ENO loses its last throw of the dice

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Taking the risk of putting a business manager with no arts experience in charge was a bold one, and it hasn’t come off for ENO. With the loss of Mark Wigglesworth, the music director who has walked out after just six months because he couldn’t stand by and watch the programme decimated or the resident artists suffer, the gamble has also been lost.

It’s hard to see what Cressida Pollock, the young efficiency expert brought in from McKinsey’s to be the CEO, can do now. 

When she was first drafted in by the ENO board the artistic director, John Berry, said he knew her and knew he could work with her. A few months later he had gone. In her anxiety to cope with the Arts Council’s £5m annual cut she took on the chorus - not the orchestra because presumably the Musicians’ Union is tougher than Equity which represented the singers – and although she won that battle she drew a line between herself and the performers. To save £600,000 a year she has alienated the artists who in this instance represent another anomaly in the “cultural economy” in that they are among the best in the world at what they do and are paid so badly they cannot afford to take management on with impunity.

Wigglesworth was seen as the best chance of saving the artistic integrity of the troubled company with which the Arts Council has been wrestling for 20 years or more and never got right. When he and Pollock met the press a few short months ago there seemed a good pairing in prospect, she by making the unsuitable palace of varieties ENO owns pay for some of its keep at last and determined to learn and bring her business skills to coalesce with the creative process, he with a vision for the company that would bring it back to Lilian Baylis’s founding mission of making musical storytelling available to all (by the outdated means of singing everything in English), to work more with the likes of the Young Vic and Barbican, get its Opera Squad into schools and its Pop-Up Opera popping up in communities everywhere.

Then suddenly he tells the musicians the company is "evolving now into something I do not recognise" and the " fundamental pillars of our identity" have gone, and his cards were in. The new season to be announced in May is expected to have a third fewer productions and a greater reliance on box office bankers, but Wigglesworth was known already to be unhappy about the confrontation with the chorus which he thought would cause lasting damage. In The Guardian in February he wrote, “I believe a fresh approach will fail if it compromises the company’s experience and expertise. Without the commitment, sense of ownership, love, and pride of the people who are the essence of ENO artistically, we have no right to ask for any curiosity, loyalty, or passion from our audience. ENO’s identity as a team defines its past and will be its greatest asset in protecting its future”.

The identity is proving hard to discern now, and the sterling success of the Philip Glass’s Akhnaten last month may be the last we see of it. 

Meanwhile, amid the rubble, the board and CEO are still trying to find an artistic director to replace John Berry, nine months after he left, and one candidate I’ve spoken to withdrew when he realised the board was not interested in new ideas, only someone to fit in with the plans it had already formed. 

“ENO needs to raise its income to solve its financial problems. We need to make savings that do not directly affect our ability to express what we do” Wigglesworth wrote. “With creativity and imagination, I believe that is possible”. Sadly, the management does not, and it will be the death of ENO.

 

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