ENO’s new season? Not much there…

Five new productions and four revivals is the sum of slim pickings, announced this morning.

One of the five new shows is a staging of Britten’s War Requiem. Is that what the composer had in mind?

Another is The Merry Widow, an operetta of seriously vintage humour.

There is a world premiere for Iain Bell and Emma Jenkins’s Jack the Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel.

The Australian director Adena Jacobs makes her UK debut with Salome.

And there’s a co-production of Porgy and Bess with the Met and Dutch National Opera. John Wilson conducts. Two Americans in the title roles –  Eric Greene and Nicole Cabell.

That’s what makes it English National Opera.


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  • It’s all sung in English that’s the point otherwise we would have a very small pool to dip in to.

    • When Salome is sung in English, is it the original Wilde text, or is it a re-translation back from the German?
      Not that I’m thinking of going. I’m sure there is a reason why Strauss used the German text, and it’s best not to mess with it.

    • Personally, I don’t see the point of opera in English any more. Surtitles are now ubiquitous, providing translation for those unfamiliar with either the language or the story. Also, I for one find it sufficiently difficult to hear what they are singing that it doesn’t really make much difference whether it’s in English, German, Italian, French, Czech, Russian, Hungarian, Polish, or Sanskrit—it’s all more or less equally incomprehensible. I once heard Nixon in China at the Proms and in the interval I had to buy a programme and quickly read the libretto, as the pronunciation had been so incomprehensible that I didn’t understand what they were singing, even though it was in my native language.

      The original libretto is what the composer almost invariably intended, and the music always sounds better sung to the words for which it was originally composed. I’d be tempted to make an exception for something like Dialogues of the Carmelites, where Poulenc actually specified that the libretto should be translated into the language of (the majority of) the audience.

      • Opera in English is the language of English-speaking first language people as Wagner was for the Germans and Verdi in Italian. If you are an opera expert, fine. But as a singer myself, I love to go to opera in English, and particularly ENO and the immediacy of it all. I get sick of subtitles, particularly Opera North as they are at the side and you spend the whole night with your eyes like windscreen wipers! I’ve taken large English-speaking groups to the opera in London and would struggle to get them there when tgey are not officionados, particularly comic opera in a language you don’t speak well.. In London you can always go to Covent Garden if you don’t like opera in English – simple!

        • Yes, this is true. To be honest, I don’t really know why we need surtitles anyway. I remember going to see Tosca in Budapest and it was wonderful knowing that I wouldn’t understand a single word of the Hungarian surtitles. I was able just to watch and listen and not have to worry at all about following the words (and I know it so well that I don’t need to follow the surtitles anyway, but when they are there in a language I understand it’s so tempting to look at them). Something I would also argue for would be surtitles in the original language. When listening to Wagner, for example, the problem isn’t that my German isn’t good enough to understand the libretto, but that I cannot actually hear all the words clearly enough to process at speed. Surtitles in German would make it much easier for somebody in my position to understand Wagner’s German text. The English surtitles are even worse, as I find myself translating them back into German to try to work out words I’ve missed. Ideally, I’d like opera in the original language with bilingual surtitles (original language and translation). In Prague they usually have surtitles into Czech (for the locals) and English (for tourists), so it can be done!

          I do see the arguments on both sides. I suppose The Magic Flute in English has an immediacy that replicates the immediacy it must have had for Mozart’s Viennese audience, although personally I prefer to hear the German text, even if it isn’t quite as immediate. It would all be easier if the composers had given instructions with regard to translation as Poulenc did for Dialogues of the Carmelites, and we could listen free of the guilt of wondering what the composer would have wanted. Of course, Italian operas by, for example, Mozart and Handel, were originally written to be listened to in a language that was not necessarily comprehensible to everyone in the audience and certainly was the first language of only a small number of people in the audience, so there is an argument that a British audience hearing those operas in Italian is more authentic. What proportion of people in Prague spoke Italian as their first language when Don Giovanni was premiered there? What proportion of people were even fluent in Italian as a second or third language (there must have been Czech and even Yiddish speakers in the audience for whom even German was not their first language)?

  • The ENO website announces ’11 operas’ – but this is as blatant a case of double counting as it is possible to imagine. They appear to get to 11 by adding 5 new productions, 4 revivals and 2 collaborations. But the 2 collaborations are in fact also 2 of the revivals. So in fact it’s 9 operas (and that’s if you count the War Requiem as an opera, which Britten didn’t I don’t).

      • The two collaborations aren’t revivals they are Dido at the Unicorn Theatre and Noye’s Fludde at the Theatre Royal Stratford East…

        Salome, Porgy, Lucia, War Req, Boheme, Akhnaten, Widow, Flute, Jack the Ripper, Dido and Noye’s Fludde.

      • Having burrowed into ENO’s twitter feed, I have discovered 2 further collaborations outside the Coliseum – Noye’s Fludde and Dido and Aeneas. But both the hyperlinks take you to ‘Page Not Found’. Not very encouraging.

        • Bob: sorry – I posted my correction before I saw yours. It’s a shame that the ENO new season web page, having referred to 11 operas, doesn’t mention Dido and Noye’s Fludde (and compounds the confusion by referring to 2 other revivals as collaborations). That, together with broken links to the two new collaborations on ENO’s twitter feed, hardly does the company a favour.

      • They did Verdi’s Requiem and Bach’s St John Passion and Handel’s Messiah! Just makes you listen in a different way. St John was particularly successful and very moving.

      • They did Verdi’s Requiem and Bach’s St John Passion and Handel’s Messiah! Just makes you listen in a different way. St John was particularly successful and I found it so very moving. Waiting for them to do Elijah.

  • There are still many non-British singers… Mexican, American, Dutch… roles that could and should be cast closer to home!

  • Still, given the pitiful state of the company, if such it can be called, the less there is the better.

  • Lehar actually counts as rare repertoire in the UK – even the Merry Widow has not been seen recently in one of the major London houses. And operetta is hardly well-served in the UK (thank, in part, to a dated snobbery about the form – see above).

    I appreciate that all London-based critics are contractually required to snipe at anything and everything ENO does, but in this particular case you’re shooting at the wrong target. This is surely precisely the sort of rep that ENO should be doing: and if they do it as well as they do G&S it could well be a major hit. Plus, a John Wilson-conducted Porgy is a coup in anyone’s book.

    • I agree. We should have more operetta at ENO. Pretty much as you say, it’s something which (a) isn’t done anywhere else and (b) ENO does well. It’s a scandal that Gilbert and Sullivan are so rarely performed in the UK (by professional companies at any rate). The Hungarians are rightly proud of their operetta tradition and ensure that it is kept alive. We British, on the other hand, seem to be somewhat embarrassed by Gilbert and Sullivan, which is a real shame as both the libretti and the scores are really first class and important part of our national literary and musical heritage.

      • ENO have dobe G&S! They also did a wonderful Fledermaus I remember with Frankie Howard as the Jailer in the 80s.

        • Yes, I have heard G&S there myself, and very good it was too. But I am thinking of an opera company that specialises in British opera and operetta. Just look at what the opera houses put on in Budapest, Prague, and Warsaw. Britain must be the only country in Europe that seemingly takes no pride in perpetuating its own musical heritage. G&S are performed at ENO very rarely. Once every couple of years maybe? How often are Britten’s operas performed at ENO? Maybe one every couple of years again? And what about Vaughan Williams? When was the last time ENO performed Hugh the Drover, for example? I remember The Pilgrim’s Progress there a few years ago. Between G&S, Vaughan Williams, Britten, and Tippett there’s enough material to keep ENO busy for years, and that’s before one considers more obscure works such as Walton’s Troilus and Cressida. Personally, I would be more inclined to go to ENO to see something like Sir John in Love or Albert Herring than to see Verdi or Puccini, which I can see at Covent Garden.

    This blog may, in the past, have inadvertently given the impression that with the onset of Brexit, UK music has been forced to close its doors to the rest of the world while a parochial Little Englandism disfigures a once cosmopolitan and diverse arts scene. We now recognise that it is actually imperative that the UK’s major international opera companies cast exclusively from locally-born talent and that a casting policy that draws on the best singers from around the world is actually a sign of profound artistic failure which must cease forthwith. We regret any confusion that may have been caused”.

  • “Is that what the composer had in mind?”
    Does that mean we should never try new things? Handel didn’t imagine Messiah being staged but I vividly remember ENO putting on a deeply moving staged performance of it several seasons back.

    Personally I think its an interesting-enough season, I’m looking forward to it.

    • Yes, with one of the Bevan sisters singing soprano. Very moving. And in the end, you don’t have to go! I shall travel down from Leeds to see War Requiem for sure. Might not like it but who cares!

  • Just read the interview with Daniel Kramer in today’s Times and I must say it inspires very little confidence.
    As an example, he was asked about the questionable casting of La Traviata where both leads were universally panned by the critics, in particular the woefully inadequate (black South African) Lukhanyo Moyake as Alfredo.
    Kramer’s response is worth savouring in full: “I want the casting in every production I’m curating to have diversity as a core element wherever humanly possible, and I’m sad and scared that some people don’t believe that this is an essential part of the job now.”
    In other words, quality is out of the window.

    • I’d certainly support an approach in which casting was colour blind, but positively attempting to introduce diversity as a good in its own right is surely misguided. There are a lot of excellent singers around who are not white, but singers should be cast because they are the best for the role. I’m more than happy to see Kathleen Kim or Danielle de Niese, but equally I am more than happy to see Joyce DiDonato or Karita Mattila. Korean, Sri Lankan, Irish, Finnish, it doesn’t make any difference to me. I’m there to hear the singing. The problems only begin when, for example, one particular Russian soprano (I don’t actually know who it was) says that she can’t sing Tatyana opposite Willard White as Prince Gremin because Russian noble ladies don’t have black husbands.

      • Nothing says you’re kicking against racial stereotypes and patriarchy like putting on Porgy and Bess. Do they have ANY idea how that makes black singers feel. It’s patronising and lazy. For God’s sake…

        • Porgy and Bess is a great opera and is very popular with audiences. I don’t think it’s lazy and patronising to put it on. There is also the possibility that putting on Porgy and Bess will open up ENO to a largely untapped potential black audience. According to the 2011 census there were over 1.1 million black people in London. That figure will have risen significantly over the course of 7 years. And yet how many black people does one normally see at the Royal Opera House or London Coliseum? From what I see, I’d guess that black people make up about 0.1% of the Royal Opera House audience and maybe 0.5% of the ENO audience. Given that black people make up over 13% of the population of London (not including mixed race people, which would bring it up to closer to 16%), that’s a really significant population that opera is failing to reach. Given ENO’s struggles with audience numbers that could be a crucial market to break into. I had the interesting experience of going to a performance of Carmen Jones and finding myself one of a small minority of white people in the audience. That was an ad hoc performance with no chance of building up a future audience, but maybe if ENO does something like this and markets it effectively it could open up opera to a relatively new audience. Similarly, at least 12% of London’s population are south Asian. How often does one see anything like 283 south Asian people at the London Coliseum? Never, I suspect.

          • Oh, dear God.

            People of colour are getting increasingly tired of how stereotyped depictions of them are the only way that they can get into decent houses. Porgy and Bess is not how black singers would like to be seen by black audiences. Or indeed any audience. Black audiences are not necessarily going to be thrilled to come and see poor, downtrodden, drunken and often faithless caricatures in a storyline that was out of date at the time of its composition. And this is apparently the only worthwhile depiction of black people one can put on stage? Porgy and Bess is very popular WITH WHITE AUDIENCES.

            Oh, perhaps ENO should do The Indian Queen, again? Or Koanga? Do you see now what the problem is?

            A few years back, ENO had a perfectly lovely (and very beautiful) Countess in Elizabeth Llewellyn. They had Angel Blue as Mimi. Keel Watson. Rodney Clarke. Roderick Williams. They never had to play ‘black’ roles.

            ENO putting diversity as a prerequisite is equally damaging. All they need to do is hire the best singer for the role, regardless of their colour. ENO claiming it’s meeting diversity targets by putting on Porgy and Bess is lazy, patronising and perpetuates racial stereotypes.

          • @Anonymous: Here’s hoping You don’t have to sing Porgy & Bess, for your sake and that of the audience both.

            For the rest, and in my opinion, you haven’t begun to understand it.

          • When I went to Aida in November; place was full of lovely Ethiopians and their well behaved young children. Pearl Fishers at the time was full of Sri Lankans, including my doctors who had never been to an opera in their lives. Has to be a good thing. Should all the parts of Pearl Fishers have been sung by Sri Lankans? At ENO, sorry but I don’t think so.

        • This comment describes the problem perfectly. The Coli was not ‘full of Ethiopians’ for Aida. You saw some Ethiopians (or people you assumed to be Ethiopians). Nor was it ‘full of Sri Lankans’ for Pearlfishers, there were some Sri Lankans there, two of whom were your doctors.

          I am white; but I’ve seen too many really very good black singers turned away, told things will change for them if they just sing this one (then another, then another) production of Porgy and Bess (known by some black singers as ‘Pork ‘n’ Beans’). It’s such a shame that the tenor hired as Alfredo was simply not up to the job. It was a huge mistake to have thrust him forward. It is equally wrong to justify it on the grounds of diversity. Especially when there are some really great black singers out there. So instead of getting defensive and sniping that you hope I never have to sing in Porgy and Bess, or enumerating every member of the audience who was non-white and assuming they are ethnically related to the opera being shown, try to think how artists of colour feel, continually being passed over for roles for which they are perfectly well suited vocally and dramatically, then being called only when a piece that represents stereotypical aspects of black American life is staged. And then imagine how they must feel when a white person tells them that this is ‘diversity’.

          Last season, ENO staged an opera about Charlie Parker. It had an engaging cast, many of whom were black. It was mounted at the Hackney Empire. Some black people attended. They didn’t come because they were amazed to see black people on stage.

          If you want to bring black people into the opera house consistently, just hire black singers in mainstream roles, not once or twice; but consistently over decades. Then black audiences will come, consistently, over decades.

          • I can completely relate to your empathy with the exasperation of some black singers for being confined to Porgy and Bess, but don’t blame Gershwin’s opera. Your characterization of it is just plain wrong, IMO. I do realize you’re not alone in this view.

            The Gershwin estate has long insisted on an all-black cast. Do you agree with this?

        • The insistence on an all-black cast by the estate is to prohibit ‘Blackface’ productions. It doesn’t change the matter that this is not an opera to present to increase diversity.

          The way to increase diversity, both in casts and audiences, is to treat singers of colour just like white singers. John McMurray managed it rather well. It shouldn’t be beyond the current administration.

          • Let me ask you again: do you agree with the all-black policy? I can’t see it for the world outside the US; in the US, at present, I’m not sure.

            “promoting diversity” was never the point or purpose of this opera. That’s an administrative problem. It is your take on P&B as backward-looking, promoting vicious stereotypes &c that I contest. To me it’s a world masterpiece, devoid of racial prejudice on any level, that should be cherished and its productions encouraged.

            BTW the all-black policy can make it much more expensive to produce. One excuse the NY Met made for waiting fifty (50) years before adding it to its rep, was the cost of hiring an all-black chorus. (The cost might possibly have been affected by other demands the rights holders too.)

      • Yes, we are all in agreement here. But Kramer just took the whole thing to another level entirely by saying that his casts will be diverse “wherever humanly possible”. Let that sink in for a minute. He is basically saying that this is the thing he cares about above everything else. If someone comes through the door of an audition whom he perceives as “diverse” then he will hire that person, regardless of whether they are up to the part and no matter how great any of the “non-diverse” contestants may be. This is disrespectful to audiences and performers alike, it’s frankly a scandal of epic proportions. He should never have been let anywhere near an opera house.

        • Yes, I agree! I do not want to go to an opera and have to wonder which members of the cast were chosen for reasons of diversity and which were chosen because they can actually sing well enough to be on the stage of the London Coliseum on their own merits. And if I were a singer I wouldn’t want to be wondering whether I got the role because I was actually the best candidate or because I fitted the correct ethnic profile or had a disability of whatever.

  • ENO is obviously in crisis and this requires a new approach. How about putting artists in charge? Let’s not forget that the longest serving intendant of the Vienna State Opera, Ioan Holender, was at one point a singer.

    Bu which artists? Obviously there are many possibilities and the suggestions below are but one fraction of them. But any list should at minimum include:

    John Tomlinson, John Mitchinson. John Mitchinson, John Tomlinson. Toby Spence.

    John Tomlinson, John Mitchinson. John Mitchinson, John Tomlinson. Nicky Spence.

    John Tomlinson, John Mitchinson. John Mitchinson, John Tomlinson. Toby Spence (tenor).

    John Tomlinson, John Mitchinson. John Mitchinson, John Tomlinson. John Robertson.

    John Tomlinson, John Mitchinson. John Mitchinson, John Tomlinson, you get the idea…


    • Holender spent a year or two trying to make it as a singer in Austrian provincial theatres but quickly gave up and became a successful agent. Not sure if he deserves to be listed in your line-up of professional singers.
      His predecessor as Staatsoperndirektor was Eberhard Waechter. Now, there’s a different story.

        • If, by ‘role model” we mean someone who is capable of getting things done within the constraints of a low budget, then Holender certainly qualifies. I am sure that a lot of things happened behind the scenes. Yet ultimately Holender remained respected if not necessarily loved.

          That said, my original post was obviously tongue-in-cheek. So I will continue in this mode by pointing out that I could have also chosen Ian Partridge / Ian Bostridge. But repeating them over and over does not have the same effect as John Tomlinson / John Mitchinson.

          So can anyone else help me continue with this silliness? Let’s keep the same first name, so no Elly Ameling / Valda Aveling.

    • Perhaps they don’t want the job! Tomlinson is over 70 and assigned to the Royal.Northern College of Music for a number of years!!!

      • And of course John Mitchinson is in his mid-eighties and most likely is enjoying a well deserved retirement. But as I said, this comment was not meant to be taken seriously.

  • Well I saw the launch before reading SD. I looked at this season and thought “ looks good, something interesting and lovely to see The Merry Widow resurface “ . Then I thought I wonder what sour comments Slipped Disc will provide. I got it right.

  • As for the Britten War Requiem, I agree that staging choral works like it is generally cheating a bit, but it can work. Still, it’s not _opera_ per se. However, note Derek Jarman’s interesting film version: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_Requiem_(film).

    And I’ll say that, all other things being equal, I generally like opera in English. Although I can understand spoken German fairly well, and French and Italian tolerably, there is still the immediacy of hearing the words directly from the singer, without the intermediate step of reading surtitles that are sometimes not well synchronized. I’d rather, for example, hear what Ping, Pang and Pong are saying than read it, and the longer dialogues in Wagner are, to my mind, better in English. When I really want to luxuriate in something like The Ring, I’ll put on Goodall and be happy I don’t have to keep an eye on the libretto.

    • I have four languages but London English is my mother tongue. My own singing teacher was an ENO baritone for many years, and more tgan one English translation to.learn for one opera. And I saw my very first opera as a 17 year old at ENO. As a singer easy to learn a role once in the original, particularly as a truly international.singer but then ENO didn’t set out to get stars. But as I am now more often in the audience, I love opera in English as the Germans for the Ring in their own and immediate language.

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