In defence of James Conway and English Touring Opera

In defence of James Conway and English Touring Opera


norman lebrecht

January 21, 2022

The soprano Rachel Nicholls has written a stirring blogpost, regretting the departure of ETO’s founding director.

She is the first to speak up for James Conway in the furore since he made a fateful miscommunication to musicians.

Among other things Rachel writes:

I can genuinely see both sides of the pro-diversity in opera/keeping regular players in employment issue. And as an issue it is a very complex and thorny one. There is virtue to be seen on both sides here, and for me that is the crux of why I think the scapegoating of ETO’s General Director is unfair. The twitterati always like to have a fall-guy – a personality to wear the cloak of shame after any controversy. James Conway is a visionary. He is someone who will raise his head above the parapet because he is principled and unafraid, and so it’s very easy to take pot-shots at him.

Please, let me set the record straight about a few things:

Firstly, every single thing which makes ETO the excellent organisation which it is, and which enables it to win awards for its work is down to the vision and incredible hard work of its General Director overseeing a dedicated and talented team.

Secondly, diversity is not a new hobby-horse for James Conway- he has been championing it for the whole of his long and distinguished career. Diversity is vitally important, and any opera company putting on shows today will ignore this at their peril. We are having so many vital discussions in the opera world at the moment about casting, cultural appropriation, history, colonialism and the bigotry of repertoire from days gone by seen through the lens of our newly woke sensibilities, and thank goodness we are now “awoken” to them! Now is absolutely the time to make diversity a priority.

Thirdly, when a new Musical Director takes up the musical leadership of an organisation, it is not unusual or unreasonable for that organisation to hold auditions.

Fourthly, James Conway is 66. This isn’t a secret. He has tried to hand over the reins of the guardianship of ETO once before. It didn’t work out so he (I think nobly) stepped back up to shoulder the responsibility. So he hasn’t been sacked. He isn’t leaving because his vision hasn’t quite captured the current Zeitgeist, and he isn’t going because of Twitter’s best efforts to have him cancelled. The poor man has been trying to retire for more than two years.

Read the full post here.

Photo: (c) David Shoukry


  • V. Lind says:

    No, no, no, a thousand times no. Diversity should be a consideration at all times, but if producing the best possible music is not the priority, then an orchestra has no place in the world of the arts. Especially when diversity is being interpreted to mean a relatively small minority having numerical equivalence to the population with the much larger representation.

  • sonicsinfonia says:

    When a new music director takes up his post, it is not unusual to hold auditions. It is fairly unusual to sack all players and start again from scratch with diversity being the leading criterion.

    • Enquirer says:

      So this is how fake news escalates: not re-engaging half of the players in a freelance pool becomes “sack all players and start again from scratch”. Congratulations.

    • IC225 says:

      Erm…no-one was sacked. They were freelancers, and they were not rehired. Every freelancer across the arts works in the knowledge that this is always a possibility. It’s the employer’s prerogative, and all freelancers who aren’t delusional or entitled accept this as a trade-off for the flexibility and increased earning potential that comes with choosing to work this way rather than taking a payrolled position.

      • Anon says:

        ‘Rather than taking a payrolled position’ tells me with absolute certainty that you know nothing whatsoever about the music profession.

  • Cracker McWhitey says:

    Whenever loud lefty liberals lose an argument, they pivot and say they can see both sides. See above. The fact is, pro-diversity as defined by the woke is simply anti-white racism. ETO should continue to be ashamed at their actions.

    • Evelyn Wallace-Carter says:

      Here, here! Evelyn Wallace-Carter, Auustralia

      • V. Lind says:

        Do you mean “Hear, hear”? That means an applauding support. “Here, here,” means “hang on a moment,” as in “you can’t really want to say that.” Your intervention is unclear.

  • Anon says:

    Disgusting. Has Rachel bothered to read the Musician’s Union statements about this? Does she even care?

    ETO had been trying from well before Gerry Cornelius’ appointment to force a changeover in the orchestra and had refused requests from the MU to offer stability or loyalty to players who had been the bedrock of ETO’s success.

    Great opera houses have always realised that it’s the orchestra that is a company’s ‘engine room’. Look after them and they’ll look after you. If you spend years trying to get rid of them and not investing in them it backfires.

    Maybe Rachel could explain to me why diversity was a key factor in orchestral recruitment for ETO ahead of the spring tour, but a white middle age guy is down to direct each of their operas. His name is James Conway.

    • Una says:

      To save money I should think as James would have just had his normall salary, and ETO is not ENO! Everyone on here pretends to be an expert on how to run ETO, and yet never worked for ETO or financially supported All on the side of the MU, now crowing on about the BBC freezing the licence fee. Yet, unless they’ve suddenly changed, they don’t allow singers to join the MU as we are not musicians in their eyes! I have known Rachel well for years. I have found her both extremely nice very articulate and willing to stand up and be counted as herself, not as ‘Anonymous’. As far as I’m concerned and as someone who has worked for ETO as I have, she has got this right. A downright character assasination of James in all of this is just disgraceful and says more about the assasinators than him. Of course, there are always two sides to a story, You can disagree but you don’t have to call him dreadful names as I read yesterday, trying to show superiority.

    • IC225 says:

      Some curious perspectives here. The musicians were freelancers: all freelancers know that they can be let go at any time. And for many years ETO has recruited its orchestra based on the artistic requirements of the specific production. There have been entire productions when they did not use the usual orchestra at all – touring with a piano trio, or an orchestra without strings, plus the many baroque operas in which they have hired an entirely separate period-instrument ensemble.

      Naturally the MU is on the side of its members but to most freelancers, the idea that any company owes you an indefinite living (no matter how often it has hired you in the past) is at best delusional.

  • Allen says:

    I’m sure that the thousands of vulnerable girls, some as young as 11, who are still being raped in northern towns and cities, will be relieved to hear that opera companies are at last taking the bull by the horns and tackling colonialism, and the cruel and grotesque inequalities within the opera world. I’m sure that these have been their main concerns.

    Now, how about an opera drawing attention to their plight? No?

  • M McAlpine says:

    The priority is having the best musicians irrespective of their ethnicity. Of course we want to encourage those from minority ethnic groups but not in ways which compromise performance standards and put others out of work.

  • James Weiss says:

    “Bigotry of repertoire.” Orwell couldn’t have dreamt up that ridiculous phrase.

  • Tony Axe says:

    ETO is largely James Conway’s wonderful achievement. Under his tenure, the productions were always inventive and relevant, without straying too far from the original story and composer’s intentions. This is vital when so many of his audience were first-time opera goers, who too often have had the experience with other companies where they famliarise themselves with the plot beforehand and find the production they actually see has nothing in common with it. ETO took high quality opera to small out of the way venues, but quality was never compromised. Despite his vast work load, James always had time to answer my queries about the productions ETO presented. I have followed with extreme disquiet the scapegoating he has had to endure. His response to the Arts Council’s new-woke agenda has been an attempt to conform to their criteria and unrealistic timetable. He will be sorely missed and I wish him a happy and fulfilling retirement.

  • Bone says:


  • Sir David Geffen-Hall says:

    didn’t bother reading her writing but she has beautiful legs.

  • Adrienne says:

    Protesting against a past which is impossible to change, and at no cost to the protester, is cowardly and lazy. These people, in their cloistered careers, think they have something to teach everyone else.

    Ignore the West for once and take a look at, for example, Chinese imperialism. Lots of scope there (and elsewhere) but it doesn’t elevate the status of the protester within the Western arts world to quite the same degree. Let’s face it, this is primarily about the ego of the protester, not the injustice.

  • Observer says:

    yeah, yeah, yeah, blar, blar, blar….Heard it all before.
    Conway deserves all he has got. He shouldn’t have behaved and lied the way he did to the detriment of long serving and committed musicians he was responsible for. Don’t try and defend a sacked and devious director. He knew exactly what he was doing as Music Director Gerry Cornelius will find out in his new work with this hapless opera company.