Passing By: ENO time like old times

Antony Thorncroft, a fan for 50 years, advises English National Opera to abandon its shock tactics and look to its laurels to survive

It is highly likely, given the talents and personalities of the people involved, that the machinations inside arts companies will always be more volatile and unpredictable than the activities of widget manufacturers or cheese retailers, and that this should be particularly true of those working within that most dramatic and complicated of art forms, opera.

Traditionally, the UK’s two major opera houses, the Royal Opera at Covent Garden and English National Opera a few hundred yards down the road at the Coliseum, take it in turns to entertain the public with their artistic and financial crises, but in recent years Covent Garden has entered a period of calm while the ENO seems never to be out of the headlines.

The latest bust up concerns its 44-strong chorus which is staging walk outs in an attempt to avoid a pay cut and a handful of redundancies requested by Cressida Pollock, the new chief executive brought in last year, aged 33, from management consultants McKinseys to sort out the company’s latest financial crisis. It is a brave move by the chorus considering the availability of talented surplus singers in London, desperate for an opportunity to tread the Coliseum boards, and the ability of the ENO bosses to experiment with chorus free productions, concert performances and imported companies. And this time the long term future of the ENO seems particularly parlous, with even the Arts Council showing that it is losing patience by putting the company in special measures and cutting its funding by £5m, around a third of its annual grant.

Personally I have always felt slightly uncomfortable with the ENO chorus, fine singers all but perhaps a questionable overhead. For a start, opera productions these days tend to be much more dramatic which requires the chorus, made up of a wide range of ages and sizes, to show a leg. This can be difficult, when, as is often the case, the women are acting the part of coquettes or maidens and the men soldiers or courtiers. The same problem applies to Covent Garden, and although musically the London companies might have the edge, for me at least the most entertaining and watchable chorus is to be found at Glyndebourne, which recruits up and coming singers for the season. And just think of the savings.

But it is a pity that the chorus should be seen as an easy target for economies when the real villains are the previous management which, like so many of its predecessors, forgot the obvious fact that the regular opera going audience is conservative in its tastes.

It even attempted to copy the “director’s opera” approach of the famous ENO powerhouse, the triumvirate of David Pountney, Mark Elder and Peter Jonas, which garnered a mass of headlines with productions that were designed to shock and awe the audience at the expense of musical coherence. Elder wanted the powerhouse to present operas that were “ground-breaking, risky, probing and theatrically effective”; the audience wanted well sung melodies.

The powerhouse left the ENO with a nasty deficit in the early 1990s but no lessons were learned. A decade later general director Nicholas Payne could say that anyone coming to the ENO for “a nice pleasant evening has come to the wrong place”, and this attitude has too often persisted.

Perhaps the problems at the ENO are insoluble. The Coliseum is the largest theatre in London, seating over 2000, and no one can claim that a seat in the gods compares to a similar experience at Covent Garden. In addition, the constant attempts at experimentation have confused audiences. The ENO has tried new commissions from the likes of Asian Dub Foundation and Gavin Bryars with limited success; it has freshened things up by employing directors with no opera experience, such as former Python Terry Gilliam, with more success; it has presented Broadway musicals such as Kismet and Sweeney Todd, with yet more box office success; it has put on Gilbert & Sullivan operas, which have also greatly helped the finances.

Indeed one of the mysteries about the ENO is that it seems oblivious to its potential strengths. The Gilbert & Sullivan operas are badly under exploited in the UK yet there is a keen audience for imaginative professional productions, and when it wants to sell more tickets the Coliseum still trots out Jonathan Miller’s Mikado, now 30 years old. What about a new Pinafore or Gondoliers? In the distant past the ENO was also successful with operetta, another woefully ignored musical genre; why not more Lehar and Strauss, or a reappraisal of those great Victorian favourites, The Bohemian Girl or The Lily of Killarney? The ENO seems to perversely turn its back on its traditional hits in its addiction to courting controversy.

In recent decades the ENO has lost its way in trying to ape Covent Garden. It should have stuck to its last, presenting well sung productions in audible English performed by young and, if possible, native singers, an approach which would surely win the approval of its founder Lilian Baylis.

It should, of course, experiment in each season but learn from its mistakes.

There are signs that the new management is more hard headed. It has realised that the West End theatre survives very well on a surfeit of musicals so it has lured over Glenn Close to appear in a limited run of concert performances of Sunset Boulevard and it has got into bed with impresarios Michael Grade and Michael Linnit, with the opportunity of opening its musical expertise to more populist productions with an ENO edge.

Nothing would be gained by merging ENO with Covent Garden, although they might co-operate more. All that is needed is greater realism about ENO’s role on the national arts scene. The Coliseum has received considerable investment over the years, and although the building will never have the glamour of Covent Garden it is in an ideal location and has many well wishers. Let’s hope the new management, devoid of operatic airs, can establish that ENO has a more accessible, more youthful, more British home for imaginative rather than alienating opera productions.

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