Funding cuts will decimate English National Opera. It’s a screaming mistake | Stuart Murphy
LThe past week has been, frankly, grim. Having run National English Opera Over the past five years, receiving less than 24 hours notice that our century-old business needs to move from London to Manchester, with a small relocation allowance to help us do so, has been infuriating. Especially when it quickly became apparent that no audience analysis had been conducted.
However, what has been even stranger to see are some of the disconcerting accounts coming out of Arts Council England (ACE) in response to our shock, as seen in a recent opinion piece in the Guardian. The first of these is that large-scale opera has showed no growth – a point that has never been raised before this announcement, either with me or with any of my other colleagues across opera. If the data exists, I would love to see it – or perhaps it was collected during the closures of recent years? Plus, why choose an organization that has spent the last three years entirely focused on audience growth and audience sustainability, with our free tickets for under 21s and deeply discounted tickets for under 35 years old. Since September, 6,000 tickets have been claimed using these devices.
It has also been claimed that the opera must adapt. All art forms adapt and evolve over time, which is why during the pandemic we put on a drive-in opera (in a parking lot) with beatbox artists and breakdancers. We worked with Netflix to create a TikTok opera (at 17 million viewers). And we participated in Comic Relief for two consecutive years. Our colleagues at the Royal Opera House recently did an opera by Kurt Cobain and Welsh National Opera is currently on the Migrations tour, telling stories about the historical movement of people to the present day.
It is also bizarre to suggest that audiences only want opera in an intimate setting, rather than in large halls like ours at the Colosseum. There are organizations that already do this brilliantly – Opera Up Close, for example, who we have been proud to work with in the past. But where is the data to prove that this is only what the public wants? And if that is indeed the case, then why cut funding to Glyndebourne’s touring operation which does exactly that?
Other suggestions have been made that it is about leveling up. But under this proposal, the non-London version of ENO would receive less funding than its current form. So not only could people get a substandard product, but we will also have to stop funding projects like ENO Breathe which is now available across the UK in 85 NHS trusts, or working with around 15,000 children in schools across the country each year. And that would prevent us from being able to keep our ticket prices low, allowing young people to come for free and still being priced competitively for those over 21. We risk becoming exactly what they don’t want us to be – an organization for the local elite who can afford to pay £300 for a ticket. This is not what ENO stands for.
We hope to meet with the Arts Council this week and clarify exactly what they expect from us. If we don’t lift and move the company, then with ACE’s suggested budget, the only thing we can do is make the orchestral choir and technical teams redundant. And if that doesn’t decimate ENO, I don’t know what is.
The petition to save ENO has now been signed by over 40,000 people, from opera companies across the UK and around the world, to politicians on both sides of the house, and from young to old. Indeed, thousands and thousands of people see ENO for what it is – one of many unique and remarkable success stories of British culture, whose sole purpose – to bring opera to all – is continually reinvented from generation in generation.
The Canada Council made a big mistake, and the sooner it corrects it, the better.
Stuart Murphy is Managing Director of English National Opera
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