ENO must go

Of course one regrets that musicians will lose their jobs. But why should we have to pay for the opera company’s random experiments?

27 February 2016

9:00 AM

27 February 2016

9:00 AM

Last week Darren Henley, chief executive of Arts Council England, revealed that opera receives just under a fifth of the Arts Council’s total investment in our arts organisations, which amounts to many millions of pounds. Yet it accounts for ‘between 3 and 4 per cent of live audiences in theatres’. How can these figures possibly be justified? Especially when the art form is so obviously a plaything of the wealthy.

Once upon a time there was an organisation that had the intention of providing opera at reasonable prices to the less well-off. It was based in a poor part of London, where it pursued its ideals by presenting everything in English and emphasising the dramatic aspect of its chosen repertoire. From these roots the English National Opera has grown, which helps to explain why it is now in such trouble. Although it continues to perform everything in English, and hopes to employ young British singers, composers and designers whenever possible, it has badly lost its way.

Its ticket prices now rival those at Covent Garden and attract the kind of public for whom foreign languages are less of an inconvenience than for some. As a sign of how the ideal of comprehensibility has tripped the management up, in 2005, after years of debate, it decided to provide surtitles to the translated texts. This was as a result of a survey that revealed that only a quarter of its public could hear what was being sung, which led to the depressing reflection that modern singers pronounced their words less clearly than their predecessors. Lord Harewood, as managing director, had argued against surtitles on the grounds that opera in English was pointless if it couldn’t be understood and that they would undermine the case for a publicly funded opera company that sold itself on its English-language productions.

That argument might have been better heeded, since by having surtitles ENO comes closer to the world of Covent Garden. It is interesting that in the financial crisis that the company is currently experiencing no one I’ve heard has suggested merging it with the Royal Opera House. This idea was standardly aired during the crises of the past, but every time it was felt that ENO offered something uniquely valuable. Since then that something has become a run of very alternative ways of looking at opera, often produced by people with no previous experience. The public has reacted more or less well to these initiatives — in the 1980s the productions made a big name for themselves. By 2013 the Telegraph was referring to one of them as ‘unmitigated piffle’.

Spending millions on desperate experiments has become a habit of mind. It is the last of the patrician gestures in which our system of public sponsorship will allow an educated (sort of) elite to impose its preferences on everyone else. Opera still has that allure. Yet it is indefensible whatever the state of the economy. Of course one regrets that many musicians would lose their jobs if ENO were to close — the current alarm is that the chorus will have to take a pay cut of 25 per cent, which surely must be the tip of the iceberg — but the mistake is more fundamental, and was bought into long ago. Why were those chorus members encouraged to think that this whopping imposition on our pockets was tolerable in the first place?

In upheavals like this it is the management that always comes across as villainous, the public instinctively taking the side of the seemingly innocent rank-and-file employees. But I would rather be a singer, about to be paid off and able to ply my trade elsewhere, than have a national institution die on my watch. For example, how will the Arts Council’s chairman Peter Bazalgette, a former chairman of ENO, deal with the opprobrium that is surely stacking up for him if ENO does die?

Ultimately, the question is whether opera can survive without public money, and whether we care if it doesn’t. I care that a form of entertainment that gives some people a lot of pleasure should flourish, but I don’t see why I should have to pay for random experiments to be made in its name. New York has recently discovered that it cannot sustain two opera companies. Even there it was found that when push came to shove there wasn’t the will to pay up. In this sense the possibility of being funded by the Arts Council distorts the real picture. If people want the Mikado, they can pay for it. If they want the Ring, they can pay for that too.

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  • Toby Spence

    A sponsored link called Sugar’s Shocking Secrets Revealed! is a scam. Why does The Spectator allow these people to advertise on their site? Could it be because the department responsible for selling sponsored links keep a clear conscience if they turn a blind eye?

  • pgtipsy

    Now that we have surtitles, there is no need for operas to be translated into English.

  • Andrew Cole

    The Mikado? I thought that was an Operetta?

  • john

    At last a realisation that the ENO is a useless abomination of twisted cultural claptrap! If Opera is good enough to be played it should not require a translation! The music and emotion is enough in any language and preferably that of the composer and librettist – go, go and twitter away elsewhere!

  • Ken

    One major problem is the barn-like Coliseum, which would be better permanently hosting big musicals – as it was designed to do. It is actually a great pity that ENO can’t move back to Sadlers Wells – operating on a smaller scale in a smaller venue might be the way ahead, providing an offer quite different from that of ROH. Maybe the Opera Comique in Paris is a model? Opera is actually thriving around the country in smaller venues and not just the country house scene. Opera North does consistently excellent work – if ENO is cut back, some of the funds could head north!

  • Richard

    This angers me on so many levels. I’d say I disagreed wholeheartedly with the article’s conclusions if I could figure out what those conclusions were. But the argument is so confused it’s hard to figure out what the actual point is apart from to be loathsome and controversial. ENO’s ticket prices are too high, says Phillips, therefore we should cut all public funding and let the wealthy who are willing to pay exorbitant prices do so (makes perfect sense!). “ENO must go” screams the sub-heading but then he rambles on about how embarrassing it would be for the Arts Council Chairman if ENO folded on his watch and implies actually he wants to see radical cuts so that the company can survive.

    Then there’s this woefully poor attempt at evidence-based reasoning: in the 1980s, ENO productions made a big name for themselves, says Phillips (so far, so good), but then in 2013 a single review about a single ENO production described it as “unmitigated piffle”. WHAT!!?? You’re seriously arguing on the basis of a single review in the Telegraph three years ago that the company has gone to the dogs?? As someone who’s been to a lot of ENO productions over the last few years, I can count on one hand the number of flops I’ve seen but I can’t count on two the number of spell-binding, brilliant productions I’ve seen.

    So yes, I’m biased because this kind of attack on a company I’m very fond of triggers a very personal, visceral reaction in me. But I’ve also been educated (more than “sort of”, thanks very much Peter Phillips) to respect reasonable arguments and quality journalism. This article is an example of neither. I’m rather disappointed by The Spectator for publishing it. I thought they had higher standards.

  • Diviani

    Another enemy of public subsidy gets it totally wrong. Richard speaks for many in his analysis of this reactionary drivel. It is telling that neither Henley nor Phillips include cinema audiences in their accounting of ENO’s audience figures. Yes, seat prices are too high at ENO, but the blame for that lies with Phillips’ pals at ACE.

  • flydlbee

    The problem lies in opera’s limited appeal. It might be compared to Morris dancing; once popular amongst a certain audience but now seen as an irrelevance, even as a bit of a joke. As far as I know, we do not subsidise huge Morris dancing extravaganzas with highly paid professional performers, so why should we subsidise opera?

  • The Patriarchy

    Nonetheless, weak as it is, the case for public subsidy of the Englsh National Opera is still more compelling than that for subsidising any other field of the arts. In which case, it seems that Mr Philips is arguing for an end to all public subsidy, and the mercy killing of that most worthless of quangos, the Arts Council.

    It seems he has a point.

  • watzat

    Cutting to the chase, English language opera is an art form Phillips doesnt enjoy and he wields the argument that if it cant support itself then it should be chopped.. But would he wield the same argument about the art forms he does like (he doesnt mention what these are)? Are they all paying their way or are they receiving subsidies? Should museums have to pay their way or if not have their collections sold off? Similarly orchestras? The USA is not a valid comparison – corporations recognise the value association of their names with prestigious arts has for their reputations and fund them accordingly. Countries too value the prestige support for the arts confers. But not so Philips – can he really be so artless?