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ENO’s choice: Sack him, or suck it

January 30, 2015 by norman lebrecht

13 comments.


Two resignations in a week at English National Opera – the chairman and chief executive – have brought the figure of artistic director John Berry into sharp focus.

 

 

john berry

It is no secret that the Arts Council has been been demanding his head, in exchange for a £7.5 million sweetener. They accuse Berry of financial profligacy, if not illiteracy.

It is no secret, either, that the ENO board has split down the middle on his merits. The business side of the table are alarmed by persistent losses of around a million pounds a year. Berry contests that figure.

His supporters on the board claim – rightly – that he has given the company higher status on the world stage than any boss in its history. ENO, through Berry, has become a feeder house for the Met, Munich Amsterdam and more. He is a key creative figure at the summits of the opera world, able to call in the cream of Europe’s directors and to instal Peter Sellars as a resident artist.

In a boardroom shootout, Berry’s supporters have won – for the time being.

His opponents still think they can topple him.

But Berry has ENO over a barrel. Keep him, and the turbulence will continue. Expect further departures. The company’s media chief (a former Arts Council official) has vanished into thin air. The atmosphere is not great.

Sack him, however, and the company will vanish into a vortex of nonentity. International houses and artists will withdraw ther favours.

John Berry is ENO’s ideas bank. Without him, the Coliseum is just an expensive piece of real estate. Contrary to most boardroom leaks, I expect him to survive. The Arts Council, whose conduct through the past year has been pusillanimous, will pay up regardless. They cannot be seen to be organising a putsch at a client institution.

Our money’s on John Berry for the immediate future.

 


Comments (13)

  1. Violachick says:

    Berry may have some good ideas, but he also has some truly abysmal ones – remember the ill-judged Kismet? Apparently he scheduled that on the basis that (his words) “he once played second clarinet in a production of it, and really enjoyed it.”

    He certainly seems to have some useful relationships internationally, but he’s hardly irreplaceable in that respect. Surely the bottom line is that if he can’t organise his artistic ideas sufficiently from a commercial point of view (i.e. to contain further losses) then he needs – at the very least – to be reined in by the board, or preferably to have a boss to whom he must report on budgetary matters. Tomasi was far from perfect in this regard, but at least she kept him in check. The decision to allow him full control of a company that he’s patently unqualified (from a business perspective) to lead was a disastrously large failing by the ENO board at the time.

    It’s not remotely feasible that he will miraculously acquire a business brain, and on this basis alone he ought to be stripped of this part of his current role immediately, based on the clear evidence of continued losses and consistently commercially poor decisions. He manoeuvered his way into the Chairman/Chief Exec role on Tomasi’s exit – his patent lack of qualifications for the business side of it are simply being played out at the company’s cost. It’s an abject lesson of arrogance over competence.

    Also, it’s being widely reported by his supporters on the board that the books are balanced, but it’s my understanding that this has largely been achieved by selling off some rather lucrative real estate – not a trick they can repeat to bail themselves out again.

    1. Violachick says:

      “He manoeuvered his way into the Chairman/Chief Exec role on Tomasi’s exit” – apologies – I really meant to refer to him effectively having the Chief Exec role here, i.e. being in charge of the company and reporting only to the board. Previously he reported into Tomasi as Chief Exec and she was ultimately responsible for business orientated decision-making. It seems madness to have created a scenario where the roles are reversed and Götz reported into Berry. It can hardly be a surprise to the board that the losses have continued, given this arrangement.

  2. Justin Chapman says:

    “Sack him, however, and the company will vanish into a vortex of nonentity. International houses and artists will withdraw ther favours.”

    Um, and this wildly implausible statement is based on what exactly?

    1. Brian says:

      Justin, I was just about to take issue with that very statement on the same grounds but you already have. It is completely untenable. And when it comes to artistic directors, “there’s lots of good fish in the sea.”

  3. Paul Joschak says:

    Berry is a weaselly buffoon who has royally pissed off many an artist and many will be glad to see the back of him. “Vortex of nonentity” – do us a favour!! The only nonentity is Berry himself.

  4. Nigel says:

    “His supporters on the board claim – rightly – that he has given the company higher status on the world stage than any boss in its history.”

    In its history? Berry’s supporters seem to have conveniently forgotten Lord Harewood and Peter Jonas, both of whom gave ENO a far higher status on the world stage than Berry could dream of.

  5. Has been says:

    Comparisons are silly and odious as there is no objective measure. Both Jonas and Harwood brought many great evening to the ENO as has John Berry. Both Jonas and Harewood had their financial crisis and their share of artistic failures. It is only fair to mention Berry’s evenings like Billy Budd and Otello if you are going to bring up Kismet.

  6. Anonymous says:

    The Billy Budd came from Welsh National Opera, I think; but you should certainly put in the new Peter Grimes and Satyagraha…

  7. Violachick says:

    Agreed (and I believe I did concede that he had made some good artistic decisions). However, my understanding is that insufficient financial controls are put around the artistic decisions at ENO.

    For example, in business you would expect to have to make a commercial case for a new product (or operatic production in this instance) which balanced both known and potentially unseen costs as well as some contingency against critical risks coming to pass, against likely profit. There is little point putting on long runs of operas with limited appeal to audiences in the vain hope of recouping the production costs, when each performance just increases those costs. Similarly, shorter runs of sell-out operas might well enable the management to increase ticket prices for those occasions due to the higher demand, but they also miss a whole raft of sales to potential punters who then can’t buy tickets, and would have killed for them.

    You’d hope, given the public money pumped into ENO, that there would be sufficient due diligence performed around product management, market research and the building of reliable cost models. These things really aren’t rocket science, and are considered the BASIS for commercial management in most other industries. They are the kind of business techniques Tomasi would have known about (though whether she successfully implemented them during her tenure is a moot point), and precisely the kind of things that Berry both doesn’t know about / understand, and doesn’t value.

    ENO is a fabulous company, and I’m a big fan of it. They very definitely add huge value to the cultural scene in London, and while they clearly can’t challenge the Opera House on enormous production budget and international singers/conductors, they frequently outstrip them on performance thrill and orchestral/choral performance. It is a truly tragic waste of such passionate, committed resources to have such a criminally over-promoted numpty at the helm of the company.

  8. Violachick says:

    PS If I was Chair of the board. I’d be actively looking to source and recruit a new board member who has well-established contacts amongst what you charmingly refer to as the “summits of the opera world”, and who could do some pre-emptive stakeholder management among ENO’s contacts there. Again – it would be far from rocket science to get this issue resolved.

    One of the key tenets of the commercial world is that no one should be inexpendable – in many cases that’s the prime reason for people working hard and maintaining quality standards in what they deliver, etc. It’s also – in very commercial environments – often the only thing that keeps people relatively honest.

    If the board allow Berry to think of himself and/or continue to hold any element of inexpendability then they ought to be sacked as well!

  9. Has been says:

    Violachick ! If you want to be taken seriously you should refrain from the name calling and personal insults. It totally vitiates your argument and credibility. You just sound like an uninformed person with a grudge !!

    1. Violachick says:

      What? Just for calling him a numpty?! I think that’s pretty mild in the circumstances. I don’t see that you can really seriously argue about him being over-promoted on the business side, given the current scenario at ENO. And what on earth makes you think I’m uninformed? Finally, I have no grudge – I just don’t want to see a fantastic company flailing about like this. Recruitment of the right people into the right jobs really isn’t so difficult.

  10. david alden says:

    The ENO has been chronically under-funded for decades, but the cutting edge work has somehow always come through, due to the dedicated, over-worked, under-paid staff. In the last decade John Berry’s vision has led the company in an era equal to the fabled Jonas days. Obviously not all the experiments work but it has been unpredictable and exciting and, yes, the world watches and learns from this company. It is time to stop the petty name-calling and face the facts: John Berry has pushed the envelope and dared to produce edgy and thrilling work. Now it is time for those who hold the purse strings to fund the company properly so it is not always on the edge of financial collapse.


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