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Opinion: Where's the crisis at ENO? | reviews, news & interviews

Opinion: Where's the crisis at ENO?

Opinion: Where's the crisis at ENO?

Something may be rotten at the London Coliseum, but it isn't the artistic team

Look out, it's the Arts Council: master singers in ENO's latest triumphCatherine Ashmore

Having been bowled over by the total work of art English National Opera made of Wagner’s The Mastersingers of Nuremberg on its first night, I bought tickets immediately afterwards for the final performance. So I’m off tonight to catch the farewell of what has been an unqualified triumph for the company. Yet only last Thursday an unsolicited email arrived from Amazon Local – there’s no stopping them, it seems – offering tickets for this very show at 40 per cent discount.

Now, it’s bizarre that, given the high levels of Wagnerolatry in London, any of the composer's operas doesn’t sell out before the run even begins, still more so a production which received five-star plaudits more or less across the board. This is part of the problem for an opera house under strict surveillance from the Arts Council to pull its socks up - and not, the pundits imply, just financially.

Bieito Fidelio at ENOLet’s be absolutely clear about this, echoing the recent open letter from 33 international opera-house movers and shakers: there has been no crisis in ENO’s run of productions over the past year and two months, indeed in the bigger picture of the last 10 years In the autumn of 2013 it had the bad luck, or perhaps bad judgment, to run three consecutive turkeys: Calixto Bieito’s Fidelio (pictured above by Tristram Kenton) – atrocious first act, production-wise, with figures lost on a vast set, followed by a second with a couple of the most striking ideas I’ve ever seen on an operatic stage; Christopher Alden’s Fledermaus, possibly a thankless task on an unworkable operetta with superb music; and Complicite’s Magic Flute, which presumably sold well, unlike the other two, and had been praised in a former incarnation but turned out, to massive disappointment all round, drab and lifeless.

2014 began with a certified company gem, the Peter Grimes of the other Alden brother, David, and never fell below a certain level. John Berry had secured Richard Jones for two of his three great new productions seen in the UK during the year, the audacious Rodelinda and the faithful reflection of Puccini’s foolproof stage directions in The Girl of the Golden West. The year came to a stunning close with one of Peter Sellars’ rare hits among recent misses, his first fully-realised staging of inseparable composer-colleague John Adams’s The Gospel According to the Other Mary. The company returned after the Christmas and New Year ballet season with Jones’s Mastersingers, already triumphant in Wales five years earlier, and rebuked the Arts Council diktat – as well as several disgraceful articles by colleagues within the music world who wished ENO a swift death – by doing what only a big company can in the highest of styles.

So where’s the problem? Clearly, as usual, in the management, not in the artistic team with its indispensable orchestra and chorus under Edward Gardner, a young conductor of almost unbrokenly triumphant track record as he prepares to leave the company at the end of this season (Mark Wigglesworth, his successor, has an even longer track record of depth and seriousness). Even in the very rocky years following the so-called powerhouse heyday, run by the triumvirate of Peter Jonas, Mark Elder and David Pountney, you’d find at least two shows a season of the highest artistic credentials.

The press, meanwhile, has always loved to anoint kings and scoff at beggars, puffing up one of London's major houses at the expense of the other. And it's ludicrous how much emphasis can be placed on a single production. I well remember during my year on the short-lived Sunday Correspondent being rung up by the arts editor with "I hear there was booing at the Royal Opera last night. Is this a case for an 'Isaacs Must Go' piece?" – Jeremy Isaacs then being RO supremo, and possibly at that stage not responsible for half the productions booked well in advance. Of course it wasn't – some shows were excellent, others not so good, all par for an opera house season. The game is still being played – a recent broadsheet interview, through no fault of the writer, was headed "Can Peter Sellars save ENO?" – pinning hopes misplaced, as it turns out, on the director's new production of Purcell's The Indian Queen while The Mastersingers was still going strong.

ENO RodelindaDuring the time of Dennis Marks's regime at ENO, it was clear that the bureaucrats were the ones floundering. But you can’t accuse John Berry, the current and much-maligned artistic director, of lacking adventurousness or vision. Sure, there have been some misjudgments, but many couldn’t have been anticipated. Berry hit the era of over-dependence on video work – what seemed fresh to begin with soon felt stale and clichéd – but that particular crisis seems to be over. (Jones in his three productions didn’t use the medium at all in Rodelinda – Christopher Ainslie, Rebecca Evans and Matt Casey pictured above by Clive Barda – and Mastersingers, hardly at all in Girl of the Golden West). There was the untrumpeted engagement of two women conductors in a row – one very fine, the other on the strength of her Adams work superlative – and while criticisms were made of an over-dependence on American singers (“is this ENGLISH National Opera?”), the current diamond boasts a Scots bass-baritone, a Welsh tenor and an English baritone and soprano in the leading Wagnerian roles.

It’s in the middle and lower price ranges that the empty seats are most conspicuousFiscal details aren’t my territory, but I do know that at least three things need to change. First, this is no longer “the people’s opera”, if indeed it ever was. Programmes sport advertisements for expensive jewellery and private schools; the stalls are about as unrepresentative a cross-section of the public as they are at Covent Garden, albeit with less corporate profile. Second, and very much connected with this, the publicity department isn't really getting the best results out of its superb brand. One of the company’s distinguished opera directors compared the situation with the young, bright PR folk at a smaller theatre where he also works: "They’re on to you straight away, working out what angles they can sell – it’s much more dynamic." The recent attempt to sell Don Giovanni with a poster bringing up condoms, so to speak, was disastrous; since then, the images just haven’t caught the excitement of the shows. Full marks, though, to the website, which is quick off the mark with films and feedback.

The third stumbling block brings us back to ticket pricing. The company seems to have no problem with its more expensive seats: stalls for The Mastersingers run have mostly been taken. It’s in the middle and lower price ranges that the empty seats are most conspicuous. True, Wagner is always going to cost more, but even the recent run of Bohème wasn’t sold out. If Raymond Gubbay can market Puccini, why can’t ENO? So more creativity needs to be applied here: in the age of instant mass e-mailing, couldn’t schools or youth groups receive round robins at the last minute to paper the house?

That doesn’t address the financial problem, though: the box office seems to me like the place to start. Or so I think from limited knowledge. Of one thing, though, I’m sure: the artistic team is doing superlative work under difficult circumstances, delivering time after time. It would be criminal to see it disembowelled. So here's hoping newly-appointed CEO Cressida Pollock can build on what's daringly best about the company rather than plunge in with slash-and-burn techniques.

It’s bizarre that given the high levels of Wagnerolatry in London one of his masterpieces doesn’t sell out before the run even begins

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Comments

Two points: 1. The current situation at ENO is the product of 10 yrs of Berry's management. I accept that there is a good argument for a significant improvement in the last 18 months or so - the quality taken over the whole 10 yrs is highly debatable IMO. 2. "The company seems to have no problem with its more expensive seats" - those ones that are on sale at the TKTS booth at a huge markdown for most performances? That suggests a problem to me.

I'd seen your tweet about the 10 years, Finn, and had adjusted to include them. If debatable, then I propose the motion that, with obvious failures which every opera house has (and the Royal Opera has had a lot more recently than ENO), the Berry years have nurtured a style and taken risks, not all of which worked. I can name you more fine productions from the decade than turkeys. I have no idea what Mr Berry is like to work with, and how far his reach has been in other areas, but his artistic policies - again, IMO - have always seemed fairly sound to me.

It may well be that the stalls had already been subject to special offers when I looked and saw them mostly full for Mastersingers. But in any case the entire ticketing situation needs looking at, hand in glove with the PR approach.

Can we at least agree that Gardner has had so many successes and that the standard of orchestra, chorus and casting has rarely faltered?

I'll agree on Gardner and the orchestra. The chorus has (for me) been more variable over the 10 yrs. I do entirely agree (and probably should have said so in first comment) that the PR and ticketing situation need serious examination. Personally, and it seems judging by the general commentary in blogs and the press that I am in a distinct minority, but the turkeys have been far more numerous for me than the hits over the 10yrs Berry has been in charge.

It would actually be interesting (for me, at any rate) to go over all the ENO productions of the last 10 years and see which were successful and which not (also for me, at least). That would also entail learning which were planned before John Berry's watch. Would need more time than I have at the moment, but so many great shows spring to mind. Plus many that didn't work as productions but were musically of a high standard. I can't think of any that dismayed me as much as Martin Kusej's Idomeneo - though Katie Mitchell's at ENO wasn't great - and Katharina Thoma's Ballo at the Royal Opera late last year.

Sorry - two more things occurred to me after I posted (been a long week) - 1. The Chorus has certainly been on fine form in the last 18 months. 2. I also don't disagree that the ROH has had more flops in the last 18 months than ENO - over the period since 2005 I would argue that that isn't the case, and in addition that as yet that run of flops has not precipitated the ROH into a level of dependence on the Arts Council comparable to ENO or the kind of financial difficulty the ENO is in.

I'd be most interested to read such a ten year survey, David. Perhaps when I have some more time I should think about the same exercise... Of the two ROH prods you mention I didn't see the Idomeneo, but I agree the Ballo was lousy. I have to go right back to Carmelites for the last new prod I thought was fab at ROH.

I've rarely heard or seen anything much worse than last night's end-run performance of THE INDIAN QUEEN. Sellars's 100% rewriting of Purcell's opera can't be defended on any level. The only thing left is the original title. 50 minutes of original score has been bloated with utterly inappropriate music, including Choral Evensong pieces. Unable to find a truly awful countertenor in Europe, they mysteriously drafted one in from the USA. A grating American woman reads endless chunks of text from a third-rate modern novel, in a screaming voice which probably passes for 'acting' in the USA. Sellars has dumped the original story and text (the wars between Peru and Mexico) in favour of guilt-trip garbage of his own about the Conquistadors (never a part of Purcell's opera whatsoever). A genocidal massacre is introduced by Sellars at the end of Act One - because he is so bereft of talent or thought, that he cannot stage the original work. He just deals in pathetic, badly-managed cliches which he has to thrust in wherever he can. And yet there was a tragedy and a massacre at the Coliseum last night. Purcell's opera THE INDIAN QUEEN was brutally murdered by Peter Sellars and a team of incompetents. Better performances can be found in music academies. The idea that this was staged by a 'centre of national excellence" was unthinkable. Yet if ENO are set on proving the Arts Council right, this production gave the Arts Council all the evidence it needs to cut their grant, and remove John Berry. The Dress Circle was less than half full,and ushers were encouraging people to "move forward". I left at half-time, unable to stand another moment of mawkish, infantile childish American trash. Don't book now for Sellars's next work - in which he will introduce further gratuitous massacres into unrelated operas. Just wait until they're discounted to 25% of the original price. But don't hold your breath waiting for Sellars to deal with atrocities committed by the UK or America... My Lai, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, the Korean War, the bombing of Serbia... oh dearie me no, let's keep blaming Cortez. It's all his enfeebled brain can deal with.

Like I wrote, great shows and bad ones are par for any opera house season (I still can't judge this one and have reservations about going, though Sellars's work on The Gospel According to Mary was very much his best, Zaide at the Barbican his worst). You ignore The Mastersingers, which has only just ended its run? You found nothing good among the performers? Lucy Crowe, for instance, a world-class soprano?

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