Who’s to blame for ENO’s woes? You are

Andrew MellorTue 15th March 2016

The strike’s off but the blame game at English National Opera continues – and there’s a new villain on the stage. Or rather, 15,000 of them…

Just as the ENO furore was starting to get a little tiresome, D-Day arrived on Friday. That was the day earmarked for a strike by the company’s beleaguered chorus, which had planned to down vocal-chords during one act of Philip Glass’s opera Akhnaten in protest at the management’s proposition to move it wholesale onto part-time contracts and reduce salaries accordingly. It would have been just what the whole saga needed after the recent impasse: a bit of action. Or rather, inaction. Those of us who have mused now and then on what a performance might look like with one of its central components missing – on the possibility of a principal spending too long in the loo or the entire chorus getting stuck in a backstage lift – would have had an intriguing opportunity to find out.

In the end, the ENO chorus proved just too professional and the strike didn’t go ahead. So like the sagging central act of a second-rate opera seria, the dispute limps on. One of the problems, as Puccini would doubtless have recognised, is that the villains in the ENO saga just aren’t villainous enough: Cressida Pollock so clean-cut and presentable, Darren Henley balancing passion with pragmatism, the chorus themselves impossible not to adore (not least for those of us who’ve been to ENO enough to know what they all look like). But don’t despair. Enter stage left the real culprit, the true cause of ENO’s woes: you.

That’s right. You. What were you doing in November and December last year? Were you at the Coliseum watching Benedict Andrews’ production of La bohème? No? Didn’t think so. Some ENO supporter you are. If you’d bought a ticket maybe the company wouldn’t be in this mess. You and 15,000 others, that is. Because around that number of us empty-chaired ENO’s La bohème. The show played to a meagre 50% of its box office capacity across its 14 performances, according to a recent editorial in Opera magazine. If the company had managed to sell a respectable number of tickets for one of the most popular operas ever written, it might have banked enough money to, oh I don’t know…pay its music staff year-round salaries? In total, box office takings in 2015 were down a whopping £1.4 million on the previous year.

That’s one statistic we know. There are plenty more we don’t. Many have expressed opinions on the whole sorry mess but the reality of the situation, as Fiona Maddocks has eloquently posited, is a whole lot more complicated than most of us could imagine. New CEO Pollock will have to make some eye-watering decisions if she’s not to become the boss who presides over ENO’s bankruptcy, and it’s hard for any of us external commentators to grasp the scale, complexity, and cool-headed discipline of that task.

You can see the chorus’s argument: if ENO can find work for its orchestra all year round, why can’t it think creatively to do the same for its choristers? You can see the bean-counters’ position, too: if major changes aren’t made to running costs now, ENO will be bust in a little over a year. Each argument is fraught with contextual complications. Why would ENO target the one element of its artistic arsenal that is consistently singled-out for praise? On the other hand, if Glyndebourne’s renowned chorus can be nominated for an International Opera Award this year when it operates on seasonal contracts, why do we insist that a permanent chorus is the only route to musical quality?

The thing is, if it weren’t for that woeful sales record ENO might not have to make such painful decisions at all. Rubbish ticket sales are a major reason the company is skint and they’re a major reason the Arts Council has lost patience with it and reduced its income even further. ‘London needs two opera houses’ we all protest. And so we should; Stockholm has two opera houses, for heaven’s sake. The Royal Opera fulfils the establishment, international role and ENO has a duty to think differently about modes of operatic expression (the reason it sings most operas in English) and engage with a more rooted and less well-off audience. It seems to be handling the artistic part of that equation rather well. Witnessing the closure of ENO would break my heart and fill me with rage even though I no longer live in London. But pumping public funds into a company that performs popular, standard repertoire to half-empty houses is the sort of enterprise that makes arts funding look indulgent at the best of times.

So here’s a radical solution: sell more tickets. More focussed marketing might help; I’ve long suspected ENO’s huge advertising spend is wastefully ineffective and have said so before. And if there’s no longer a ready-made market, go out and make one. Up in Leeds, a run of La bohème delivered healthy audience figures in 2014 including a massive 51% first time opera attenders. ENO doesn’t need an Alex Ferguson, as Will Gompertz blethered the week before last. It needs a gifted marketer able to persuade artistically-inclined Londoners that they should be experiencing opera and that they should be doing so at the Coliseum, where even a show like that variably-reviewed La bohème can do remarkable things to your body, your mind and your tear ducts. There will be hits, there will be misses. But the cultural climate in London tells us that there’s an appetite for ENO’s proven desire to experiment, collaborate and be a part of London’s fast-moving theatrical discourse.

Positive messaging is vital, as is good, hard love from the rest of us card-carrying opera fans (in the form of visits to the box office) and a revolution in ENO’s ability to sell itself to the general populace by emphasising value for money (thus justifying its public subsidy) and reining-in its climbing ticket prices. I hope the company’s wonderful chorus wins its battle. But if it doesn’t, it’s worth remembering that there’s still no plan to significantly reduce personnel for actual performances – a saving grace not bestowed upon other opera houses facing budget cuts the world over, including my local company in Copenhagen. At least that means ENO can and will continue to sound and look magnificent when performing opera in English, as only it does. Ideally, it would be doing so full time. But without serious audience support, it won’t be doing so at all.

Andrew Mellor

Andrew Mellor is a Gramophone reviewer and freelance journalist - he writes widely on opera, classical music and Nordic culture for magazines, newspapers, orchestras and opera companies in the UK and in Denmark, Finland and Norway

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