Last week was, frankly, grim. Having run English National Opera for the past five years, to be given less than 24 hours’ notice that our 100-year-old company must up sticks from London to Manchester, with a small relocation allowance to help us to do so, was galling. Particularly when it quickly became apparent that no audience analysis had been conducted.
However, what has been even stranger to witness are some of the baffling narratives originating from Arts Council England (ACE) in response to our shock, as seen in a recent opinion piece in the Guardian. The first of these is that large-scale opera has shown no growth – a point that has never been raised prior to this announcement, either with me or any of my other colleagues across opera. If the data exists, I would love to see it – or perhaps it was collected during the lockdowns of recent years? Additionally, why single out an organisation that has spent the past three years entirely focused on audience growth and future-proofing the audience, with our free tickets for under-21s and heavily discounted tickets for under-35s. Since September, 6000 tickets have been claimed through these schemes.
It has also been claimed that opera needs to adapt. All art forms adapt and move with the times, which is why during the pandemic we put on a drive-in opera (in a car park) with beatbox performers and breakdancers. We worked with Netflix to create a TikTok opera (to 17 million viewers). And we participated in Comic Relief for two years running. Our colleagues at the Royal Opera House recently did a Kurt Cobain operaand Welsh National Opera is currently touring Migrations, telling stories about the historic movement of people until the present day.
It is also bizarre to suggest audiences only want opera in intimate settings, rather than in large venues such as ours at the Coliseum. There are organisations already doing this brilliantly – Opera Up Close, for instance, which we have been proud to work with in the past. But where is the data to prove that this is solely what audiences want? And if that is indeed the case, then why remove funding from Glyndebourne’s touring operation that does just that?
Other suggestions have been made that this is about levelling up. But under this proposal the out-of-London version of ENO would receive less funding than its current form. So not only might people get a lower-quality product, we will also have to stop funding projects like ENO Breathe which is now available across the UK in 85 NHS trusts, or work with about 15,000 children in schools across the country every year. And it would stop us from being able to keep our ticket prices low, allowing young people to come free of charge and remain competitively priced for those over 21. We risk becoming exactly what they don’t want us to be – an organisation for the local elite who can afford to pay £300 for a ticket. This is not what ENO stands for.
We hope to meet the Arts Council this week and achieve clarity on exactly what it wants from us. If we don’t lift and shift the company then, on the budget ACE is suggesting, the only thing we can do is make the orchestra chorus and technical teams redundant. And if that’s not decimating ENO I don’t know what it is.
The petition to save ENO has now been signed by more than 40,000 people, from opera companies in the UK and across the world, to politicians on both sides of the house, and from young to old people. This is because thousands upon thousands of people see ENO for what it is – one of the many unique and remarkable success stories of British culture, whose sole aim – of bringing opera to everyone – is continually being reimagined for generation after generation after generation.
The Arts Council has made a howling mistake, and the sooner it corrects it, the better.
Stuart Murphy is chief executive of English National Opera
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