Sunset Coliseum? This could be ENO’s swansong

Slipped Disc editorial

Today’s announcement that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical is to occupy the home of English National Opera for 43 performances over five weeks in April arouses the same kind of emotions as the sight of that railway carriage in the forest of Compiègne. It is a complete and unconditional surrender.

railway carriage compiege

True, the costs of the production are being borne by independent producers, GradeLinnit. True, too, it will keep the orchestra and chorus of ENO in work for five weeks.

True, again, that ENO cannot afford to fill a season all by itself, given its burden of debt and shrinking Arts Council subsidy.

But a Lloyd Webber musical? A genre that takes the luscious red cherries of grand opera and turns them into glacé cake-toppers? That’s not a sensible strategy for a struggling opera house.

You may argue that La Scala once staged Phantom and other opera houses have gone deeper into the Lloyd Webber oeuvre in the hope of attracting new audiences. The thing is, they failed. There is no crossover between the pure and unmediated act of opera singing and the amplified, under-orchestrated act of Sunset Boulevard. No new faces at Lohengrin, no benefit at all to ENO, except that it pays five weeks’ rent.

This is a sad call by ENO’s new makeshift regime, a bad call, and one which sounds horribly like the scratching of pens in the middle of a French forest.

ww1 armistice

Historical footnote: A while back I suggested that Andrew Lloyd Webber should be approached to be chairman of ENO’s weak board. The response I got from those who know him well was ‘Andrew’s only interested in pushing his own stuff’. Whether or not that’s the case, what we have here is failing ENO serving mighty ALW’s empire.

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  • ENO staged a musical (“Sweeney Todd”) and an operetta (“The Pirates of Penzance”) in the last season.

    “Sunset Boulevard” is probably one of the most operatic ALW works – the links to late-romanticism and to wagnerian leitmotif are very clear.

    I’m not sure about it’s artistic qualities though, but I’m not very sure about the artistic qualities of many operas either.

    The line between opera and lighter genres of musical theatre is very fine.

    Why Sondheim, Bernstein, G&S, Strauss II, Weill, Gershwin… yes, but ALW no?

    • Quite so: the only possible objection is grounded in naked snobbery. Sunset Boulevard is a fine score. There’s a good reason why Shostakovich admired Andrew Lloyd Webber.

    • I can’t speak to the ENO in particular, since I’m on the wrong side of the pond and have no experience with it. But maybe my opinions are applicable to it.

      You ask: “Why Sondheim, Bernstein, G&S, Strauss II, Weill, Gershwin… yes, but ALW no?”

      One word: amplification.

      At least for me, the experience of going to a Broadway musical has been pretty much ruined by the scourge of amplification.

      With the exception of Sondheim (and ALW), none of the composers you listed wrote a musical with amplification in mind.

      At risk of sounding like a reactionary curmudgeon, I find amplified Broadway musicals loud, crass, and uninteresting, at best.

      It has gotten to the point that the best place to hear a Broadway show — especially a traditional one — is an opera house, since opera houses still use well-trained voices and real orchestras without amplification (at least for now?).

      It’s a less than ideal solution, since there is a difference in esthetic between a Broadway voice and an opera voice, but this obstacle can be surmounted. One example is when Deborah Voight sang Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun at Glimmerglass Opera a few years ago — which I enjoyed thoroughly.

      Don’t get me started on what has been done to Broadway pit orchestras….

      (I make an exception for rock musicals and such whose esthetic is directly linked to amplification. I did enjoy hearing the revival of Rocky Horror Show in 2001, for example. But that’s a very different experience from, say, South Pacific or West Side Story.)

  • Nobody, but nobody, is going to confuse ALW with opera. As you say, there’s the rental and the employment for ENO singers. This is basically a rental, even if ENO is co-presenting. If it helps them financially to present their own proper genre, I fail to see the harm. And it is always possible that if there is sufficient attractive marketing material around, some who enjoyed the experience of going to the Coliseum would at least try one of their own shows. I loved the Coliseum, and I doubt this could be any worse than a performance of the Pearl Fishers I saw there quite a few years ago.

  • Yes, all of us outside London whose taxes go to jeep ENO in a theatre that the lical aufuence and tourists can’t fill are equally incensed by this capitulation to philistinism. Don’t remember any such concern about ON doing Kiss Me Kate or WNO Sweeney Todd. Byt then ENO has a special place in some hearts

  • Surely this must have been in the planning some time already, considering the casting. So not necessarily “a sad call by ENO’s makeshift new regime”, rather more likely a John Berry swansong. “Sunset Boulevard” isn’t such a bad piece in itself, but it would been nice to see it cast with real singers (though that might have been a drawback when it came to dialogue!).

    To be honest, if it makes them some dosh in the meantime and subsidises the proper opera productions to some extent, then perhaps it is a good temporary solution to funding. But it does set a rather dreary precedent (just what is the point of doing semi-staged/non staged shows in such a wonderful space?!). It was a massive shame they didn’t do a proper staging of Sweeney Todd (as other companies have done in the past, notably David McVicar’s fabulous production at Opera North some 13 years ago or so – with a fully fledged opera cast and orchestra and no amplification). To do only a “semi-staged” SB seems second best, especially considering what the ticket prices will be and despite the presence of a major super film star.

    It drags us back to the old problem – Proper FAIR Funding. If ENO had proper funding from ACE and other sources, it might have more than half a chance of putting on proper productions, enlightening productions, more provocative productions, more risk-taking productions, more new productions, more new operas. Just as it used to!
    God help whoever the new Artistic Director might be, as he or she is going to have an uphill battle against the poisoned chalice of an establishment (ie. the ACE and others) that seems hell bent on dumbing down what could be the UK’s best showcase for the best of British opera productions, British opera singers, British stage designers, British directors, etc, etc.

    Lords Harewood and Goodman must be turning in their graves, God rest’em!

  • Ummm…Compiègne was not an unconditional surrender, but on the contrary a negotiated one. Unlike Berlin 1945, where it was unconditional.

    • A pedant writes:
      For that matter, it wasn’t even a surrender: just a formal ceasefire. Hence the “dolchstosslegende” in future years.

  • Music theatre pieces have their place – however briefly – on an operatic stage, if only to show a more desirable standard of acting. However many people still just go on about ‘the voice’, opera is first and foremost theatre and its supporters should show up to Sunset Boulevard to see how well a story could be told on a musical stage.

  • Thiese sorts of commercial deals happen frequently in the orchestral world and help not only to subsidise other work, but allow the orchestra to shake hands with a new audience and (quite often) introduce them to their concert halls.

    • A fair percentage of the Sunset orchestra in the West End played in the RPO; it isn’t uncommon for musicians to play both genres professionally…

  • You complain often enough that opera houses seem elitist and that non-cultural elites seem intimidated; now, you have an opportunity to suggest to the crowds that they might actually dare cross the doors of an opera house, and it is sacrilege?

    Is any opera actually being cancelled to make room for this production, or was the Coliseum meant to remain empty? If Sunset Boulevard fills an otherwise empty theatre, I fail to see where the problem is.

  • Many opera houses, even the most elite and prestigious ones, may be obliged to present musical theatre to survive, rather than the particular species of “sung and acted story” known as opera. Through the years, opera houses have presented Show Boat, Sweeney Todd and West Side Story. Might this mean that the ENO might present some more Lloyd Webber and R&H musicals (including Sound of Music) and even put on Oliver! at the Coliseum? The only thing is: will opera houses host productions of recent pop-flavoured musicals, specifically the jukebox musicals?

  • I have the same problem here as I do with orchestras that play too much pops, or too many dumbed-down “crossover” projects. It’s the wrong use of the vehicle, like driving a Formula One car down to the corner store to get a carton of milk. Or, more appropriately: if I owned a gourmet restaurant and announced that five days per week the restaurant would only offer corn dogs and sloppy joes, maybe I’d pay a few bills from the revenue but how much interest would I be building in gourmet food, my signature offering? ZERO. Going to see second-rate ALW musicals will not make anyone think, “Say — let’s catch Janacek’s Katya Kabanova next month!” A downward spiral.

  • I find it somewhat ironic that it is Sunset Boulevard which is being revived to boost the ENO’s coffers, given that the show was never a financial success anywhere on its first outings in the 1990s. Then, like ENO, it had its personality problems, but these went on to result in lawsuits. First there was Patti Lupone who opened in London and was promised Broadway – then fired. Next Faye Dunaway whom ALW picked to take over from Close in the original USA production which had opened in Los Angeles to allow Close to take over the premiere on Broadway. Dunway had been fired just because she couldn’t sing, something everyone had been saying ever since the extraordinary news of her casting.

    Ms. Close will not come cheap, and so presumably a transfer to New York or somewhere else must also be on the books. But then being semi-staged, it will at least avoid the huge financial problems of that massive original set by John Napier.

  • Why do productions of musicals not generate new audiences for opera? Because they are very different genres. Like adding a pop music beat to a Mozart symphony does not invite understanding of Mozart, ALW does not inspire innocent youngsters to attend Carmen.

      • Such things are difficult to assess… Let’s hope there are many more people like you who picked-up something of greater interest. But would musical theatre be necessary for children to get interested in opera? Wouldn’t a Magic Flute do as well? Or an Acis and Galatea?

  • Firstly, La Scala never staged Phantom. It was announced, but it never happened, so I don’t know where you got it from that it “failed” there.

    Secondly, if an opera house can stage Sweeney Todd or Porgy and Bess, why not Sunset? Gothenburg Opera did a fantastic production of Sunset back in 2011.

    Thirdly, and most ironically, is your ignorance of the history of the ENO. Back when it was under Lord Harewood in the 1970s, Lloyd Webber was asked if he would like to stage Evita there (when the show hadn’t been written yet). The idea is that Evita would be specifically written for the ENO and would be staged there. Lloyd Webber declined as he wanted it performed in a West End theatre.

    I’m with Hal Prince on this one. The need to distinguish between popular music theatre today and popular music theatre of the 19th century is a highly artificial one. Puccini, were he alive today, would no doubt be banished from the ENO by virtue of such attitudes.

    • I was not aware the Scala production never happened. Bad enough that it was planned. Porgy and Bess was written and intended for the opera house. Sweeney Todd has elements of grand opera, is designed for full orchestra and has been staged without controversy at Covent Garden and major German opera houses. As for Lord Harewood’s decision or indecision in the 1970s, we can no longer ask the good Lord what was on his mind and the show never happened, did it?

  • And, whether you like it or not, Sunset has elements of grand opera too, and was also designed for a full orchestra. I’m not saying it’s as good as Sweeney Todd, but I fail to find any logical reasoning in your acceptance of Sweeney Todd in the opera house (where arguably it fares worse than Sunset, half the charm of the piece being Sondheim’s lyrics, which become indecipherable in the opera house) and rejection of Sunset beyond a dislike on your part for Lloyd Webber.

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