Arts Council to ENO: Cut, or die

Arts Council to ENO: Cut, or die


norman lebrecht

February 17, 2016

The ebullient Darren Henley, chief executive of Arts Council England, has responded to media pressure over forthcoming cuts at English National Opera by telling the company, in effect, to slash or vanish.

His article is extraordinary for its egocentricity and political correctness. Henley, a former head of Classic FM, has spent much of his career bashing the BBC for using public money to steal his potential audience. Now he seems to be accusing London of living of the fat of the regions when it was an Arts Council order that confined ENO to London, forbidding it to travel. Throughout the turmoil of the past 20 years, the ACE’s impatience with ENO has alternated with outright malice. There has been no sympathy for the company or its members. Most of the ENO crisis is of the Arts Council’s making. If any org needs to shrink or die it is the ACE.

Here are Darren’s last two pars:

At the Arts Council we must keep the whole nation’s arts ecology in sight. We are concerned with the quality and relevance of all art forms, and we want everyone in England to benefit from our investment, beyond opera audiences in central London. There are places where local authority funding of arts and culture is being cut savagely and where it’s very difficult to fundraise.

Those who know me understand that I have a personal commitment to classical music of all types, but they also know I will squeeze every ounce of value out of taxpayer’s cash. Let’s worry and care for the talented members of the ENO chorus. But amid the media furore, let’s also remember that cultural institutions across England are facing immense challenges, and the best ones are rising to them. 

darren henley



  • dennis says:


  • Anne63 says:

    “when it was an Arts Council order that confined ENO to London”

    People who accuse the ENO of selfishly refusing to leave London should be reminded of this; I don’t think it is widely known. As far as I’m aware, NL is the only journalist who has drawn attention to it.

    “classical music of all types”

    Is this a reference to the Classic FM definition of classical music – ie: anything with a violin in it?

  • Halldor says:

    As his position requires, Henley’s merely saying what a lot of people are thinking. If an opera company in a plum West End location, receiving only slightly less annual public funding than Opera North, Glyndebourne and English Touring Opera combined, is still failing to live within its means at a time when museums are closing and arts organisations are making tough choices across the UK, then at the very least questions need to be asked.

    It’s Henley’s duty to say what he’s said. The ACE may well have got it wrong with regard to ENO in the past, but we are where we are. It needs to play a constructive and supportive role in digging the company out if this mess (and nothing in this statement suggests that it intends to do otherwise – much here is very positive): but it can’t ignore the fact that the mess exists, and that ENO needs to justify its entitlement to public money just as rigorously and as realistically as most similar arts organisations in the UK have been forced to do in recent years. They’ve had no choice but to slash, and most haven’t had a vociferous and well-connected crowd of national journalists lobbying on their behalf. The fact that very few have vanished suggests that it can be done.

    It is never, ever, as simple as Selfless Artists vs Blackhearted Bureaucrats, and simply repeating “but they did a great Meistersinger the other year” isn’t really an answer.

    • John Groves says:

      I totally agree!! Very perceptive and sensible comments! If only Opera North etc were able to perform in London…….

      • Halldor says:

        It’d make more sense if ENO was permitted to tour nationally – there are plenty of parts of the UK where opera is very thinly spread, even with the regular touring schedules of WNO, Opera North, ETO and Glyndebourne on Tour. It’d be interesting to know if – and if so, why – that prohibition is still in place.

      • Robin Worth says:

        Did Opera North not perform Carousel at the Barbican a few years ago?

      • Anne63 says:

        It has performed at Sadler’s Wells.

        • Roger says:

          Opera North performed Queen of Spades at the Barbican 4-5 years ago and is performing the whole Ring Cycle at the Festival hall in June

        • Halldor says:

          WNO also brought its Richard Jones Meistersinger (the one that won such plaudits for ENO when they bought it in last season) to the Proms, and Moses und Aron to the Royal Opera House. But these were one-offs: none of the major regional companies apart from English Touring Opera presents work in London on a regular basis, for fairly obvious reasons.

      • Eddie Mars says:

        But Opera North *has* performed in London.

        5-6 years go they brought a very good Tim Albery production of Kurt Weill’s ‘One Touch Of Venus’ to Sadlers Wells, deftly conducted by Jim Holmes.

        • John Groves says:

          I should have clarified my comments! It would be wonderful if Opera North, Glyndebourne Touring, ETO, WNO, etc had regular seasons of ALL their productions in London – perhaps at the Coliseum!!!!!!!!! (tho’ that is a bit big – or rather the auditorium is, and that is the problem!) And, as someone has already said, it would be equally good if ENO toured to places that others don’t go to ( eg Congress Theatre, Eastbourne). They were going to perform at Bristol Old Vic, until the previous artistic director and board lost their nerve!! (They have a lot to answer for)
          As someone above has pointed out, ENO’s Meistersinger was actually a WNO production, their current production of Norma hails from Chemnitz( a not very large city in eastern Germany with superb standards) via Opera North, and the recent Lady Macbeth came from Dusseldorf.

    • Holly Golightly says:

      Quite so. And people need to understand that for art music and the refined arts like opera and ballet to survive a considerably better economic situation is required. These art forms thrived, after all, in societies which could afford the SIGNIFICANT infrastructure needed for them to exist. That structure starts with training in the conservatory to performing in the concert house. Affluent societies can afford these things – look at China! – and struggling economies have to deal with the dismantling or inevitable cutbacks. Facts of life.

      I’ve just read something argued by Satyajit Das where he argues that there is ‘little hope for a world deep in debt’ and that there will be zero growth/stagnation for the next generation. This will necessarily affect everybody in society, and every organization and every citizen dependent upon welfare. It’s an ugly scenario, but he was dead right about the GFC in his 2006 book, “Traders, Guns and Money”.

      • Anne63 says:

        But the cost of the arts isn’t huge by government standards.

        I’m not making a general anti military point, but it costs £100,000 to take out one vehicle using a Brimstone missile. And that’s not including development costs.

        I’m sure there are many other examples. The Olympic stadium springs to mind.

        • Holly Golightly says:

          But government makes returns on an Olympic stadium, especially during an Olympic games. It would have paid for itself, if that’s anything like Sydney’s infrastructure in 2000.

          Regarding military hardware; every nation needs this ALL THE TIME. Every other form of expenditure will be waived or affected, as and when necessary, for the costs of defense. (I never know whether it’s a “c” or an “s” in that word!!). Governments have also decided they can house and feed millions from war-torn nations and the people seem to have agreed. That comes at a cost, in more ways than one.

          The fact is that the western world is burdened by absolutely unprecedented, historic debt levels.

          When you have largely subsidized arts organizations you can expect these to be the hardest hit in the bad times. And, btw, governments will be BORROWING for those things you mention.

          • chris says:

            the olympic stadium lies dormant, doing nothing and costing taxpayers money while it is revamped to some lesser entity than it’s former self. It hasn’t made any money for years and will not do so for years. Not sure why you’re making that ill advised point!

  • poooperaman says:

    Today’s Private Eye speculates that this is all a plot to make ENO collapse so that the freehold on the Coliseum can revert to the Arts Council. Totally implausible, of course.

    • Anne63 says:

      Obviously someone at Private Eye reads this blog. Sir Peter Jonas on 12th December:

      “The Arts Council did not provide a penny and, perhaps out of pique, demanded a charge be put on the freehold whereby if ENO should cease to exist in its present form as a full time company presenting opera and ballet, the freehold could be appropriated by the Council.

      The present attempt by the Arts Council to cut down the already reduced ENO chorus and orchestra, thereby reducing the output of performances, could lead to the Council attempting to call in the charge on the freehold of the Coliseum thus destroying ENO as a company and, in plain English, stealing its assets by taking advantage of a weak board and inexperienced management.”

      Any guesses for what the Arts Council would do with it?

      • Eddie Mars says:

        What the Аrse Council would do with it?

        Convert it into a Bingo Hall, I would imagine. That would be the highest pinnacle of artistic achievement we could expect from a chav whose entire career hasn’t included a single solitary second of live music-making.

  • Geoffrey Mogridge says:

    Opera North are touring their acclaimed Ring Cycle to the Royal Festival Hall from June 28th – July 3rd. Sold out within a day of booking opening so it might be worth praying to the gods for returns.