English National Opera – a job well done?

English National Opera – a job well done?


norman lebrecht

September 25, 2017

The chorus of praise that has greeted Cressida Pollock’s premature retirement as chief executive of ENO credits her with ‘turning the company around’ and ‘leading it back’ into the Arts Council fold.

Ms Pollock, 35, says she is ‘greatly saddened to leave this incredible institution’, but gives no reason for her departure after just three years. Press rumours of a power struggle with the artistic director, Daniel Kramer, can be discounted. Kramer, on present form, could not win a arm-wrestling match with an octogenarian comprimario.

Ms Pollock’s problem is that she would not know a comprimario from a skinny latte without a prompt from below. Parachuted in from the McKinsey’s consultancy by a board desperate to reduce overheads and curb artistic risk-takers, she has done about half of what was expected of her. ENO has been reduced to functioning for about half the year, it is being shunted off to other venues to that its Coliseum stage can be rented out to commercial shows and its outgoings are being gradually whittled down.

But McKinsey’s job is to provide strategic solutions and in that area Ms Pollock has failed. Ask anyone what ENO is there for and the answer is even less clear than when she took over. Ask where ENO is going and absolutely no-one can tell you. Ask who missed it in the last four months and the silence is chilling.

Ms Pollock was always a short-term fix. The Arts Council were told some time ago that she was on the way out. She deserves a B+ and a job in the City. It is unlikely she will return soon to the arts.

That leaves ENO with a weak artistic director and a slowly incoming music director, Martyn Brabbins who, at 58, has never headed an opera company before. What ENO needs more than anything right now is vision. It has to show why it is needed. A new formula, a change of name and purpose is required. That’s what Cressida Pollock was hired to provide. She got halfway there before giving up.


  • John La Bouchardiere says:

    There is nothing wrong with the name, nor ENO’s legally defined charitable objectives:


    ENO’s mandate is to provide access over quality, and failure to recognise this has left a series of administrations apparently clueless as to how to promote opera in English.

    The company’s problem lies in that, with exception of Mark Wigglesworth, those in positions of power or influence seem either to have forgotten these objects, or found them ill-fitted to their own ambitions.


    • Nik says:

      I have yet to meet a single opera goer who actually prefers to listen to Italian, German and French operas sung in English. If such people exist, I would love to hear from them.
      I have witnessed many discussions where everyone agreed that it’s preferable to listen to opera in the original language, but some argued that performing in English attracts people who wouldn’t otherwise go (despite the surtitles). What is the evidence for this claim?

  • Will says:

    Seems to me that she has done her job pretty well, stabilising the company, getting it reinstated as a NPO and getting Music and Artistic Directors back on board. A great foundation for her successor to build on.

    • John La Bouchardiere says:

      On those terms, perhaps, and it tempting to surmise that this was the process her consultancy advised and which she was then hired to execute (as if any one else would have wanted the job of down-sizing ENO). But it doesn’t solve the fundamental problem that ENO struggles to justify its existence and subsidy without a discernibly different purpose than the ROH’s. Given its charitable objects, ENO should be the last company to suffer cuts; as it is, however…

      • David Nice says:

        The current season doesn’t look bad, such as it is (if you can bear Glass, which I can’t – but it does mean bums on seats). But whatever steering Ms Pollock may have done -and it’s not all bad by any means – has to be cancelled out by the loss of Wigglesworth, the best music director I can remember at ENO, who had strong ideas for keeping the company going for a full season. Those ideas weren’t properly considered – fact – and his main criterion for staying – keeping a full-time company – dismissed. I can’t think of a bigger shame resting at the doors of a CEO than the fact that Ms Pollock did nothing to keep the best asset ENO has ever had. Moreover, with the loss of the Coli as ‘home of ENO’, a core identity has gone, too.

  • Stephanie Whitman says:

    ENO has been stabilised? Well, there’s plenty of stability in a graveyard.

    ENO’s Coliseum opera productions have been cut in half from circa 15 per season to only 8.

    There has been a commensurate collapse in ticket sales and fundraising income. That’ll be clear when the 2016-17 accounts are published.

    A new cafe/bat at the cost of over £1million lies mostly empty.

    The Chorus are now part-time after a acrimonious dispute to save a relative pittance. Staff morale has collapsed.

    The Board appointed the remarkably inexperienced Pollock and Kramer as patsies to allow unprecedented interference by the Board in operational management. Pollock perhaps has had enough of that interference.

    The Arts Council are happy that ENO’s London Coliseum progamne has been slashed and with it London’s large-scale opera provision.

    How does Sadiq Khan feel about many thousands of fewer ENO visitors to the west end and the resultant impact on London’s already declining night-time economy?

    Recent years at ENO have been a public scandal and require an independent investigation, perhaps via a HOC select committee.

    In the meantime, the Board, who will soon deliver 4 CEOs in 5 years, should be sacked en masse by DCMS.

    • John La Bouchardiere says:

      Hard to disagree, though I think it’s a stretch to believe Pollock’s departure is voluntary.

      • David Nice says:

        Unarguably well put, Stephanie Whitman. The fatal turning-point was when the chorus caved in to management demands. There’s just a chance that ENO as a full-time company might have continued if they’d held out. The artistic side, led by Wigglesworth, did everything it could to support them. Fear of job loss can be a terrible thing.

        • David Nice says:

          Though I should add that I don’t think Ms Pollock was a ‘patsy’ – she was a hatcheteer from a notorious source. Kramer would seem to have a genuine concern for the company’s well being, and has been in a tight spot.

          • John La Bouchardiere says:

            As I understand it, Equity did not support the chorus taking industrial action, for fear of worsening the situation, and that this discouraged the chorus from striking, even though the orchestra was on board (despite not being immediately under threat).

            Hearsay, perhaps, but convincing, I think.

  • Stephen ratcliffe says:

    As a youngster I enjoyed a wide range of interesting operas at ENO at affordable prices and I could see great British singers like RIta Hunter, Janet Baker, Valerie Masterson to name but three. Now they charge Covent Garden prices, stick to safe repertoire and do not support upcoming British trained singers. It is simply not the great company it once was

    • David Nice says:

      None of this is actually true. The rep is still a healthy mix of staples and adventures, there are now plenty more cheaper seats than there were and ENO has a young artists’ programme same as the Royal Opera. True, it hasn’t used young British singers nearly enough in recent seasons, and the truncated ‘year’ has proved to be the feared nail in the coffin of the company’s identity.

      • John La Bouchardiere says:

        Don’t forget that ENO used to be a big full-time company with lots of principal artists on contract and a double chorus that could run two smaller operas in rep night after night. ENO was then the engine room of the whole UK opera industry, not just providing a platform for promising singers but developing whole careers of artists who performed more in the Coli than anywhere else. The company therefore had access to an incredible depth of talent and expertise which had been specifically honed to the needs of ENO (including singing in English) and the Coli. The reduction of this, over time (particular during the last ‘stabilisation’ process) rendered to company much less efficient on many levels.

  • SC says:

    Over the months there has been a fair bit of comment – here and elsewhere – about “the board” of the ENO. Here is a suggestion: let’s have an article naming all those on the board and discussing their credentials and contribution.

    Apologies if this has already been done. If so, I have missed it.

    • Will says:

      Board names are freely available and a quick google on them will reveal their background.

      • SC says:

        Ah, that’s not my point but thanks for letting us know the obvious.

        • John La Bouchardiere says:

          This subject was well covered in Susie Gilbert’s book, Opera for Everbody: the story of ENO, including details of how the nature, make-up and leadership of the board changed around the turn of the millennium, when last the company was facing severe threats from the powers that be. However, in the light of recent events, it is indeed high time for an update, and a proper article on the members of the board and what qualifies them would be most helpful. One wonders what strings might have been pulled to ensure that this hasn’t been done already.

          Some effort was made to bring in arts experience when Ms Pollock’s total lack thereof met with widespread criticism, so it would appear the board is at least aware of its weakness in this regard. Nonetheless, it’s likely there remain at least some who have effectively bought influence over the spending of state subsidy, and have neither relevant skills to contribute nor a philosophy in tune with that of Lilian Baylis. Boards made up of philanthropists is the model across America but that’s because raising money is their main function and there is next to responsibility to the public purse across the pond.

          As it is, one has to question whether those who decided to reject Mark Wigglesworth’s plan in favour of Pollock’s were the best people to do so. After all, one was for a keeping a full-time company and lowering the subsidy per seat, while the other downsized the company and offered worse value for money.

  • Saxon Broken says:

    Given that there is a world-wide trend over the last 40 years or more to abandon opera in the language of the audience and instead produce opera in the original language (helped by surtitles) is there really any need to the ENO to continue singing in English. I would likely attend if they sung in the “proper language”. And I am sure I am not the only one.

    And for those nostalgic for proper repertoire companies, and regretting that the ENO no longer has a stable of lead singers. I am afraid that world disappeared years ago, all across the world (e.g. most important opera houses no longer do this), and the ENO can’t revive this model even if it wanted to.

    • John La Bouchardiere says:

      Although your observations are correct, this is also a bit like praising rampant capitalism or saying Brexit mean Brexit, i.e. neither necessarily for the best nor potentially irreversible. There are certainly audiences who don’t attend the Coli because of the language policy, and that is their choice. If these are anglophone monoglots then I think they are missing out on what opera in the vernacular has the potential to deliver, even to cognoscenti. I think it is also fair to say that the move towards singing in languages which by far the majority of the audience does not understand is counter-productive and as much to do with the recording industry and HIP as surtitles: opera has become music (as opposed to consisting of it and other intrinsic elements) and people are encouraged to want to hear it as the composer intended (or as they hear it on disc). However, the idea that the soundtrack of an opera is complete (similarly in concert) is generically incongruous and, despite the effort going into and spin around new productions, opera is losing its status as dramatic form. Consequently, the audience that doesn’t already know and love opera is being lost.

      As for the loss of repertoire companies, this is also a choice; Germany is still filled with them. The UK industry has changed in recent decades and it indeed might not be possible or desirable to reinstate a full roster of company artists. However, understanding that the current model is inherently inefficient because of this is at least a step towards a solution: some houses have half-contracts, which offer singers a degree of freedom and stability at the same time.

      Most important is to stop focus on being one of the most important opera houses and playing the game of competing with the rest of the circuit. Yes, one needs to cast some roles early enough to get the British singers one wants but it is otherwise nothing to do with ENO’s mission that it is considered better or worse than houses far and wide or up the road.