Sir Peter Jonas: The Arts Council must come clean on ENO

Sir Peter Jonas: The Arts Council must come clean on ENO


norman lebrecht

December 18, 2015

The former chief of English National Opera, in a letter to Slipped Disc, urges all sides in the ENO mess to come clean on their true intentions.


The Passenger by Mieczyslaw Weinberg


Politics is neither as reliable nor honest as performing opera nightly before a paying public.

ENO’s present management, the company itself, the unions involved, the (so far strangely silent) ENO board and the (secretive) Arts Council with its own agenda for the Coliseum (on which they hold a charge should the company cease to be a full-time one) could indeed “listen to each other with mutual respect” (as Richard Jarman suggests) if only the ACE declared its commitment to the company’s use of its greatest financial asset, the building.

In that case the ACE should lobby ministers for the £275/500 million envisaged for a new London concert hall and the ENO board should just say something constructive as they did fortissimo in the days of Harewood, Goodman, Carr, Goodison, Hoffman, Boateng, Unwin and others when they drove us to secure the building for the company’s future in 1993.

Before anyone grumbles about the Coliseum being difficult to fill, let it be said that it can be filled when performances are popular and perceived as successful artistically however adventurous. That this is not always the case lies in the nature of music theatre, the right to experiment, to fail and to try and try again as so many of ENO’s greatest hits have shown Peter Grimes (thrice), Akhnaten, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (twice), Busoni’s Dr. Faust, The Mask of Orpheus, Ariodante to name just a few.

Remember the Arts Council cuts of 1985/6? These resulted in a supper in the Camden Brasserie with a worried ENO General Director (me) and Jonathan Miller who suddenly suggested that he direct the, about to be cancelled, Mikado production on a budget for a single set, to include props and costumes, of £110.00! Few believed it would work, least of all the Arts Council who regarded the project budget as illusory and the run of performances reliant on hope rather than reality. Now, 29 years later, after innumerable performances Mikado still fills the house, its coffers and is loved seemingly by all.

This is what is called “return on investment” and has supported other adventurous projects that will never be evaluated in terms of marginal financial contribution but only in terms of essential artistic value to opera, artists and public alike.

Arts Council: declare your hand and have the courage to deny categorically your intention to enforce the charge on the freehold of the Coliseum.

ENO board: say something meaningful without mincing words.

Only then can all partners seek a solution that compared to the moneys being promised to London’s projected concert hall, laudable though such may be, could, if well managed with vision, produce good financial returns on taxpayer investment and provide an invaluable artistic future for opera.

peter jonas

Sir Peter Jonas

18th December 2015


  • John Groves says:

    Everything you say is so true! ENO needs someone charismatic who knows what he is doing – such as Barrie Kosky at Berlin Komische Oper. Before he arrived, the theatre was rarely more than two-thirds full: now tickets are snapped up early and the place is nearly always pretty full. And many of the productions are the same as they were – it’s people’s perceptions!!

  • Philip Amos says:

    If Jonas wants to have some effect in this, he should write a letter to the Times or Guardian or Independent. It’s pointless writing to one blog. This will go nowhere and have no influence whatsoever.

    • Sir Peter Jonas says:

      I did and it was published a few days ago top of the letters page!

      • Philip Amos says:

        I’m pleased to hear that. NL’s opening sentence, with its “…in a letter to slipped disc…”, is what I’ll just call a touch misleading. I should have known better than to accept that sort of self-aggrandizement at face value on here. My apologies to you, Sir Peter.

  • Nick says:

    Bravo, Sir Peter! Is there anything worse for a performing company than an unceasing drumbeat of negative sentiment and impending doom aired in public? This might have destroyed the Royal Opera House in the 90s under the disastrous Jeremy Isaac’s regime had it not been a House the powers-that-be would let not fail. It did greatly aid in the destruction of New York City Opera after Paul Kellogg started a public drumroll around 2002 on the unsuitability of the New York State Theater for opera. In the UK it has been happening almost unceasingly with Scottish Opera for decades.

    Overspending and regular deficits are one thing. In large measure a company can recover from them with astute management and direction and all stakeholders being on board. But when a company’s Board and its primary financier permit a constant drip-drip of negativity whilst remaining silent in their own crumbling Valhallas, it results in an inevitably corrosive effect on the company’s very reputation. Opera lovers, taxpayers and the ENO’s company members deserve better.