Peter Jonas: ENO must live. The Arts Council should die.

Peter Jonas: ENO must live. The Arts Council should die.


norman lebrecht

February 02, 2015

Sir Peter Jonas, a former artistic chief of English National Opera, has been alarmed at the crisis at his former company. In an essay for Slipped Disc, he springs passionately to support the embattled John Berry and argues that the state funding organisation has ‘outlived its usefulness’. Read. Reflect. Discuss.


peter jonas

ENO: Use it, or lose it

The vicious shenanigans within the Board of ENO, its outgoing chairman, the Arts Council of England (ACE) and even comments on Slipped Disc have developed into a dangerous spinal disc herniation directed at John Berry, ENO’s artistic and (yes that is what he really is) General Director.

Full- time opera companies producing adventurous and edgy interpretations do not fit into the muddy melange of a mid-Atlantic fudge between the US funding system, which hinders aesthetic adventure and risk, and the continental European system that rewards and requires innovation, controversy and ticket price accessibility as an essential part of the bargain.

As David Alden puts it: “ENO has been chronically under-funded for decades but cutting edge work always comes through due to dedicated overworked staff” How true! ENO, its trials, tribulations and triumphs, is about the people who make the performances happen: the dedicated stage staff , orchestra, chorus, soloists and support personnel. It is not about an unseated chairman with an axe to grind. As for John Berry, whose editorial decisions and tireless work have led to thrilling successes as well as a few honourable failures with the occasional stinker (par for the course), he is an “intendant” of talent, credibility, taste and energy all of which have gained him and the company admiration throughout Europe and even across the pond the risk-averse, privately funded MET.

john berry


That he might be stubborn and skilful on behalf of the company in the face of intrigues – well, these are attributes that Intendants are required to have. I was one for over 30 years in those three funding systems: Chicago, ENO and Munich, and stubbornness was demanded by contract.

The ACE’s behaviour has indeed been “pusillanimous” for years. To cut 29% (c. UK£5 million) from a £17 million investment in a company whose work it professes to admire while cutting a mere £800,000 from the Royal Opera House (the wealthiest company in Europe after the Paris Opera) is scandalous, irresponsible and can only mean one thing. The ACE is no longer the chosen advocate of ENO and is covertly seeking to reduce and dismantle it rather as one might abuse and punish a wayward and unusual child because he or she does not fit the agenda, the norm and makes life more complicated. The ACE has outlived its usefulness and it is worth noting that even such complex artistic centres as Berlin (with a plethora of arts companies large and small including THREE opera houses) manages with direct funding administered by a very small public sector staff.

As for ENO’s ousted chairman, Martyn Rose, his letter to ENO’s President and the leaking of it is scandalous. In my time at ENO, I was lucky enough to serve under two chairmen: Lord Goodman, and then, my predecessor as General Director, Lord Harewood. Both were great men and great chairmen in every sense: generous, supportive, tough, awe-inspiring and totally committed to the principle of “the best for the most”. Most important they allowed and expected debate but never allowed such to descend into a row. They defended and championed the company, its leaders and every single employee. That is the core of the principle of proper and wise governance that ENO’s Board must observe.

coliseum eno


Let us also be clear about the Coliseum itself. In my last half year as General Director, I was given the task by the Board to buy the freehold of the building from the estate of Robert Holmes a Court who had just died. The price was £12.5 m, even then considered a bargain. Our job was to raise the money from Government (directly, without the AC) and other sources within three months which we achieved plus a gift of £1m from Gary Weston to invest in the building. Some maintain that the Coli is the company’s millstone. Indeed it is tough to fill 2,359 seats a night (The National Theatre in Munich where I was Director for 14 years is the largest theatre in Germany with less than that, 2,101). When filled, however, it is the company’s biggest earner and secures potentially a huge supportive constituency for ENO. Loss of the building then, in 1993 would have meant instant insolvency. Without it now the company would be homeless and rootless. A homeless opera company cannot survive as a national opera. This is not about John Berry who I admire. It is about whether England wants to have a full time opera company of quality with a unique artistic thumbprint.

On Saturday 7th February ENO mounts the first night of a new production of Wagner’s “The Mastersingers” in a production by Richard Jones celebrating his 25th working with the company. I am going to London to be there and when, in the last scene the whole company sings and plays the “Awake!” chorus, I will feel compelled to stand and croak along with them. Wake up London, wake up opera and arts lovers, for God’s sake wake up Board members of ENO, wake up Arts Council. Wake up to what you have in St Martin’s Lane. Use it….don’t lose it!

(c) Sir Peter Jonas/


  • Frankster says:

    Bravo, Sir Peter! A clear statement of principles for an important arts institution of high artistic achievement. It should be better respected by both the UK establishment and the UK press.

  • Emmanuel says:

    Norman, Sir Peter’s exhortation is ‘Use it… DON’T lose it’ (my capitals), so the title in bold should probably reflect that.

  • Has been says:

    Strong argument from Peter Jonas rising above the cheap shots aimed at John Berry on Slipped Disc. More responses of this depth will hopefully have more positive impact on this important question.

  • Ks. Christopher Robson says:

    Brilliantly put, Peter 🙂

  • Maggie says:

    I agree with every word – I’ve been enjoying opera at the ENO for a very long time and will be there for The Mastersingers. Even when the production is a challenge (Fidelio on a climbing frame) I wouldn’t have missed it. Some productions are so good I see them twice or even three times.

  • Kate Flowers says:

    Bravo Peter – we need more champions like you here in the UK xxx

  • Henrietta Bredin says:

    Articulate, passionate, cogently argued and, above all, right. Thank you, Peter.

  • Guus Mostart says:

    My sympathies are certainly with ENO bit I wish Sir Peter had written such a letter to the Dutch Arts Council when my company Natonale Reisopera was savagely cut by 60% in order to keep the subsidy of Netherlands Opera – of which Sir Peter is a Board member – wholly intact.

  • Faith Whiteley says:

    History is repeating itself, do you remember the destruction of the much mourned Kent Opera as it was a competitor of Glyndebourne? A going concern which was treasured by all the people who were lucky enough to be in its orbit. Nothing has replaced it! All of us in Kent were very ill served by the Arts Council and William Christie.

    • Ks. Christopher Robson says:

      My understanding was that the demise of Kent Opera was nothing to do with Glyndebourne and a lot to do with a certain person on the Arts Council Touring Opera panel in the early 80s also being a major mover behind the then Opera80 (which became English Touring Opera). I think Kent Opera lost most of their touring funding because of the new touring Opera 80 wanting to tour to KO’s traditional touring venues. Somebody correct me if I am mistaken, please 🙂

  • Ric Cartmale says:

    Bravo – a brilliantly articulated and incisive wake-up call. Thank you, Sir Peter, on behalf of everyone who has ever attended or worked at ENO. The press seem to have been quick to implicitly champion the departing members of senior management, whilst I suspect John Berry has been too busy running an opera company to mount such a campaign. Your endorsement will be very welcome, I’m sure, to all my former colleagues.

    Richard Cartmale – ENO Chorus 1987-2007

  • Annette Morreau says:

    So hard to build. So easy to destroy.

    Annette Morreau – Founder Arts Council Contemporary Music Network (1972) – destroyed by the Arts Council 2000?