornness was demanded by my Board at ENO and by contract in Munich where I reported directly to the Minister responsible and there is a lesson to be learnt there.

    The ACE’s behaviour towards ENO has indeed been pusillanimous for years. To cut 29% (c. UKL 5 million) from a UKL 17 million investment in a company whose work it professes to admire while cutting a mere UKL 800K from the Royal Opera House (the wealthiest company in Europe after the Paris Opera judged by budgeted expenditure) is scandalous, irresponsible and can only mean one thing. The ACE is no longer the chosen advocate of ENO and is covertly seeking to reduce and dismantle it rather as one might abuse a wayward child and punish it because he or she is unusual, does not fit the agenda, the norm and makes life more complicated, in this case for bureaucrats . The ACE has outlived its usefulness and it is worth noting that even such complex artistic centres as Berlin (with a plethora of arts companies large and small including THREE opera houses)
    manages with direct funding administered by a very small public sector staff. And
    before anyone groans with the “Little Britain” refrain of “…but the Germans
    have so much money…” they should study the figures and the way expenditure in
    the public sector is tightly controlled in Berlin or Bavaria.

    As for ENO’s ousted chairman, Martyn Rose, his letter to ENO’s President and the
    leaking of it is scandalous. In my time at ENO (1985-93), I was lucky enough to serve under two chairmen: Lord Goodman, and then, my predecessor as General Director, Lord Harewood. Both were great men and great chairmen in every sense: generous, supportive, tough, awe-inspiring and totally committed to the principle of “the best for the most”. Most important they allowed and expected debate but never allowed such to descend into a slanging match. They defended and championed the company, its leaders and every single employee. It is the company after all that commissioned “Peter Grimes” from Benjamin Britten and gave its premiere as well as the company that introduced Philip Glass’ operas to the UK public not to mention a host of new work over the years. Names of opera companies change with time and their circumstance but their history should not be re-written. Toronyi-Lalic should be aware of that. Solidarity and support for the company is the Board’s job. That is the core of the principle of proper and wise
    governance that ENO’s Board must observe.

    Let us also be clear about the Coliseum itself. In my last half year as General Director at the start of 1993, I was given the task by the Board to buy the freehold of the building from the estate of Robert Holmes à Court who had just died. The price was UKL 12.5 m, even then considered a bargain. Our job was to raise the money from Government and other sources directly within three months without the ACGB who lifted not a finger of help. We achieved this plus a gift of UKL 1m from Gary Weston to invest in the building. Some maintain that the Coli is the
    company’s millstone. Indeed it is tough to fill 2,359 seats a night (The
    National Theatre in Munich where I was General Director for 14 years is the
    largest theatre in Germany with less than that, 2,101). When filled, however,
    it is the company’s biggest earner and secures potentially a huge supportive
    constituency for ENO. Loss of the building then, in 1993 would have meant
    instant insolvency. Without it now the company would be homeless and rootless.
    A homeless opera company cannot survive as a national opera. This is not about John Berry who I admire. It is about whether England wants to have a full time opera company of quality with a unique artistic thumbprint and the skills that go with that.

    On Saturday 7th February ENO mounted the first night of a new
    production of Wagner’s “The Mastersingers” in a production by Richard Jones
    celebrating his 25th anniversary of working with the company. I
    travelled the 700 km or so to be there and witnessed the company bring a packed
    Coliseum to its feet with adulation. During the last scene when all on stage
    sing and play the “Awake” chorus they performed this hymn to art as though
    their very lives depended on it. Realism has no place on the operatic stage but
    this moment of “ Realtheater” was intensely moving. Their lives really do
    depend on quelling this new campaign against one of the most admired opera
    companies of the world. Wake up London, wake up opera and arts lovers, for
    God’s sake wake up Board members of ENO, wake up Arts Council. Wake up to what you have in St Martin’s Lane. Support
    it, use it….but don’t lose it!

  • Rеiner Torheit

    Neocon ignorant tosh.