ENO: Let’s see the right heads roll

The new issue of Opera magazine has a rather good editorial on English National Opera and its never-ending woes.

Among other points it singles out chief executive Stuart) Murphy as ‘an inveterate attention-seeker, constantly popping up in gullible newspapers with good-news stories … Most of his announcements have been couched in pure PR-speak, but even his sound bites cannot disguise the fact that this state-subsidized opera company is sub-letting to a commercial firm peddling bland musicals. And let’s not dwell on his attempts at courting so-called celebrities.’

However when it comes to biting the bullet, Opera’s editor barely has a nibble: ‘There are some on the board who ought to be standing up for the art form, notably the operatically experienced Anthony Whitworth-Jones and Louise Jeffreys. But the latter is said to be eyeing up the deputy chairmanship, and everyone seems happy taking dictation from Arts Council England’s Simon ‘Relevance Is The New Litmus Test’ Mellor.’

This is not a good time to be missing the point and this editorial falls well short.

Let Slipped Disc reiterate what we have argued before: The board must go. One disastrous appointment after another has to be laid at the door of those who took the hiring decisions, namely the board. The Arts Council must ask for the board’s resignation. The company should be put into special measures until a fresh set of faces is installed around the board table.


share this

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on google
  • I totally agree with NL. Decades ago I required some help With a difficult and sometimes interfering orchestra Board consisting mostly of political appointees. I persuaded the Chairman to have the late Basil Tschaikov write a report. Nick, the name by which he was always called, wrote a short and concise paper which encapsulated almost everything I required. His main point was that a Board has two primary duties – the appointment of the CEO and the Artistic Director who are then left to get on with the job – and unfortunately, as with mine, most Board members are distinctly unqualified to make such decisions. If the appointees err, then the ultimate sanction is they be fired. His remit did not include this, but my own view is that if decisions of a Board are consistently wrong, then they should also be fired.

    • A very good argument. If board or equivalent consistently gets appointments and other decisions wrong you do not have to be a revolutionary anarchist to want change.

  • Have a go at the Board if you wish, but the truth is much more complicated.

    Senior positions in British opera houses and orchestras are recruited by headhunting companies. The people in charge of shortlisting candidates for the Board to interview are under-qualified to undertake the role assigned to them.

    I heard of one candidate who found the name of the (world-famous) opera company they’d applied to spelled wrong not once, but TWICE, in their rejection letter. Another candidate who said that there were large gaps in the recruiters’ knowledge of their professional resumé and that this led them to reject their application without reading it.

    Those who work in opera hear regular horror stories about administrators without even basic knowledge of repertoire. Casting directors without even rudimentary knowledge of a singer’s technique are now the norm. Some cannot even recognise basic musical terms.

    It’s stupid to expect people in positions where artistic judgement is required to be hired in the normal way. Changes should be made. Opera Europa should be leading the way on this.

    • An excellent comment, Anon. I very much think that what is true about opera companies is also true of symphony orchestras. There has long been abroad the idea that if you have an MBA or the equivalent you can run any organization, as if the MBA inculcates a set of perfectly transferable skills. It does not. The members of the symphony orchestra whose admin I know best rebelled when the CEO/President, who had not one iota of musical knowledge, declared that she would be among those few who were charged with going from Canada to Europe in search of a new music director.That didn’t happen and, not long after, she resigned, having brought the orchestra to the brink of bankruptcy. And that was because she was also a disaster when it came to marketing. As you observe re opera houses, when it comes to symphony orchestras the normal ways of hiring a CEO/president (formerly known as ‘manager’ and so it should be) just won’t do.

      • I believe it’s quite common for those in management culture to say that good management doesn’t require any knowledge of the activity in which the people you manage are engaged.

    • And why are appointments left to headhunting companies? Because the often self-appointing Boards are simply unable to fulfill their most basic tasks!

      • It is not the board’s job to undertake such tasks. In previous times, an exploratory committee made up of conductors, directors, musicians and agents was put together to make a shortlist.

        • And who appointed the Exploratory Committee – and who made the decisions regarding appointments from the shortlists? It still remains a board’s responsibility however you look at it.

  • Maybe the ENO should be permitted to simply fade away.

    Does anyone really enjoy opera in translation anymore? It’s such an anachronism.

    • Sad – when you consider the great days of the 70’s! Ambititious repertoire, with some legendary productions…not least Goodall’s Ring! If the quality is truly there, the language issue is less significant.
      Maybe yet another musical theatre for the West End?

    • Have you been? I mean, seriously, the tens of thousands who experienced their first Magic Flute, Boheme, Salome etc or queued around the block for Philip Glass (incredible but true) and Gershwin, just considering the last season, should all just crawl into a ditch and never see accessible opera again? And yes, opera in translation is popular – it is easier to follow the narrative and dialogue, and for real world audiences it remains a strong attraction, and has stronger historical precedent than singing in a language not understood by the audience.

      • Opera in translation was more popular before the war. In the post-war era, opera in the original language has been standard.

        There is good reason for this. For one thing, the widespread use of super-titles has rendered opera in the original language more intelligible to audiences.

        Another issue is the fact that the music in an opera is often a natural reflection of the language – the musical nature of the language if you will. Translations often sound unnatural. Italian opera sounds better in Italian. German opera sounds better in German, etc.

      • What is happening at the ENO seems eerily similar to what happened with Scottish Opera. Its golden years were roughly at the same time – the late 60s and most of the 70s. Thereafter the company went into a long period of decline, with only occasional glimmers of what it used to be like. There was no fixed policy on language as far as I am aware, and yet in those pre-supertitle days opera in English was scheduled as was opera in the original language. Sometimes both. For the first Rosenkavalier performances, for example, Helga Dernesch agreed to relearn the Marschallin in English alongside Janet Baker’s Octavian and Elizabeth Harewood’s Sophie. Repeated a few years later, she was again the Marschallin when the performances were given in German. The Ring and Tristan were in German whilst Meistersinger was in English.

  • ==as if the MBA inculcates a set of perfectly transferable skills. It does not.

    Correct, well put. Many MBAs I’ve known act as if they can walk on water. Deep knowledge of the environment is the main thing, not how many different ways the numbers can be crunched.

  • The Directors of ENO don’t have MBA’s, they probably should. Headhunters don’t appoint the board. The board do. That’s why they appoint their cronies or people who look like them. eg. Sir Vernon Ellis appoints Nick Allen at NOS even though he was on the board of ENO when it ran aground in 2015. Totally agree, the entire board of ENO should go.

  • >