A London opera critic responds to Times anti-ENO rant

by Tom Sutcliffe, special to Slipped Disc

Richard Morrison has form in campaigning to destroy English National Opera. As a Times arts columnist he eagerly recommended merging London’s two opera companies (just two for a city of over 8 millions, compared to half-the-size Vienna and Berlin’s three each).  Neither of London’s opera companies any longer supports an ensemble which would be (as it was in the not so distant past and still demonstrably is in most parts of the German-speaking world) a much cheaper way of putting on substantial amounts  of opera in Great Britain’s capital. Costs also matter in places with far longer established opera traditions. Only with an ensemble can high productivity be a relevant target. Having comprimarios on staff (with sensible contracts) always costs less than using imported artists – whose agents earn far more in fees where there are no ensembles. But, equally, retaining reasonably starry principals in an ensemble (again with appropriate contracts) also saves money. You can always have top star performers as guests for a run of performances at really top prices and present the new productions which the less well-heeled public would also like to enjoy with quality from the ensemble at more modest ticket prices. Some of the public can then judge whether the top stars are really worth the higher prices – as of course some are. But anyone who travels can hear extremely accomplished and distinguished singers on contract in German companies large and small. And ensemble contracts also encourage a suitable kind of loyalty.

Richard Morrison needs to recognise that both the Royal Opera and ENO are in fact substantially underfunded – as far as public money for their “establishment”  is concerned. London has far too little opera – considering the population of its catchment area. Our politicians’ view of the way to nurture the live performing arts is over-influenced by the profitability of musicals and also of a few quite short-running spoken theatre productions in the West End – thanks to the torrent of tourism from which London retailers, restaurants and hotel owners benefit as well as its theatrical impresarios. The fact is that although ensemble work is the performing arts norm across Europe, it is now virtually unknown (away from dance companies and orchestras  – for obvious reasons) in the English-speaking world.

The Bavarian State Opera’s current subsidy (from the city of Munich and from Bavaria) is 61.7 million euros, about £46 million for opera and ballet. And there are over 60 other opera companies in Germany subsidised to a comparable extent. For example, Augsburg’s theatre gets about £13 million to put on opera, plays and dance. The Royal Opera and ENO together get far less than Munich’s principal company – and Munich also supports another opera company at the Gärtnerplatztheater, recently rebuilt, with another £20 million. So Munich with 1.5 million inhabitants subsidises its two opera companies twice as generously as London. London needs to be realistic about what culture in terms of the live performing arts actually costs – if you want to do it properly.

You either subsidise opera or you forego nurturing an established opera audience – as we in Britain seem to be deciding. Even in the USA the whole structure of tax kickbacks for gifts to non-profit companies amounts virtually to a sort of “pluralist” subsidy system – and depends on choices made by private individuals but encouraged by what the US tax system allows rather than a publicly supported and endorsed process. In Britain, which is not a poor country and which relishes being host to mega-rich immigrants as well as enjoying the continuing presence of much “old” money too, we seem to have reached the point where neither central government nor local government can “afford” to support many ongoing aspects of our increasingly etiolated traditional culture. Outside London orchestral music and opera and even spoken theatre are minimally to be found and at unsuitably high prices where they do exist. So these kinds of “performing arts” culture are sadly and very definitely not for everyone.

The Coliseum is a huge theatre and the amount of opera done in it has shrunk considerably compared with its glory days in the 1980s and 1990s. Back then there was a steady attempt to raise prices in a market-testing operation encouraged by the Arts Council in the days of Mrs T hatcher to see how much opera could support itself – on the “user should pay” principle. The German system does not mean cheap opera for all. Prices in Munich and Frankfurt can be high. But there is in Germany an awareness that in many places the opera public cannot chip in that far by buying pricey tickets.

The cheapest way to put on opera and classical music is for the makers, orchestras and opera companies, to provide a lot of product where they live (without doing much touring) and to use an ensemble for the work that they do. Alas, London orchestras have also largely failed to follow American examples and maximise audiences by performing programmes three or four times in the same venue. A sure way that an opera company can extend the market is by using its ensemble to spread performances of particular productions and operas which have proved popular (and therefore remain in the the available repertory) throughout a 10-month season rather than featuring them for just a brief few weeks. That enfranchises real word of mouth, and can better in due course match supply to demand. That will gradually spread the word and engage with a broader and not necessarily informed public. Staggione – the Italian way – has led to the current disastrous situation in Italy where even opera centres like Naples and Florence only mount six or seven works in a year for sometimes as few as five performances each. No way to achieve a healthy opera economy. The future of opera depends on introducing new audiences to the joys of the artform, its expressive music, its singing, the ideas with which its masterpieces tussle so powerfully, its humour, its tragedy, its ability to communicate to a vast crowd in a personal way – because everybody hears the same voice the same way as if it’s just for them.

London needs more opera not less.  Classical music and opera have to expand their popular base. Subsidy cuts can only make that harder and harder. The live performing arts in an age of mechanical reproduction cannot make money without debasing and abusing the skills on which they depend. Live performance is totally different from film and recordings because it’s fresh every time it happens, and audiences have to stay on their toes not to miss anything so valuable and worthwhile as it occurs. Live performance, making it happen, and being able to appreciate is a discipline for all involved – audiences just as much as performers and their army of helpers that make it work. This isn’t for robots. It is human in the highest sense. We lose it at our peril.

Messiah-at-London-Coliseu-001

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  • Well said that man! On another, related matter, please can the British media try and represent U.K. Opera as “world class” (they are fond of using this cliché for soccer), available and relevant for all classes of society (like soccer), and not just for the “toffs”???

      • Absolutely, but then we are a nation of soccer fans, and there’s room for both soccer and opera. Perhaps the soccer lot need to start sponsoring the arts – that’ll be the day!

        • “but then we are a nation of soccer fans”

          Not sure what that means in practice. We like gardening, fishing, lots of things.

          Many lower league football matches are poorly attended. Often see lots of wide open spaces in the stands on TV. Football fans make a lot of noise, especially where I live, and this gives a distorted impression.

  • Game, set and match to Mr Sutcliffe.

    His marshalling of facts and statistics leaves Morrisson flailing foolishly.

    What remains to be added is a discussion of the fiscal benefits which accrue from seat sales, and visitor income that arises from the activities of arts organisations.

    • Perhaps also the updating of the facts often put forward following a formal study in the 1970s whenever the “only for the toffs” argument is used might be useful. This found that more people in the United Kingdom attended professional arts performances than went to professional soccer matches. How true this is nowadays with the greater number of soccer games being played, I do not know. But if it remains close to the truth that more still attend the arts than the national sport, it might challenge the assumptions of at least some lawmakers.

      • “This found that more people in the United Kingdom attended professional arts performances than went to professional soccer matches.”

        I remember that study and have been trying to find it again but without success.

  • Some very good points here, but…

    “Outside London orchestral music and opera and even spoken theatre are minimally to be found and at unsuitably high prices where they do exist.”

    What?! That’s a shockingly inaccurate and insulting line which he should be ashamed of! Maybe a few visits to Bournemouth, Birmingham, Cardiff, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Glasgow and Edinburgh (just for starters) are in order.

    • I go to everything at Opera North for £12.75 per ticket, and tickets to see their Ring next year, all for £50. Hardly going to break the bank!

    • Indeed, a very odd and uninformed comment amidst some otherwise valid points. From my home in the Midlands, this year, alone, and without travelling more than an hour, I’ve seen professional performances (of ENO quality or better) of:
      The Ice Break
      Peter Pan (Richard Ayres)
      Pelleas et Melisande (2 separate productions)
      Jenufa
      The Wild Man of the West Indies
      La Boheme
      L’Assedio di Calais
      Tristan und Isolde
      I Puritani
      Serse
      Entanglement (Charlotte Bray)
      Don Pasquale
      Giovanna d’Arco
      Lucia di Lammermoor
      Louise
      The Flying Dutchman
      The Magic Flute
      HMS Pinafore
      Carmen
      Hansel und Gretel
      Venus and Adonis
      Acteon
      Tales of Hoffmann
      Werther

      That’s just off the top of my head. All had ticket prices stretching down to the £11 area, and cheaper deals for students.

      As for orchestral concerts there are few weeks each year in which I couldn’t choose from 3 or 4, again with tickets from less than £10.

      Strange and bemusing to get the occasional glimpse of how some metropolitan critics think things are out here beyond Zone 5…

  • ENO’s problems are self-imposed. Since the glory days of the Powerhouse, they have suffered from poor management and even poorer board members. They have contracted their season to the point where it becomes unviable to support a full time chorus and orchestra.

    Tom Sutcliffe is well out of his time if he thinks it is still possible to maintain the kind of cosy ensemble companies which existed in the post-war decades. Singers, egged on by materially driven agents and managers, do not want to make commitments to limit their earning capacities by committing themselves to a single company.

    Reference to what happens in Germany is wide of the mark. They have had centuries of court musicians and opera houses which provided the foundation of the modern day infrastructure. ENO have been almost criminally negligent in the arrogant way it has plundered the public purse to sustain an organisation which has clearly lost its way and, en route, its core audience as well.

    • The idea that adequate support for classical music can only derive from a long tradition of patronage is false. Finland has twice as many orchestras per capita as even Germany, even though it does not have a rich historical legacy in classical music.

    • I accept your point, but – as an agent who’s singers appear regularly with ENO and other UK companies – I don’t like the generalisation that all agents wish their singers to only be permanent guests at houses. I have had a number who, certainly in the earlier parts of their careers, have welcomed the opportunity to be resident with one company. Naturally, I can’t speak for all of my colleagues but I can say for my part that I would be delighted to discuss again such arrangements with UK houses!

    • ‘Singers, egged on by materially driven agents and managers, do not want to make commitments to limit their earning capacities by committing themselves to a single company.’

      I strongly disagree. Hardly anyone in this business is in it for the money, least of all the singers. And if we singers didn’t want to ‘limit our earning capacities’, why then, when a full-time chorus position in the UK opens up, does every singer and their dog go for it, including well-established young solo artists who have consistent work with national houses? There are more than enough singers who would meet (and often exceed) the required standard who would give up even enviable freelance earnings for the security that comes with a resident contract…

      • Certainly this day and age many would go into a chorus rather than cope with the precariousness of solo work so they can get a mortgage and have a real life if you’re not going to be a Renee Fleming of your day.

    • I am an English musician working in a German opera house and I can say with absolute certainty that this poster does not know what he is talking about. If ENO decided to reinstate their permanent ensemble the queue of singers wanting to audition would reach to Battersea Power Station and there would be some very good ones too. If I had a pound for every British singer working in Germany who had told me they were forced to come here because there was no reliable work in the UK and it’s a crying shame that the ENO abolished its ensemble, I could open an opera house myself. Opera singing is a very oversupplied market – the UK conservatoire system trains far more singers than the UK opera house system could ever employ. Paying top dollar for expensive guests is a choice we make. Don’t forget: when you do Carmen, it isn’t just the Carmen and the Don Jose you need. Get expensive soloists in for those roles by all means but why shell out for guests for all the minor parts? You do not need to be shopping around for every supporting role – this is what the ensemble is for. Paying for flights and hotels so that somebody can come and sing a few lines in the quintet when you have dozens of singers living in London who could do just as good a job (and be rehearsing between performances for another minor role in the next production) is a terrific waste of public money and the only reason for it is vanity: it flatters the ENO’s self image to think that they are too international for a permanent ensemble.

      • Nicholas, as a singer myself who has travelled the world with my art and in Germany, I couldn’t agree with you more. How many Mozart C Minor Masses are done when all they really need is two good soprano with a tenor and bass as supporting roles. The tenor has a duet and quartet, the bass only the quartet. Yet they fly people in from all over the place.

        Yes, the music colleges are producing far more singers than are needed, and that is to stuff the music colleges to get the money in. Not the case when I was at the RNCM.

        • Yes, Una! And when I tried to get our management to cast two tiddly roles using hard-working young choristers, I was told “Marketing say they need a name that flogs tickets” (ho-hum, and an elephant’s bum…)

  • Sutcliffe’s idea that America’s private funding system based on tax deductions is “pluralist” is false. It strongly favors the rich and creates a form of cultural plutocracy with very little opera and high ticket prices. The USA ranks 39th in the world for opera performances per capita, and only has 3 cities in the top 100 for opera performances per year. Boston ranks 256th, Atlanta 376th, etc. Hardly a model for the UK to consider.

    • And it stifles the repertoire. Look at the Met! All so traditional productions with top notch singers. Recently went to see their Tannhauser in the cinema. It was like going back in time about 30 years. ENO offers better productions and far more innovative. They were the ones who went over there in the 80s to bring Britten’s Gloriana with Sarah Walker singing Gloriana, and far more recently Adams’s Nixon in China!

  • Hear! Hear! But Tom Sutcliffe is WRONG! Vienna is not half the size of London but barely a quarter of its size. Yet it still maintains 3 companies in four houses. When Dominic Meyer presented his report following from his first season, announcing plans for the following season, some 2000 ordinary Viennese showed up to hear what he had to say.

  • Nonetheless, there are questions that the Board at ENO do have to address about their marketing and how far they are prepared to work to bring in a far younger audience. Innovation is over due. Change will have to come

    • So we get back to the root cause of many of the major financial issues in the performing arts – ineffective and inefficient Boards whose members fail in their basic functions of due diligence and oversight. How many times have we seen this? Far too many! It is often far too easy for an Artistic Director or General Director to push through plans that ought never to get off the drawing Board because they know how to ‘hoodwink’ their Boards. And it’s far too easy to waffle about pushing up ticket prices and increasing audiences to raise revenue when far too often the reverse happens and it is expenditure that should be far more successfully controlled.

      The Arts Council cannot escape blame for it has been hugely ineffective in many instances. I heartily recommend Richard Witts wickedly entertaining “Artist Unknown: An Alternative History of the Arts Council” published in 1998 – an account of “crazy dilemmas, relentless mismanagement, financial discord and shambolic patronage.”

  • “Richard Morrison has form in campaigning to destroy English National Opera. As a Times arts columnist he eagerly recommended merging London’s two opera companies (just two for a city of over 8 millions, compared to half-the-size Vienna and Berlin’s three each)”
    How about Prague – with a population of 1 1/4 million and five opera houses?

    PS Don’t forget Holland Park Opera – counted as perhaps 1/2?

  • Tom Sutcliffe makes many good points and the one about Ensemble companies is entirely valid – as Nicholas comments above. But let’s be honest: no-one, least of all government, is going to increase the public subsidy for opera in this country now or ever again in the future. Opera companies must look elsewhere for their funding and it’s going to be tough, especially for full-time round-the-year companies. As Graham Vick recently pointed out, the abundance of summer opera ‘festival’ companies typifies the way the business is going: such short-term products are so more attractive to private and corporate sponsors than supporting a full-time company where the sponsor’s logo gets more easily lost in a sea of similar supporters. And bravo to OHP for going it alone. But Richard Morrison is also correct that for the London Coliseum to present only visiting ballet companies over the Christmas period is madness. Not only is ENO invisible for most of December-January, it’s losing its presence before the public at a time when more people want to go to the theatre than at virtually any other time of the year. That’s not good. (I remember years ago seeing a Rosenkavalier matinee on Christmas Eve at the Coliseum – it made Xmas magic). ENO is looking for a Director of Marketing and Audience Engagement, to cater for the whole “customer journey” in their beautiful theatre. Well, no Marketing Director, however brilliant, can put bums on seats if what is being presented on stage isn’t of high quality, stimulating and vivid. That takes money, of course, but what it requires most is energy and imagination. If London can even think of building a new concert hall for Simon Rattle and the LSO (funding sources as yet unclear) will it allow ENO to wither and die?

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