England no longer values the deep, weird art of opera – and that leaves us all poorer | Charlotte Higgin
In Kyiv, daily performances at the National Opera of Ukraine are courageous acts of defiance against the Russian invasion. They symbolize what the country is fighting for: life, culture. In war-spared Britain, we seem poised to destroy our culture without outside help.
The news that English National Opera has been cut from public funding is shocking, but not surprising. Earlier this year, former Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries insisted that Arts Council England, the arts funding body, withdraw £24m a year from London. The idea was to redistribute it to the locations identified in the curators’ upgrade program. The severity and brutality of this cut in the capital, which was on an already threadbare English budget thanks to George Osborne’s austerity measures, was still likely to spell disaster for one of London’s major arts organisations.
The ENO, seen from a certain point of view, is a fruit at hand: it is the second opera house in the capital, with a lot of financial instability in its history, and takes a relatively large share of subsidy by in relation to its turnover. (The management of ENO Argue vigorously against this, saying that its financial model is working, that it is reaching audiences beyond its theater through digital and broadcast, and that it has made huge strides in employing artists from diverse backgrounds and attracting new young audiences.)
The company’s financing offer to ACE, when submitted earlier this year, actually responded to the upgrade program. He suggested founding a small, nimble, spin-off company called NEO (an anagram of ENO, meaning new), which would hold residencies in theaters across the country. ACE’s response, when the cuts were announced on November 4, was to accept the idea of NEO, the satellite – while rejecting the planet, ENO. Financial assistance was offered to the company to switch to this new (and of course, smaller) model. After three years, the new organization would be able to reapply for regular CAOT funding. Manchester have been floated – seemingly ripped from the air – as a potential base. ENO employs 300 world-class people, including an opera orchestra, choir and backstage staff. Based on that idea, most of them wouldn’t be part of the new ENO, or NEO, anywhere or anything.
To understand the significance of this, it is worth looking at the origins of ENO. Its history dates back to the pre-war period, when visionary impresario Lilian Baylis began staging opera at Sadler’s Wells Theater in London. In 1968, the company moved to the London Coliseum, the city’s largest theatre. In 1977 Opera North was founded as its subsidiary (soon becoming fully independent). Opera North, a superb company based in Leeds, performs regularly in Salford – one of the reasons why the suggestion that ENO move to Manchester is so bizarre.
Some may wonder if London needs two opera houses. Others may ask: why so few? Berlin has three, Paris too. In fact, the Royal Opera House and the ENO have traditionally played complementary roles. The Royal Opera is world-renowned international singers. It offers a luxury experience (it’s even sponsored by Rolex) with ticket prices, for the most part, to match. ENO has traditionally been rougher around the edges (but no less skilled and professional), with a more informal atmosphere and cheaper tickets. Generations of spectators have heard their first opera in this room. It’s there for everyone, and it’s not an elitist playground (I’m thinking here of deputy Labor leader Angela Rayner, proudly pictured at an opera this summer, tweet defiantly in the face of criticism from the Deputy Prime Minister, Dominic Raab, of all: “Never let anyone tell you that you are not good enough. “). Crucial to opera in this country, ENO also provided a stage on which British opera singers, particularly early in their careers, made a name for themselves. That’s why some of Britain’s biggest entertainers – Dame Sarah Connolly, Sir John Tomlinson – were out in the streets this week, protesting the cuts outside ACE’s headquarters, at the top of their voices.
ACE was roughed up by the former culture secretary. He has now started playing it terribly – unless he was actually looking for a furious campaign to save ENO. Instead of simply acknowledging the impossibility of the situation he has been placed in by Dorries, the staff have tried to justify their decision in terms that appear dishonest. They point to a wave of small, popular opera companies performing in car parks, in pubs, or “on your tablet.” This is the future of opera, they say. (“Grand opera” is a deeply misleading phrase, and sounds like it’s deliberately deployed by ACE for its connotations of pretentiousness and pomp. grand opera actually refers to a specific sub-category of works, often on historical subjects, written in the early 19th century.) I’ve seen some brilliant cut-out productions of opera in non-traditional spaces – last year, I saw a magnificent depiction of Bluebeard’s Castle in an old chapel, for example. As excellent as it was, it was not, however, the work as Bartók, its composer, conceived it. It would have required the scale and weight of a full orchestra, in an opera house. Which wouldn’t make it a mysterious, distant, old-fashioned thing called grand opera. This is what we call… opera.
In fact, it’s opera – that remarkable, thrilling, intense and emotionally overwhelming art form – that, perversely, risks being overlooked. Just like the artists who do it: composers, directors, conductors, musicians, singers. ACE cannot and should not dictate what the future of an art form might be. This is for its creators. ENO itself, in its eagerness to defend its audience development efforts and talk about initiatives such as ENO Breathe (a pioneering project helping those recovering from Covid-19), can also sometimes ignore the form’s claims. deep, strange and unsettling art itself. This slight feeling of absence has not been helped by the questionable decision taken in recent years to reduce opera performancesweakening the heart of the company.
Amid all of this, there has been good news for arts organizations in upgrading target areas in Blackpool, Stoke, the East Midlands and elsewhere. It’s great news that the money is flowing to artist-led businesses like Claybody Theater and Restore in the Potteries, where I come from. But the bitter truth is that this is a zero-sum game. There was no additional money for this “rebalancing”. The blow to ENO will likely result in the loss of their jobs, the misery of families, the blatant waste of extraordinary skills, a major loss to the public and a gaping void where once big business nurtured generations of talented young British singers.
Significant leveling of economic conditions in England could be achieved – but only through serious infrastructure investment, for example in rail links and public transport. What is happening here is purely gestural and deeply destructive.