Arts Council England recently declined to offer English National Opera (ENO) a place in its next national portfolio of funded organisations. Instead, we proposed a package for it to relocate and reimagine itself outside London. We have been accused lately of crimes including vandalism and metrophobia, by everyone from Andrew Marr to Melvyn Bragg, David Pountney and Simon Schama (although Londoners may note that London’s arts institutions will continue to receive £152m a year – a third of Arts Council funding). Contrary to many reports, we have not sounded a death knell for the opera company.
We know that alongside its acclaimed repertoire of operas, ENO also has a great education programme connecting primary and secondary schoolchildren with opera, and it has created innovative programmes such as ENO Breathe, a wellbeing initiative for people recovering from the effects of Covid-19. We want to support a bright, if different, future for ENO and help develop opera as an art form.
The Arts Council is committed to ensuring that everyone, everywhere can enjoy the best creative and cultural activity in their home city or neighbourhood. For this round of funding decisions, we were asked by government to address the historical unfairness in the balance of funding between London and the rest of the country. The need for us to move money to the rest of the country and refresh the portfolio across London meant we were faced with invidious choices. We had to make difficult decisions that resulted in cherished organisations that we have funded for many years no longer being funded this time round. However, it also means that new organisations, new artists and new places will benefit for the first time from our investment.
I know the ENO decision seems stark. I know nothing can take away the pain of the artists, performers, technical teams and audiences who love the company and its home at the Coliseum. But if we consider the future of opera and classical music more generally, it is clear some things must change. There will always be a place for the grand opera currently staged by the ENO, Royal Opera House (ROH), Opera North, Glyndebourne and other “country house” opera companies: the swelling overtures, glorious sets, rousing choruses and breathtaking arias create an overwhelming, eternal sense of awe. But the Arts Council also needs to be focused on the future of opera. A new generation of audiences is embracing opera and music theatre presented in new ways: opera in car parks, opera in pubs, opera on your tablet. New ideas may seem heretic to traditionalists, but fresh thinking helps the art form reimagine itself and remain exciting and meaningful to future generations of audiences and artists.
Amid the thunderclaps last week you would be forgiven for missing that, as well as reducing our investment in some grand opera, the Arts Council has increased its support for the grassroots of opera and boosted funding for classical music more generally. For example, we’ve given more money to English Touring Opera and Birmingham Opera Company. We continue to support National Opera Studio and British Youth Opera, and we’ve started to fund some new and exciting organisations for the first time. This includes Brixton-based Pegasus Opera Company, which produces high-quality performances that provide opportunities for artists from African and Asian heritage, and promotes opera among underserved and culturally diverse communities. OperaUpClose, another new joiner, is based in Southampton and offers a groundbreaking programme of work for children, young people and new audiences. More prosaically, we remain committed to funding opera. It will still receive £30m a year from the Arts Council; that’s 40% of our overall music investment. Any further funding for ENO is on top of this.
We believe we’ve put a good proposal on the table for ENO if it wishes to retain public funding. This is not – as has been reported – to move lock, stock and barrel to Manchester by next April. Rather we have a set of propositions to work through carefully over the next three years. First, find a new home outside London, while retaining the management of the Coliseum. Second, the company needs to come up with a new artistic model, which would mean looking at anything from the type and scale of work it does, to the platforms it uses to deliver work, through to the audiences it seeks to reach. Finally, we will fund all that change at a suitable level over a sensible three-year time period. That funding proposal includes £1m a month for a full year to restructure. Then there is more investment on top, £10m, to completely reimagine and relocate the company. And like other companies, it will have a chance to apply for further funding from April 2026.
A new ENO would not operate in the same way as today. The company has a history as an innovator that has always brought new people and a new approach to opera. A new chapter may still be a just a flicker in the mind’s eye of ENO – perhaps something exciting and adventurous that caters to new audiences. It would stand apart from ROH and Opera North, each brilliant in its own right, and do something different.
Under our leadership, the Arts Council will always embrace opera, even if we support it in a variety of new ways. We believe in it and we want to secure its future. Our ask is that ENO, and other opera companies with pioneering track records, come together and invent a future for new audiences. This decision may have come as a shock, but now we must embrace the shock of the new.
Darren Henley is chief executive of Arts Council England
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