Red alert: ENO will run out of money in 13 months

Over coffee at the end of last year, I asked Cressida Pollock, chief executive of English National Opera, when she would not longer be able to pay the wages. She assured me it would never come to that. I reminded her of the day, 20 years back, when Mary Allen at Covent Garden was told by the bank it could not honour her payroll.

Cressida immediately came up with a date: April 2017.

It was confidential at the time. I kept the secret. Now she has gone public in an open letter, seeking to explain how she is trying to steer ENO clear of the cliff-edge that beckons 13 months from now.

Here’s the relevant passage from her letter:

Benvenuto-Cellini-ENO

Why do we have to make changes to how ENO operates?

Over the past 20 years, we have received £33m of additional public funding from ACE above the amount given to us to operate as a fully funded company. As Darren Henley (CEO of Arts Council England) put it recently – opera companies need to adapt, or die. While we have received bailouts in the past which have ‘topped up’ our funding, ACE have made it clear that future bailouts will not be forthcoming. We need to be able to live on £12.38m public subsidy or we have a real risk that we will not meet our payroll obligations in April 2017.

As I look at the decisions that need to be made in order to save ENO from bankruptcy, it is clear that we face difficult choices. There have been suggestions that if we ask the whole company to take a temporary pay cut, or produce cheaper productions, we can weather this storm and be back to “business as usual” in 2-3 years. I wish the solution was that easy. Our significant funding reduction is not a temporary situation. As a responsible CEO, and as the head of a company that employs over 350 people and engages many more on temporary contracts, I owe it to hundreds of individuals and families to ensure that ENO can withstand this change in our funding and that we do not face a crisis next year which could risk every member of staff losing their livelihood.

We cannot move to an ‘austerity year’ and hope that we buy ourselves some time for a magic solution to materialise. ENO, in one way or another, has adopted this approach for over 30 years. ENO is a solvent company and will remain that way but it can only remain so by fundamentally changing how it works. We are not simply trying to find £5m of savings. The company will have to save £5m every year. Over the next four years, we have to find £20m worth of savings to ensure we can get through this period and be resilient in the years to come.

When ACE confirmed our £12.38m annual subsidy (following the Opera and Ballet Review in 2014), our level of funding was set as one which would support an opera company with performing forces engaged for 30-40 weeks per annum, staging 7-8 productions and 75-80 performances per year. Our plan has always sought to do as much as possible above this level – to ensure a permanent presence throughout the year and to protect our permanent forces. As we have gone through all the options available to us, we have had the following priorities in mind.

ENO needs to:

  1. Deliver artistically excellent work which as accessible to the broadest possible audience
  2. Retain the ability to grow, to experiment and to innovate
  3. Ensure utilisation of our performing forces and permanent staff
  4. Operate on a resilient and stable financial basis

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  • “Saving our way to success”. The classic Management Consultant approach – because she knows no other. She has 0 experience in leading major companies.

    Her placid, passive acquiescence to unfair and unreasonable demands has done her reputation no good whatsoever. Where are the benefit concerts, the fundraisers, the public campaign for review of the decision?

    She’s chosen to curl up and die.

    • But these problems are not new – that’s her point. So many of the commentators here and elsewhere are operating on the presumption that ENO’s problems are due entirely to mismanagement, ignoring the fact that classical music is struggling in many places. Sadly, there may just not be enough of an audience to sustain a second-tier opera house in London with a capacity of 2500 that this for the entire year. It seems to me that Pollock is doing the sensible thing by presenting fewer productions and renting out the building. Benefit concerts and fundraisers would not solve their long-term financial problems, and indeed who exactly is going to give them all this money if they are already struggling to fill the house?

      • I agree that fundraisers are not the entire answer – this situation requires a root-and-branch approach that covers every aspect of the company’s work.

        The Coliseum is a vast theatre in the heart of the West End. Licensing restrictions on Sunday operations do not prevent non-theatrical presentations. Here in Moscow ENO’s counterpart (the Stanislavsky-Muzykalny Opera & Ballet Theatre, another huge barn) has cashed-in on the market for Sunday celebrity gala concerts. No stage rehearsals, some standard stock scenery, and… kerr-ching! Sold out, every time, at top prices. Let the orchestra play an overture, bring in a violinist or pianist as a program-filler, and it’s a successful money-making event.

        But this kind of entrepreneurial approach has eluded someone who hasn’t the first clue about running an opera house, and has no experience.

        ENO should not be looking for ‘hand-outs’. It should be leveraging the magnificent resources and talents it is sitting on, to dig its own way out of the crisis. Pollock hasn’t a clue about that. She has spent her entire career taking orders from others, and cannot think for herself at all.

        Her failure to appoint a credible Artistic Director promptly and urgently highlights her inabilities.

  • Under Mary Allen’s ill-fated tenure, the ROH was “within hours” of bankruptcy as Ms. Allen wrote in her own book about that episode.

    Odd – or perhaps not – that the Boards of two major companies, the Met and ENO, chose individuals to run them with precisely zero experience of running any opera company of any size or quality!

  • How many more bailouts must that company have? And still they cannot run the company on sound financial lines. Time they moved out of the Coliseum and rented it out for major productions that use that stage properly (rather then the back half for storage). They could then do a limited season there or just use a smaller theatre.

    • It’s true that if you have an enormous theatre like the Coli to fill, you cannot be regularly at home to Mr Cock-Up.

      Yet during the Harewood era (the legendary “Powerhouse” years) ENO consistently brought home the bacon, and trounced the ROH every season. Not with weary revivals of basic repertoire (those sold worst, in fact), but with David Alden’s MAZEPPA, Nick Hytner’s RIENZI*, Pountney’s RUSALKA, and Freeman’s AKHNATEN. Every one of them a sell-out! There was also plenty of space for vocal splendour – Charlie Craig’s glorious OTELLO with Ros Plowright.

      But it takes *nous* to stage seasons like that. There is no space for wonky ideas like ‘Zandra Rhodes’s Aida’ – one of the worst bits of junk to have disgraced the Coli stage in years. Or the disgraceful singing we heard in THE INDIAN QUEEN recently – where did these incompetents appear from? (Actually their biographies showed where they’d come from, and it wasn’t England).

      With a knowledgeable, entrepreneurial, gutsy Intendant and a skilled, experienced, respected Artistic Director, the Coli ought to be Europe’s epicentre of excellence.

      Sorry, but I see no sign whatsover that Cressida Pollock, is up to the job at all :((((

      * I still have the poster for that one up here in my flat…

      • So in what way in Pollock responsible for the Aida or The Indian Queen? Those are the products of the Berry regime which got ENO into the mess that she’s trying to sort out.

        Why are you not attacking him? Presumably because you believe that money grows on trees, just like he did.

  • ENO needs a home, and it should be in central London. The truth is, the Coli is incomparable for Wagner (way better than the ROH) and very good for ‘big shows” (though some of the singers will struggle) but not so good for the stuff in between, though that varies.

    What does not vary is the need to fill the place, and to do so on a sensible driving formula. The interplay of repertoire with pricing, of new productions with old, of challenging pieces with warhorses, of ‘out there’ stuff with ‘traditional stagings’, is absolutely crucial.

    Meanwhile, you need to be building up the loyal audiences who will stay with you if they get a good hit rate (i.e. ratio of things the regular attendees have enjoyed to those they have not). Again, if you are too often at home to Mr Cock-Up, that bedrock vanishes too.

    And you fall off the high wire. So it can only be done by consistently good management and artistic leadership, or it spirals into disaster quite quickly. This has been patchy over the years since the Powerhouse.

    So: what to do? Pollock’s measures are short to medium term financial rescue stuff. She needs to recruit the people to drive it forward again (as the ROH did with Pappano et al), or if that is not possible, negotiate some fundamental re-understanding of what ENO is for, for whom, and where.

    My starter for ten? Keep the Coli for the big shows (musical and operatic), decamp elsewhere for the rest. Use the venue from renting out to keep a company going full-time, even if it is more peripatetic. Start touring again – and give ETO and Glyndebourne a run for their money.

    If successful, the financial position in a few years might allow for a more settled existence.

    • Correct in every regard – and more rationally expressed than my own emotionally-angled opinion as a former Coli staffer 🙂

      5* stars! But will anyone listen?

    • Basically I agree. But how does any management work out how to schedule for its own productions and then rent the theatre to other parties in between? The size of the Coliseum more or less demands major ballet or big-scale musicals, for example. Yet ballet companies only tour at certain periods and major musicals demand vastly more time than a few weeks in between ENO productions – and if a commercial musical production is a success, it needs an open-ended rental. There’s zero possibility of it transferring to a similar size theatre at much less than a year’s notice!

      • Could big shows (e.g. from Chichester, Bath etc) not open at the Coli, pack ’em in, and then transfer elsewhere for a longer run…? Better than going via Richmond or Wimbledon which is often the way now.

        The Coli should also be a venue for other touring opera companies…

        • The problem is basically relative sizes and costs. The Theatre Royal Bath has around 900 seats and a tiny stage compared to that in the Coliseum. Chichester is an intimate thrust stage setting with seating on three sides. Two problems. 1. How would these companies adapt productions to the vast space of the London stage without considerable additional expense? 2. How could they possibly afford the commercial rental of a theatre like the Coliseum and the London touring allowances for their companies and crew? The Coliseum has to make a lot of cash! And that’s before you consider the problems for actors performing in such a huge space when they then have to open in much smaller spaces. Actors in plays don’t usually use microphones like those in musicals!

          The other major UK companies have performed in London before and this could be a possibility. But in those cases, I believe I am correct in thinking other funding bodies underwrote the costs. In fact it wouldn’t surprise me if it was the ACE that picked up at least some of the tab!

  • Is it time to try some foreign language productions? After all, London’s population is far more international now than during the 1940s and 1950s when the policy of singing in English was introduced.

  • During the so-called powerhouse years, ENO had to run cap in hand to ACE for bailouts. Surely that proves that no matter how good the work is their business model is fundamentally flawed? She might be a rookie CEO but they’ve had 40 years of people in similar roles who were supposed to know what they were doing – and look at the mess they’ve made! Give her a chance, I say…

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