"It has to prove it finally knows how to live within its means"by Tom Sutcliffe / March 18, 2016 / Leave a comment
Ben Johnson and Devon Guthrie in the English National Opera’s The Magic Flute ©Robbie Jack, ENO Theatre in London is extremely popular and the floods of tourists from around the world are immensely profitable for major impresarios like Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Musicals, like Phantom of the Opera, can run for decades. So why shouldn’t opera—just another form of musical theatre—test how much the punters will pay? At the annual Glyndebourne Festival Opera, as at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, seats can cost as much as £250 a throw. Given that some operas can sell seats at this price, does the art-form (or indeed any theatre) deserve substantial hand-outs from the public purse? This question is worth baring in mind when considering the current crisis at English National Opera, owner of the capital’s largest (2,400-seat) theatre, the London Coliseum. But the ENO has for some time been running substantial deficits. This put its competence in question, so in February 2015 Arts Council England cut its subsidy by £5m—a wake-up call administered. This led to cuts in everybody’s earnings at ENO (not just the chorus, which faced contract changes and a slimming down. Their threatened strike was called off and they have agreed a settlement.) We have been here before. Under Margaret Thatcher in the late 1980s, ENO fell foul of the political feeling that subsidy was bad. ENO was forcefully encouraged to put prices up as far as it could, to test the market, and it has been doing it again for most of the last decade. On both occasions the result was the same. Increasing ticket prices did not bring in more money. Although top hits sometimes sell out and bring in cash, average attendance has rarely been above 70 per cent at the ENO since it arrived at the Coliseum nearly 50 years ago. Its tickets are still much too expensive. Only 400 tickets for each of its shows cost less than £25 each. As a result of these high prices, there has been serious consumer resistance. Even the capital’s international showcase house at Covent Garden has been marketing itself carefully to ensure seats are filled: sometimes it is now cheaper to go to there than to the Coliseum. ENO’s management has rather lost the plot. The roots of the current crisis go back to 2005 when ENO’s then Head of Casting John Berry was promoted by the Chairman of the Board Vernon Ellis to be the artistic director. Ellis was creator and boss of multinational consulting company Accenture, a formidable entrepreneur. ENO, on the other hand, did not benefit from the Berry regime. He largely failed to revive its reputation, and thus to attract new opera-goers. He preferred to seek fame competing with the West End with fashionable multi-media ventures and a few brave young theatre directors. Ellis was far too indulgent and without proper scrutiny, Berry got used to complete control. Its board was horrified to learn that ENO had lost £600,000 on a Berry vanity project at the Barbican Theatre, a 3D film opera, Sunken Garden by Michael Van der Aa and David Mitchell. It also seems the Board was not told about the huge cut in ACE subsidy until seven or eight months after Berry personally had learnt about it—so he was able to programme what was likely to be final season without the opposition that financial stormy weather—or the threat of it—might have brought. Berry did not try to restore the old ENO opera ensemble, although regular repertory companies are the cheapest way to do theatre and opera. They allow, even encourage, increases in productivity. ENO exists as a company partly to find, nurture and sustain British talents in every area of the operatic business—a policy that used to guarantee homegrown star singers like Alberto Remedios and Rita Hunter. Another desperate challenge for Britain’s few historic performing arts institutions is how to find competent native bosses. With no theatre repertory companies or opera ensembles any more where are the training grounds for experienced promotable people? Why would anybody running a German theatre or opera with a secure financial structure including subsidy want to come to take over a British company—especially one like ENO which has just been financially castrated? So the company now needs to appoint a successor to Berry at a very unappealing time. It will have to cut back the number of operas it performs for the next few seasons from around 16 to just eight. And it has to prove it finally knows how to live within its means. The house should be at least 90 per cent full every night. For that to work, ENO has to find new ticket buyers who have not previously thought about opera. It needs to find the right musical and theatrical recipe. But also, the whole point of the ENO is that it does opera for those without deep pockets (and in English, and using more homegrown talent). Because of this, the gallery at the Coliseum should be £10 or less, there should be 800 tickets under £25, and a top ticket price of £80. There is a plan. There are great popular operas waiting for new fertile and convincing interpretations. There is a public to be served. Opera needs ENO. We all need ENO. Rebuild the ensemble. Use the old hits (like the classic Rigoletto by Jonathan Miller, set in Little Italy). The worst of the crisis—when Berry’s dire production of Puccini’s La bohème (the most popular opera ever) could only fill 40 per cent of the seats—has hopefully passed. It’s an emergency. But all hands on deck, and good luck.