Editorial: Why ENO need not fear ACE

The putsch ended today. For the past year, by pressure and poisoned whisper, Arts Council England has been trying to get rid of English National Opera’s director, John Berry, the source of ENO’s highest international stature. Some find Berry difficult, others impossible. ACE encouraged the board to sack him. It almost did, but Berry’s supporters prevailed and the ACE backed down today, guaranteeing the company’s new funding amid much muttering and unveiled threats to its future.

Nothing to worry about.

We remember a senior Arts Council official telling the ENO board she would shut down the company. Never happened.

We recall other attempts by the funding body to assert its nebulous authority. In vain. ACE was kicked out of the Royal Opera House boardroom more than a decade ago and not allowed to return. It was exposed for all to see as a paper tiger.

ENO has nothing to fear from dewlap claws. Officially, ENO has been given two years to convince the ACE of its viability but the landscape may look very different by then. There are political plans afoot to abolish the Culture Department (DCMS) and remove ACE to the purview of a larger, less intrusive organ of state. The pressure will shift. Under new lines of authority,  ACE will have more to fear for its survival than ENO. And rightly so.

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  • A paper by L R P Reavill [1] provides further comparison made with the Royal Opera House:

    “The level of tax-derived funding was not maintained against inflation during the 1980s. The Thatcher Conservative government was against public subsidy of the arts, and favoured support by private sponsorship on the American model. The ROH was required to accommodate a subsidy from government via the Arts Council which consistently decreased in real value year on year. This, together with increasing operating costs, required more sponsorship from commercial and charitable institutions” (Reavill, 520).

    The ROH’s own Chernobyl moment [2] came when it faced the true cost of the closure during its redevelopment: “The ROH was saved from insolvency at the eleventh hour by a massive injection of money by two of its major sponsors.” (Reavill, 523).

    This explains how ROH historically came to rely on less subsidy. Making an allusion to ROH, Charlotte Higgins has just bemoaned the ticket pricing for ENO’s current Wagner opera The Mastersingers of Nuremberg [3].

    However, if we follow the parallel with ROH via Reavill’s paper, we can understand the ticket price rise as history repeating. The ROH’s experience of decreased state support in the 1990s “required more sponsorship from commercial and charitable institutions. When this was insufficient to balance the budgets, an increase in seat prices was the only remaining option. Access to the ROH became more difficult for these potential customers without deep pockets, and made the operation appear as “elitist” and the province of the rich. After the General Election … the new administration pursued the same tight fiscal policy as its predecessor. Worse still, and totally irrationally, the new government complained about the “lack of access” which the ROH was displaying. There was much talk of “people’ opera”, provoking the then General Director of the ROH, Jeremy Isaacs, to comment ‘If the people want opera, the people will have to pay for it’ [4]. The costs of mounting opera and ballet productions are high, and if seat prices are to be maintained at a level which most people can afford, the subvention from public money must be substantial. This is the case in other countries such as France … Germany and Italy … Austria … and Denmark. Inadequate funding caused a number of financial crises at the ROH during the 1990s.” (Reavill, 520-521).

    Is ENO solely responsible for its crisis? Or are arts institutions periodically subjected to new conditions of existence which precipitate crisis?

    [1] Reavill, L.R.P, “Can Viable Systems Modelling Explain the Management Problems of London’s Royal Opera House?”: http://ceur-ws.org/Vol-72/083%20Reavill%20Opera.pdf

    [2] Hutchison, David, “Peter Sellars labels ENO managerial crisis a ‘Chernobyl meltdown’”, The Stage, Friday 6 February: http://www.thestage.co.uk/news/2015/02/peter-sellars-labels-enos-managerial-crisis-chernobyl-meltdown/

    [3] Higgins, Charlotte, “Wagner isn’t for everyone. Not at these prices, anyway”, The Guardian, Thursday 12 February: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/feb/12/wagner-prices-eno-peoples-opera

    [4] Isaacs, Jeremy, (1999) “Never Mind the Moon”, Bantam Press, London.

  • As long as ENO continues to peform in nothing other than English, it will struggle. It alienates a significant slice of its potential audience, which would give it much better box-office takings.

      • I disagree. Its raison d’etre is to provide opera to the people, to popularise it amongst those who haven’t the money to afford ROH prices (at least until they put prices up). The rise of surtitles makes its vernacular aspect redundant, and as I said, puts a significant number of people off attending performances. The concept of opera in the vernacular in general is a subject for discussion in its own right, but I believe that the number of people who would be alienated would be lesser than the number of people who would be drawn back. Perhaps a development on the “E” of ENO could be a commitment to perform a certain number of English operas a year? A smaller run of a particular work to offset the lesser popularity of said work, combined with the use of greener English singers could have a tremendous impact on ENO’s art.

        • I beg to differ: the moment ENO stops performing in English, the ACE will use this departure from its mission statement as an excuse to disband the company. I remember vividly the discussions in the nineties about the desirability of having two opera companies in London. A reduced role for ENO was then very much on the agenda of the Arts Council. Don’t give them a stick to beat you with.

  • I hope you didn’t speak too soon. I cannot recall when a Times Editorial – see today! – called for an Opera Director’s head!

  • A paper by L R P Reavill [1] provides further comparison with the Royal Opera House:

    “The level of tax-derived funding was not maintained against inflation during the 1980s. The Thatcher Conservative government was against public subsidy of the arts, and favoured support by private sponsorship on the American model. The ROH was required to accommodate a subsidy from government via the Arts Council which consistently decreased in real value year on year. This, together with increasing operating costs, required more sponsorship from commercial and charitable institutions” (Reavill, 520).

    The ROH’s own Chernobyl moment [2] came when it faced the true cost of the closure during its redevelopment: “The ROH was saved from insolvency at the eleventh hour by a massive injection of money by two of its major sponsors.” (Reavill, 523).

    This explains how ROH historically came to rely on less subsidy. Making an allusion to ROH, Charlotte Higgins has just bemoaned the ticket pricing for ENO’s current Wagner opera The Mastersingers of Nuremberg [3].

    However, if we follow the parallel with ROH via Reavill’s paper, we can understand the ticket price rise as history repeating. The ROH’s experience of decreased state support in the 1990s:

    ”required more sponsorship from commercial and charitable institutions. When this was insufficient to balance the budgets, an increase in seat prices was the only remaining option. Access to the ROH became more difficult for these potential customers without deep pockets, and made the operation appear as “elitist” and the province of the rich. After the General Election … the new administration pursued the same tight fiscal policy as its predecessor. Worse still, and totally irrationally, the new government complained about the “lack of access” which the ROH was displaying. There was much talk of “people’ opera”, provoking the then General Director of the ROH, Jeremy Isaacs, to comment ‘If the people want opera, the people will have to pay for it’ [4]. The costs of mounting opera and ballet productions are high, and if seat prices are to be maintained at a level which most people can afford, the subvention from public money must be substantial. This is the case in other countries such as France … Germany and Italy … Austria … and Denmark. Inadequate funding caused a number of financial crises at the ROH during the 1990s.” (Reavill, 520-521).

    [1] Reavill, L.R.P, “Can Viable Systems Modelling Explain the Management Problems of London’s Royal Opera House?”: http://ceur-ws.org/Vol-72/083%20Reavill%20Opera.pdf

    [2] Hutchison, David, “Peter Sellars labels ENO managerial crisis a ‘Chernobyl meltdown’”, The Stage, Friday 6 February: http://www.thestage.co.uk/news/2015/02/peter-sellars-labels-enos-managerial-crisis-chernobyl-meltdown/

    [3] Higgins, Charlotte, “Wagner isn’t for everyone. Not at these prices, anyway”, The Guardian, Thursday 12 February: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/feb/12/wagner-prices-eno-peoples-opera

    [4] Isaacs, Jeremy, (1999) “Never Mind the Moon”, Bantam Press, London.

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