Around the same time that I joined English National Opera as its music director in 2015, a £5m reduction in the company’s Arts Council grant generated a heated debate as to how that shortfall should be met. There were many of us who argued that the loss of income could be absorbed by making creative changes that maintained the quality and quantity of operas performed.
The ENO board however, followed the advice of management consultants from McKinsey who believed that the easiest way to solve the problem was simply to perform opera less often. The dramatic decline in the number of operas produced, alongside a reduction in the contracts of many of the singers, was a choice that was always going to make it hard to justify maintaining full-time public funding in the future. The idea that you could expect the same amount of taxpayers’ money for doing less of the kind of work that required it was clearly problematic.
When the leadership of an arts organisation gives the impression that it has no faith in the importance of the work it produces, it is hardly surprising that people come to negative conclusions about its identity and value. Thousands of opera lovers had the foresight at the time to recognise the longer-term consequences of the changes and signed a petition to save ENO. Those who took that stand are unlikely to be surprised by the decisions that Arts Council England published last week that meant ENO will lose its £12.6m core annual funding.
The fact that this outcome was predicted doesn’t make the reality of it any less heartbreaking, nor less dangerous for the cultural landscape of the country.
Opera is squeezed by those on the left who think it is elitist and those on the right who do not believe it should be supported by government at all. The notion that it is a glamorous and frivolous entertainment for the social and cultural elite may be a convenient stereotype, but for those who have experienced it, nothing could be further from the truth.
The vast majority of operas address subjects both real and relevant. Love and death, religion and sex, power, friendship and betrayal are fundamental concerns of the human condition and to hear them expressed through the elemental voices of music and drama is to make connections that we desperately need to maintain. Humanity has always needed stories. We thrive on them, we connect through them, we remember with them, and learn from them. Visionary opera companies give us the opportunity to keep reimagining ancient themes in contemporary ways. ENO has, at times, been one of those companies, and can be so again if given the right opportunity.
ENO owns the London Coliseum, but how much money can be raised by selling the building is a question shrouded in a legal quagmire of Dickensian proportions. Nevertheless, assuming the board sees its duty of care as being to the people of ENO and its audience (recent history would suggest that’s quite a big assumption), it should not abdicate that responsibility by pandering to the easy commercial revenue opportunities of the building. Instead, it should use the money from selling it to fund a new state-of-the-art-space, specifically designed for the exciting demands of what a 21st-century opera company could mean for a capital city as diverse and vibrant as London. I used to believe, perhaps rather sentimentally, in the value of ENO staying at the Coliseum, but landscapes change.
As magnificent as the building is, it is not as important as the work that goes on within its walls. A second lyric theatre in London would thrive if – unlike the Coliseum – it were devised from the very start with its own identity in mind, one constantly relevant to its time, place, and purpose – a space in which tradition and innovation would sit side by side, and where creative excellence would be a source of national pride.
The argument that ENO in its current form deserves government funding has been fought and seemingly lost but this does not diminish the strength of the view that a global capital city as large as London needs more than one full-time opera company.
Would the likes of Berlin, Paris, and Vienna have three opera houses each if opera did not play a vital role in contemporary society? The loss of ENO is not just a loss for opera lovers in London, it is a loss for the artistic significance of the whole city, a city whose 9 million inhabitants want to remain proud of their home’s creative role on an international stage.
I have no doubt that the Royal Opera House is dismayed by the current travails of ENO. There is hardly a singer in the world for whom working at their country’s “second house” has not been a vital career step, while the vast majority of audiences new to opera begin at a local level. For decades, ENO has provided the roots that allow operatic achievement to flourish throughout the country. A front door to opera that has always welcomed new singers, conductors, composers, directors, designers, and technicians must remain open. Above all, there must be a first port of call for all who have yet to discover opera’s transformative power.
What do we want our capital city to sound like? The government seems to be happy with silence. Maybe the former culture secretary Nadine Dorries misheard her brief and assumed the C in ACE stood for “cancel” not “council”. But just because the government has embraced the concept of levelling down so successfully when it comes to ministerial reshuffles, we must not accept a similar process inflicted on the country as a whole. We live in challenging times. We do not have the time to wait for less challenging ones. There is not less money in the world, it has just been redistributed. And I do believe that among the winners of our times, whether they be private individuals or commercial companies, there are those who understand how essential creativity is to society and who can be encouraged to be part of protecting us all from our government’s ignorant and shortsighted cultural vandalism.
I know first-hand that those who work at ENO are among the most talented, inspiring, and creative people any organisation would be proud to employ. They have an irreplaceable combination of experience and expertise. It cannot be an option for that level of hard-earned artistry to be disbanded, nor for the audience that has embraced it with such passion and loyalty to be so dismissively denied and betrayed. All who want London to keep singing should say so now and grasp this opportunity to protect and promote the heart and soul of an artistic force that changes lives for the better.