TAITMAIL Where the aria is clearer
So ENO gets dumped on again. You’d think they’d be used to it by now, but their website was in buoyant mood as the announcement was made on Friday that they’d lost all their grant – they had already been “reimagining what a modern opera company should look like, building new audiences and reaching beyond London”. Manchester seemed like a good spot, and they should get it sorted out by April.
Roll on a few days, though, and the corporate front has crumbled. ENO, it turns out, haven’t had months to “reimagine” in terms of replacing all its subsidy - it has been busy doing ACE’s other bidding, to increase diversity on stage and in audiences, attract new audiences, entice young people, broadcast, commission new work, take work into hospitals, all of which it has done pretty well.
They were actually told about this new plan less than 24 hours before it was announced to the public, ACE being scared that the news would be leaked if any hint was passed on. Bryn Terfel has launched a petition*, 15,000 signatures so far, and ENO’s CEO Stuart Murphy (who leaves next autumn) described to Front Row an “absolute travesty” and how he was “bemused and baffled and shocked”. Moving to Manchester was apparently ACE’s idea, transmitted to ENO later on Friday, which shows a woeful ignorance of a not that deep history.
English National Opera and the Arts Council have had a strained but strong relationship that’s about to have its toughest test so far: the latter takes away the subsidy, the former, admittedly a bit of a maverick with its fondness for lavishly expensive productions, has to set up a new operation out of London for the lure of £17m (over three years). There’s a lot of history here that needs a book, but this latest chapter might be the last – for both, if the arm’s length principle has become as short as it looks (it was only a couple of weeks ago that Jacob Rees-Mogg, the now forgotten former minister for cutting public services, was toying with getting rid of ACE). In government eyes levelling up gives ACE a reason for being; for ENO, being sent out there in the regions without its London anchorage is unthinkable.
ENO predates the Arts Council by a dozen years or more, founded as Sadlers Wells Opera by Lilian Baylis in 1931 to fulfill the old millionaire socialist’s dream of providing opera in English for the unwealthy who love music but can’t follow Italian, Russian, French or German. It moved to the Coliseum in 1968 with a new name.
Now, in its investment programme for 2023-26, ACE has told ENO its national portfolio status (with the £12.8m a year that goes with it) is at long last over and if it wants any support at all it will have to level itself up and shove off north.
And that is deeply ironic in itself. Back in the 70s the then Arts Council of Great Britain was eager to bring opera to the unwashed north with a permanent provider, thus saving on the enormous cost of national touring (we’re talking about the time of the three-day week) and told its client ENO to set up a secondary operation. Manchester would be a good place. The satellite company would be called ENO (N).
So a committee of Manchester’s cultural leaders and local authorities - and the ACGB - was set up under the chairmanship of the immortal Brian Redhead, editor of the Manchester Evening News before he fronted the Today Programme. Among those on it was Bob Scott, then running Theatre 69 but who was later to rescue Manchester’s Palace Theatre and Opera House and get knighted for it. The committee sat fairly regularly for a year or so before the city fathers decided it was impracticable, too expensive, and not required in the city of the Hallé and the Free Trade Hall.
Instead the Arts Council’s godfather of touring, Jack Phipps, turned to Leeds whose council welcomed the idea with open arms, and the operation was set up there, starting in 1978 and becoming the independent Opera North which now tours the north country with Manchester usually its first port of call.
There was that curious lapse of a week or so when the announcement was postponed, but that is being seen as no more sinister than the latest change of government delaying things. Maybe they needed to do the sums again, to see if there was really no other way. But this latest demetropolitanisation is not ACE’s choice. “I think the position was made clear when the Secretary of State (then Nadine Dorries) instructed us to take money out of London” Nick Serota, ACE’s chair, said bluntly at its Friday press conference (delivered online from Manchester, as it happens).
This is the ramshackle and arbitrary levelling up policy of Johnson’s government, which might be the policy of his successor but one, who knows - maybe the delay was to find out what the score was under Sunak and Michele Donelan, and that took nine days. But back in February Dorries told ACE to take at least £24m a year out of London and give it to the regions in its new investment programme, what she called “one of the biggest ever redistributions of arts funding in our history”. A saving of £12.8m at one stroke of the axe would fit that bill nicely.
The nub of this thing is touring and perhaps interpretation of how that should and could be done. In the old ACE world, touring opera in this country is tightly controlled and the circuit is not open to the two London companies - ACE-funded English Touring Opera is based in Peckham but goes to scores of venues from the Buxton Opera House to the Lighthouse, Poole, and it is taking its subsidy (with a 22% uplift) and joining the Arts Council’s transfer programme to move to the regions.
That is not what ENO is being offered. The Coliseum is not only its home but a major earner from renting it out in the summer, so disposing of that wonderful Frank Matcham theatrical dinosaur is not on anyone’s agenda. But in it are 300 permanent staff not all of whom are going to be willing or able to move their families to the affordable cul-de-sacs of Stockport and Cheadle Hulme. ENO’s application for funding suggested the ability to work across the country - touring. “ENO have been limited to working in London in recent years and they wanted to be able to work outside” Serota explained.
He also sees the simultaneous removal of its subsidy as an “opportunity… for ENO to become a different kind of company, working across the country rather than working in London. And they are capable of responding in our view”. Removing its state funding and giving it five months to realise its “imaginative programme of work” in another city is an odd way of offering support. £17m will just about cover redundancies and the removal costs of those who decide to decamp.
But does Manchester want ENO? It seems it hasn’t been asked, nor have Opera North or the other touring opera companies been consulted about how a newly regional ENO will fit in with their touring programmes. And where in Manchester would ENO fit - in a brand new opera house, The Lowry, Bridgewater Hall, Bob Scott’s refurbished Palace, the new £25m Factory (due to open next year as the Manchester International Festival’s focal point)?
And what has London (also losing the Donmar, with lesser cuts to the National Theatre and the Royal Opera House) done to deserve being denuded of its tourist-grabbing, dollar-spinning culture?
“This is about something fundamental” Murphy says. “It is about access to creative jobs and creativity for everyone, not just those who are rich or well-connected”, adding bitterly: “It’s also about trust in the Arts Council for companies who successfully fulfil all criteria set for them – as we have done.”