In the wake of some rather bleak accounts, Gavin Plumley considers whether the recent bad news emanating from English National Opera can all be down to the financial climate.
What’s going on at English National Opera? During a period when all appeared well, with awards and critical acclaim in plentiful supply, the company has filed a loss of nearly £2.2m. The dreary 2012 accounts have forced the company to dip into its reserves and audience figures are down. Production costs, meanwhile, have escalated and the company is heading towards an untenable situation.
ENO’s immediate response was defensive, pointing the finger at the Arts Council and the financial climate. But compared with immediate rivals, the claims ring hollow. The Royal Opera House certainly receives more from ACE, but it is a larger concern and produces more work over the course of a season. Since reopening in 1999 the ROH has continued to break even.
It is not all doom and gloom at ENO and you would hope that its artistic successes could mitigate any difficult decisions. Recent productions of Vaughan Williams’ The Pilgrim’s Progress and Martinů’s Julietta this season ‒ and Castor and Pollux and The Passenger in the financial year in question ‒ were both critical and musical triumphs. But for all the plaudits, audiences have been resistant and wildebeest might well have been grazing on the veldt of the Coliseum’s upper levels later in the runs.
Desperate times have prompted desperate measures, with reductions and ticket offers appearing with alarming alacrity. Nothing, however, proved shoddier than ENO’s recent ‘Undress for Opera’ stunt, when it managed to patronise both the regulars and those it wishes to entice. Once the Damon Albarn furore had died down, a beleaguered marketing team was still stuck trying to shift Rufus Norris’s woefully subpar Don Giovanni.
Masterpieces, such as Mozart and Da Ponte’s hell bound drama, should be supporting award-winning rarities yet they have continued to be poorly represented during John Berry’s tenure. Becoming increasingly reliant on venerable Jonathan Miller and Nicholas Hytner revivals, ENO has failed to find new reliable alternatives. And rather than backing proven operatic talent, Berry has made headline-grabbing forays into the film world. Such plans prove depressingly short-termist.
Even when Berry has embraced the operatic world, with this season’s Calixto Bieto Carmen and Peter Konwitschny’s forthcoming La traviata, his choices risk perplexing much vaunted newcomers and lack vital financial bolster. The shows then prove un-revivable and budgets are stretched further to find replacements.
Add in an increasingly fruitless opera in English policy ‒ which puts off gold-plated international singers lacking the time to learn a new text ‒ as well as a vast barn of a theatre, and you quickly see how a company can slip further and further into the red. In order to reverse its fortunes, ENO will have to offer exciting but reliable productions and thereby give an impression of real value for money.
Although the top price ticket at the Coliseum is considerably less than the ROH, 40% of the seats at Covent Garden are available for under £40 and with decent sightlines and excellent sound ‒ something the Coliseum rarely boasts upstairs. For those willing to compromise further, you can go to the Royal Opera House for as little as £3; the cheapest ticket at the Coliseum is £16. Covent Garden’s more diplomatic pricing structure is winning through.
ENO has a lot more to give us; the company has expanded our view of the repertoire and continued to support British singers. But the losses at the Coliseum seem to be more a result of mismanagement than the financial downturn. Like our increasingly floundering government, John Berry and his team need to stop blaming others and put their house in order. Otherwise it will be too late.
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