Just in: ENO aims for ethnic equality in chorus

Just in: ENO aims for ethnic equality in chorus


norman lebrecht

January 28, 2019

Press release:

English National Opera (ENO) today (Monday 28 January) announces a key step forward to making the opera industry more accessible and representative of the society in which we live.

ENO is to recruit four new choristers from a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) background in a concerted effort to ensure our Chorus more fairly reflects our society. They will join the ENO Chorus for the 19/20 Season for a 9 month paid contract with the view to extending for a further season. This means that for the first time ever, ENO’s Chorus will more closely echo the proportion of people from diverse backgrounds that currently make up the UK population (currently 13%). ENO are also actively seeking to audition and employ Choristers from a BAME background for ‘extra chorus’ positions.

In addition, ENO is launching three annual ENO Director Observerships, offering emerging BAME directors the opportunity to work alongside world-renowned opera directors, observing the entire process of directing an opera from start to finish. Participants (who will be paid) will also be given an insight into the day to day workings of a large national company, from stage management and company office to technical and production.

From the start of the 2018 Season, ENO put into place, for the first time ever, blind auditions for the orchestra, as part of its recruitment process.

Stuart Murphy, ENO CEO,  said: “I am proud of ENO’s founding principle to provide opera for everyone and hope today’s announcement shows we continue to be committed to making this a reality in three key areas – reflecting diversity in both our performers and non-performers, and in our audiences. If we get this right, it will liberate new pools of talent in the UK and bring a greater and more varied stories to our stage. Today’s announcement follows the launch before Christmas of our scheme giving Free Tickets to Under 18’s on Saturdays, for which almost 1,000 tickets have been claimed.”


  • FrauGeigerin says:

    How absurd! So, in order to have more people of minority backgrounds as audience they are going to – because of their different appearance – hire, pay, and “exhibit” them on stage… So, if a non-minority person goes to an audition and is slighly better in singing or acting than a minority person, the ENO is going to hire the monority person because they are going for the “right looks”. Sad, very sad indeed.

    If you want monorities in your audience, then have a smaller touring company within the company performing in parts of London where these persons are a majority, go to schools and educate the potential future patros, lower the price of the tickets, and stop doing these stupid things.

    • Jacques Derridagh says:

      You are correct, this is the enforced equality of outcome (rather than equality of opportunity), which not only sad but in the past has led to catastrophic consequences.

      And ask one of the promoters if they would let themselves be operated on by a surgeon who was hired to fill a rainbow quota rather than one who got the job based on skill and competence.

    • 18mebrumaire says:

      Set up, train and maintain a separate touring company — who pays?
      Tour schools with educational program — who pays?
      Reduce the price of tickets — who pays???

  • Anon says:

    Very laudable, but surely gaining a position on merit, not a tick box exercise which has become increasingly common in the British arts scene. Makes mockery of those who jobs were won on merit.

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    The quota system is not the best way of achieving great music making. Thank goodness this is only the ENO, which increasingly seems to be on the way out.Would it not be terrible if a great company , such as Royal Opera House announced something like this?

  • Paul Niewiemski says:

    So to work against racism in society, let’s divide people by race. Seems a bit counterintuitive, doesn’t it. One would rather see the best person applying for the job getting the job, everything else is a discrimination of sorts.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      It’s just as bad in the gender quota system; well, possibly worse. When this stuff is advocated you know the Left has gone off the reservation and way too far. And they give a leave pass to big corporations – sans any scrutiny – because they tick the equity boxes and advocate fashionable, middle class causes. Staggeringly naive.

    • Emil says:

      The point, Paul, is that society already divides people by race, and that the ‘let’s not see race’ argument is utter nonsense. It only perpetuates race-based inequalities that are already present and further entrenches them. So being conscious that race as constructed socially is a thing, and acting in consequence, is not “dividing people by race”.

      So discrimination is inflicting an equality of outcomes (“best” person gets the job) while ignoring the inequality of starting-points.

  • Von Schneider says:

    To deliberately hire someone on the basis of the colour of their skin is racism – plain and simple.

    The lack of BAME representation in opera in the UK is due to (1) opera being a Western art form created, shaped, and made for Westerners and is thus not likely to appeal to BAME individuals to the same extent as it would to white Europeans; (2) a higher percentage of BAMEs in the UK attend poorly funded state schools where classical music/opera is seldom taught.

    Rather than engage in outright racist hiring practices, how about the ENO setting up a scholarship to ensure talented BAMEs from poor families can pursue training in their field from an early age? That would be wonderful and would ultimately lead to greater representation within the arts. This heavy-handed top-down approach will only serve to trigger the political far right.

    • James says:

      By your own argument though, “To deliberately offer [a scholarship] on the basis of the colour of their skin is racism – plain and simple.”

      So what would you suggest should be done instead?

      • Sue Sonata Form says:

        Talent. Nothing else matters. At all. But you’d only ask the question in the first place if you had been systematically propagandized.

        • Bruce says:

          I think James was asking the question in light of Von Schneider’s statement that showing preference because of race is racist, followed by Von Schneider’s suggestion of offering scholarships to talented kids based on their race.

        • Dominic Stafford says:

          If talent’s the only thing that matters, that’s you screwed, isn’t it?

          And, actually, anyone who works in this artform knows that that there are lots and lots of BAME singers more than good enough to sing in the ENO chorus and that allowing the audience to engage and empathise with the performers is a vital part of theatre.

          • Saxon Broken says:

            If there are “lots of BAME singers more than good enough” then why doesn’t the ENO just hire them on merit? If they are not currently hiring qualified BAME candidates they need to think carefully about why not, rather the blithely construct quotas.

        • Emil says:

          No one suggests talent shouldn’t matter. You’ve literally made that argument up. No one, ever, has suggested that the ENO will not hire competent singers.

    • Emil says:

      No, racism is perpetuating a system in which structural bias ensures that minorities are overwhelmingly excluded from jobs. As for your ‘explanations’ above:
      1) Are you saying BAME are not Western? That a Black Englishman from London is not Western enough to like opera? That only Whites are properly Western? I’m sure that’s not the route you want to go down, so please consider what you’re implying.
      2) That’s exactly the point – structural discrimination. You’ve literally pointed out structural racism. Well done. So, on that foundation, how is ‘let’s do nothing’ a proper response?

      As for your suggestion of a scholarship scheme, sure. But representation matters, and you need to build from the top and from below (otherwise, who exactly will run your scholarship scheme?). So actions like these matter, both as role models and as people who can prepare the field for others. Also, let’s face it, the people who will be hired fully deserve these jobs. The ENO will continue to hire competent singers – I don’t believe for a second that the ENO would compromise artistic quality.

      So, where’s the problem?

  • Dominic Stafford says:

    Good! An entirely welcome endeavour.

  • Mechelina Entius says:

    So if there are two applicants, one is 75% black, 25% Hispanic male and the other 50% black, 50% Asian female, who gets the job?

    • Efpt OIzlpedpec says:

      And what if the second one is transgender and not female?

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      The one with the talent. Again, the very fact you’ve even asked the question is disturbing… very disturbing. And – sorry to be blunt – just plain silly.

  • Adrienne says:

    It has been suggested before that a fair, sincere and non-racist way to achieve true diversity in opera, or in anything else, would be to help people from disadvantaged backgrounds, regardless of race. This would still benefit black people, but not unfairly.

    I doubt if white people from working class backgrounds are particularly well represented in the ENO either, but that doesn’t press the right-on buttons, does it?

  • Mr. Knowitall says:

    Perhaps Norman could just pin a post to the top of his feed called “Affirmative Action! Discuss” where these tired arguments could be sequestered.

  • Marcus Clayton says:

    This whole thing is beyond absurd. The singers in the chorus should be hired based on their singing, not race.
    I am sick of reading about “diversity” in the arts.
    The talented performers should be hired, and if that means an all-white cast of La Boheme or Norma, then so be it.
    Inserting inferior minority performers is not a solution for anything.

    • Medium Giraffe says:

      An essential characteristic of the diversity and A.A. trainwreck is that the hirers don’t give a fig about members of “minorities” as individuals. They only do it to flaunt their moral superiority–they are infinitely better people than you–and gain political advantage. This backed by an incessant stream of propaganda from academics,the mainstream media and lately institutions and corporations who are jumping on the bandwagon because it is profitable.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      You haven’t mentioned “cultural appropriation” yet and how some races have simply ‘appropriated’ western art music and culture that didn’t originally ‘belong’ to that nation/culture. That’s very fashionable right now; activating against cultural appropriation!!! If it’s good enough for the goose…

      I think one of the most effective things you can do is use this language back at the people who created it. That will always tick them off!!! Two can play the game; that’s, er, ‘fair’.

    • Maria says:

      They’ll be looking for a chorus full of Sri Lankans next to do Pearl Fishers in case any hint of coffee-coloured make-up would offend!

      • Dirk Sebastian says:

        That’s the complete opposite of what they are doing. They are trying to encourage the enjoyment of performance and attendance to opera, where, for whatever reason, it has not been taken up in the past. How do you solve a problem like (that) Maria?

        • Saxon Broken says:

          I find the premise bizarre. Black people only want to see black people on stage. Jews only want to see Jews on stage. Liverpudlians only want to see Scousers on stage. Women only want to see women on stage. And if they don’t get what they want then they won’t go to see anything.

  • Simon Gregory says:

    Anyone know when it will apply to the audience?

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    Here is the kind of affirmative action I think we would all advocate and feel proud about:


    What’s missing in all this rubbish is a sense of humor. Until humor comes back we’ll have to tolerate this authoritarianism.

    • Maria says:

      Humor? You must be American? Ha, ha!

    • BrianB says:

      Humor is looked on with great suspicion on the left. It’s dangerous. Comedy is extinct now on college campuses. More people should pay attention to Yevtushenko’s ‘Humor’ in the 2nd movement of the Shostakovich 13th. Ironic that came out of the Soviet Union.

  • Luigi Nonono says:

    Tokenism. My biggest objection is the failure of “minority” singers to use appropriate stage make-up in order to blend in. White singers use make-up to become all sorts of characters, and so should others. No double standards. No naturalism on stage. It’s opera.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      I am puzzled why you see “a black man” rather than the character in the theatre piece when the actor/singer is not white? For most operas/plays it really does not matter to the plot whether the person playing the part is “black” or “white”.

  • Andrew says:

    When a taxpayer-funded company moves from merit-based hiring to race-based hiring it should be axed.

  • Ben says:

    So employing a private school educated Oxbridge grad who happens to be not white is a blow for diversity is it now

    • SVM says:

      Actually, being a graduate of an élite *university* is seen by some in the music profession as a liability (“too intellectual” and all that).

      And let us not overlook the existence of “white” ethnic minorities in the UK.

      • Emil says:

        Yes, it’s true, I can’t think of anyone who was educated at Cambridge and Oxford who has a musical career. Absolutely no one.

  • Bruce says:

    A few thoughts come to mind:

    (a) ENO is talking about four chorus-member jobs. I don’t know how big the ENO chorus is but I would guess that 4 represents a fairly small percentage. I don’t know how many current members are BAME; I would guess the number is pretty small if they’re choosing to address this.

    (b) There are enough terrific singers out there of all ethnic backgrounds that they won’t need to compromise on quality.

    (c) Taking (b) into account — no compromising on quality — I think it’s laudable that an opera company would want its onstage personnel to reflect the general population.

    (d) I think it’s fairly common for companies of various types to take a look at their hiring practices — something along the lines of, “Since X% of graduates from top schools in our field are BAME, and our company has hired many graduates of those schools, why is it that only [number less than X]% of our hires are BAME?” — and take steps to correct biases in the hiring process, if they discover any.

    (e) I think it’s also fairly common for people who have knee-jerk reactions to think that the company has put no more thoughtfulness into its proposal than they have put into their reaction.

    • Emil says:

      Great comment – nails the issue.

      Your point d) highlights that this is a win-win for the ENO as well – they can access a pool of highly qualified singers they might not reach otherwise.

  • stanley cohen says:

    Just so long as they can sing in tune and follow the conductor — everything else is totally and utterly irrelevant [Symphonic chorus member in London for 40 years — Philharmonia and Pro Musica with occasional visits to others for purposes of ‘stiffening.’]

  • Emil says:

    A lot of people here screaming about “merit” have clearly not spent any time thinking about what “merit” is and what it represents.

    • Bone says:

      Ok, I’ll bite: what is your definition of merit and what does it represent?

      • Emil says:

        Thanks for asking.
        I don’t have a definition, but I know for sure it is way more complicated than “the best singer”, simply because “best” is defined in a lot of various ways, several of which are in themselves socially coded. For instance, given that most opera characters are written as white, does that influence casting? Are BAME applicants at a disadvantage?
        Given that BAME applicants may have less access to training schemes, private lessons, etc., do they have to overcome obstacles that other applicants do not? What skills are not being measured? Are the expectations of what a ‘good’ singer is meant to do favouring certain categories of applicants?

        Basically, assuming that BAME applicants do not train and develop in the same way as white applicants, due to socioeconomic backgrounds, etc., does the definition of ‘merit’ inherently favour some categories of applicants?

        As a simple (isolated) example, Simon Estes famously did not train in operatic voice studies until quite late, and entered Juilliard at age 26. What is needed to recognize such talents is a more complex notion of merit, not trying to find a way to fit everyone into a narrow conception of what it means to be ‘good.’

        And, before anyone objects, I am quite convinced opera will be better for this effort. Training and teaching can make up for a diversity in starting points, so it’s definitely not a case of lowering standards.

        • Ellingtonia says:

          “Given that BAME applicants may have less access to training schemes, private lessons, etc., do they have to overcome obstacles that other applicants do not?”… and you think white working class kids (particularly males) don’t face the same “problem” as you define it. Opera is Western European art form, performed in the main by white people and watched by white people and mostly middle class. Do explain what your problem is with that.Perhaps these should be an “outreach” programme for white young people to encourage them to take up and participate in “gangsta rap” and “drill music.” Do go back to your political posturing in the quiet of your own home and leave the rest of us to enjoy our music, whoever is performing it!

          • Dirk Sebastian says:

            Opera is categorically NOT only a Western European art form. In many countries in which the art form developed, at the time it was enjoyed by an audience diverse in the social and economic hierarchy. There are white people from less privileged backgrounds working in opera but that number is on the decline. Most people would welcome more accessibility to opera possible for everyone. Different schemes will attract different candidates. Drill music is not an area of expertise of mine, but Gangsta Rap is not, and hasn’t been for a long time, short of high-profile white performers.

          • Emil says:

            The problem? Well, many with your statements.
            1) you’re equating “Western” and “white” which is, well, revealing.
            2) Did I ever say anything against outreach to working class kids? Did anyone, ever? The situation is different, though, on the point of representation.
            3) the point on rap is very different, and you’re here guilty of replicating exactly the hierarchy of art forms that mirrors social inequality. Opera – by your own account the art of the white middle classes – is ‘high’ art, while “gangsta” rap – which you seem to equate with the art of BAME communities (in itself an insanely ignorant statement) is low art, by your own account. See the problem here?

          • Bruce says:

            ^ I’m guessing not.

        • Saxon Broken says:

          Emil claims “most opera characters are written as white”.

          Er…no they are not. There are very few operas where the white/black-ness of the characters has any bearing on the plot at all. In most operas race simply does not matter.

  • Dirk Sebastian says:

    I think a lot of people are missing the point here, although it is understandable as some vital information has been left out in the above article.

    The singers ENO are looking for in this particular instance, are to be members of a FELLOWSHIP. A fixed-term, non-permanent position.This would be similar to a Young Artist programme, for which only the chronically near-sighted would cite Ageism as a reason to object.

    Let’s be honest, most theatre performers are already employed for a look as well as a sound. A company wants to attract new performers, young performers, performers with a diverse appearance or from a different background, or from different training or offering different skill sets. It’s really not controversial unless you chose to interpret it that way.

    The full-time permanent jobs in the chorus remain open to all applicants and there is no indication of any intention to hire any but the best candidates.

    Four new paid opportunities for singers is a positive story and anyone who went to see Porgy and Bess would know there are plenty who match the description for this unique opportunity.

    Those who hold the view that the only way to improve diversity in opera is to start at the education level, surely appreciate that this takes years to bear fruit and is only going to get more difficult with education cuts in schools. The ENO Baylis education and outreach programme already have a healthy active approach to diversity. Instead of criticising, get down to the venues and see for yourselves.

  • SVM says:

    Life is unfair in many ways, but two wrongs do not make a right.

    As others have said, ethnicity (howsoever defined… does it include the numerous ethnic minorities that, in the context of the UK, are not obvious to the eye and ear?) is but one factor which may confer privilege or disadvantage. Privilege is not a singular measurement, but a complex intersection of different factors with no universally acknowledged pecking-order. A facet of one’s background may be regarded by some as a sign of musical pedigree, and by others as a liability (often with vague waffle such as “too intellectual”).

    Another issue is that positive discrimination is insultingly patronising to the ostensible beneficiaries. The implicit message will be that they are second-rate and should be “grateful” for the “privilege” of performing with ENO. By the way, how does the 9-month probationary contract with possibility of renewal compare to ENO’s standard terms for hiring a chorister on merit alone? If it happened to be less favourable, it would confirm the aforementioned implicit message.

    Positive discrimination is a dereliction of artistic judgement; better to find ways to reduce unconscious bias, such as blind auditions.

    • Dirk Sebastian says:

      I think you have to be realistic about representation. The assumption made by many, on both sides of the argument here, is that opera is mainly performed and enjoyed by “white Western Europeans”. Assumption comes from perception, and that can only be changed by what is evidenced from a distance, particularly when people are so desperate to voice opinions without seeking evidence to support their assertions.

      The statement from ENO does not make any claims to reverse privilege, or indicate a wish to do so.

      It is only reasonable that a company funded partly by the tax payer might be expected to make efforts to be more inclusive. Companies across the UK in many fields have made numerous attempts to create schemes and novel application processes, to attract new and varied interest. Did every person applicable feel “implicit(ly) second-rate and patronised”? No because the positions were filled.

      9 month contracts can quite feasibly be more appealing to people considering a career of any form in the arts. They are not probationary. There is nothing to say they cannot or would not, at any time, apply for the full time jobs should they become available. There never was.

      Blind auditions of performers expected to appear onstage are always going to be of limited value. Perhaps a first round.