Harry Brunjes, chairman of English National Opera, says he hopes the appointment of its new artistic director marks a turning point in the company’s history, and I’m sure everyone else does too. The American Daniel Kramer is certainly a bold appointment that might signal a dramatic change in ENO’s offerings when his first season starts in 2018, but he needs to be able to make changes in less obvious ways too.
Kramer, not yet 40, is a modern artist who skips across boundaries between drama, opera and dance. He burst on the commercial theatre scene aged 28 with his controversial politicisation of the musical Hair! for the Gate, giving it an Iraq War context, and followed it up with an electric version of Martin Sherman’s play about the Nazi persecution of homosexuals, BENT; then came another revivified period piece, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, about closet gays in American politics. He was an RSC associate for a while, and in 2008 did Birtwistle’s Punch & Judy for ENO and the Young Vic. His subsequent Bluebeard’s Castle was controversial, too, but admired for the depth Kramer was able to get out of a fairly superficial horror story.
When ENO’s chief executive Cressida Pollock told AI about the search for John Berry’s successor last year she wasn’t at all sure what she was looking for. Not really an artistic director, more an artistic leader, “a visionary to give us shape”. She must think she’s got that, and it's interesting that the appointment comes a couple of weeks after the Barbican’s Louise Jeffrieys - who solved the absence of the RSC a decade ago by inventing the fantastically wide-ranging Bite seasons - on to the board and the selection panel.
Kramer has also bought into the idea of the ENO “company spirit”, sorely tested with the cuts to the number and pay of the company’s backbone, its chorus. He says today that he “wants to champion this family and to inspire its audiences”. That spirit was also evoked by the music director, Mark Wigglesworth, who rewrote the company's mission to return to Lilian Baylis’s founding vision of opera for all.
But last month Wigglesworth resigned, unhappy with the cuts and the reduced programme in the face of the 30% ACE grant cut, and ENO is in danger of watching a large amount of that spiritive good will go with him. Kramer’s task is to make sure that doesn’t happen, both with an inspired appointment as successor to Wigglesworth (and the chatterati is surprisingly uninspired in their suggestions - bit then they didn't come up with Kramer either) and his own programming which, unlike with Berry, is bound to include some of his own shows. His contacts across the front of the performing arts is impressive and fits with Pollock’s wish to make partnerships outside the opera parameters, like the Young Vic link-up (which got Kramer a South Bank Show gong) and the association with Michael Linnit and Michael Grade to produce the very successful Sweeney Todd at the Coliseum last year and the current Sunset Boulevard.
The appointment will buoy next week’s annual ENO press conference, no doubt, when it’s been pretty glum for more than a year. But the new artistic leadership is likely to mean more changes at lower levels where the key elements of the old regime remain – will the callow and inexperienced high command of Pollock (33), Kramer (39) and the as yet unknown new music director be able to make those changes to move the much loved but suffering ENO forward?