An opera company's precarious future has some worried about a ripple effect

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Saturday, June 22, 2024

An opera company's precarious future has some worried about a ripple effect
Patrons outside the English National Opera in London on Dec. 7, 2022. For a month, politicians, newspapers and classical music stars have been arguing over the future of the ENO. A funding cut could have repercussions far beyond Britain. (Lauren Fleishman/The New York Times)

by Alex Marshall

LONDON.- When Leigh Melrose, a rising British opera star, looked at his calendar recently, much of the next three years were blocked out for one company: English National Opera. He was signed up to sing multiple roles there, starting with the lustful dwarf Alberich in the company’s new “Ring” cycle, a coproduction with the Metropolitan Opera that was meant to head to New York.

Melrose said that he’d had his wig fitting for that role, and that rehearsals for “The Rheingold,” the first installment in Wagner’s four-part epic, were scheduled to begin Dec. 28.

But now, he said, all those plans seemed uncertain. Last month, Arts Council England, a body that distributes government arts funding here, announced it was shutting off a grant to English National Opera worth 12.4 million pounds (about $15 million) a year. The Arts Council instead gave the company a one-off grant to help it develop “a new business model,” including a potential move to Manchester, 178 miles north of its current home at the London Coliseum.

On the same day, the Arts Council also slashed funding to other major opera companies including the Royal Opera House, by 10%, and Glyndebourne Productions, by over 30%.

Melrose said those cuts came as a “total shock,” adding that the long-term future of the “Ring” in both London and New York did not look good. If the ENO, as English National Opera is known, had to move away from London, “How can it keep on doing the rest?” Melrose asked. “How can it carry on doing anything?”

For the past month, the fate of the ENO has made headlines here. Musicians, critics and politicians have been arguing over whether the decision to cut the company’s funding is a sensible response to a declining interest in opera, or an act of cultural vandalism. Concerns have spread beyond Britain, with companies in Europe and the United States warning that the global opera ecosystem may suffer, too.

Dozens of senior opera figures — including Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera’s general manager, and Yuval Sharon, the artistic director of Detroit Opera — signed a recent letter to The Times of London, warning of a wider impact. “Everyone across the world has long looked to the United Kingdom as a center of artistic excellence,” the letter said. “We fear that this decision signals to the world that they — and we — must now look elsewhere.”

Gelb said by phone that he had already pushed the Met’s run of the “Ring” cycle back a year, to the 2027-28 season, “for casting reasons.” But, he added, “if the ENO doesn’t exist, we obviously can’t collaborate with it.”

Christopher Koelsch, CEO of Los Angeles Opera, said that the ENO had “historically been a crucible for creativity and experimentation,” noting that numerous stars including conductor Edward Gardner, composer Nico Muhly and director Barrie Kosky had done early or important work at the company.

Los Angeles Opera had been planning a new coproduction with the ENO for its 2024-25 season, Koelsch said, although he declined to give further details and said he had not been in contact with the company since the funding cut was announced. “I think they’ve got other things to focus on,” he said.

Newspaper coverage of opera in Britain is usually restricted to the arts pages, but the ferocity of debate here in recent weeks has propelled it to the front pages, and made it a major topic on social media.

The company has been urging opera fans to pressure the government and the Arts Council to overturn the funding decision. More than 74,000 people have signed an online petition started by singer Bryn Terfel.

John Berry, who was the ENO’s artistic director from 2005 to 2015, said that the company had coped with funding cuts before: In 2014, it lost a third of its government grant after failing to meet box office targets. But it would be “impossible,” he said, for the company to deal with a total loss of subsidy unless “a guardian angel” appeared. That was unlikely, given Britain lacked a culture of philanthropy, he added.

Britain’s major opera companies have a unique funding model that is halfway between American companies’ reliance on philanthropy and European houses’ dependence on state funding. The ENO’s Arts Council grant currently represents over a third of its income. In contrast, the Los Angeles Opera gets about 5% of its income from public grants; the Met, about 0.5%.

English National Opera traces its history back to 1931, when Lilian Baylis, a theater owner, established the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company to bring the art form to popular audiences. That founding aim is still central to the company, which stages all its work in English. Those performances, at the London Coliseum, have a more relaxed atmosphere than the ones at the nearby Royal Opera House, with audience members often wearing jeans rather than tuxedos, and generous policies to give free or discounted tickets to people under 35.

It made its global reputation in the 1980s when it became the first British opera company to tour the United States and debuted a host of major productions including Nicholas Hytner’s much-praised 1985 staging of Handel’s “Xerxes.” Under Berry’s leadership, the company also started to act as a test bed for productions heading to the Met, with productions of Philip Glass’ “Satyagraha,” Nico Muhly’s “Two Boys” and Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” among others, premiering in London before being tweaked and sent to New York.

Despite those triumphs, John Allison, the editor of Opera magazine, said in an interview that the company had recently been lurching from crisis to crisis with a string of high-profile resignations, financial difficulties and a declining number of works presented.

Fewer performances meant that the Arts Council was subsidizing each ENO ticket sold to a greater extent, and the company was often criticized for providing poor value for public money.

A spokesperson for the company said in an email that 90,000 people went to the company’s 63 performances last season, a figure that means each ticket was propped up with 137 pounds, or about $168, of state funding. The spokesperson added that attendance was lower than usual that season, because of the pandemic, and that the opera reached many more people through other means, including television broadcasts seen by 2.2 million viewers.

The Arts Council has defended its decision. Claire Mera-Nelson, the agency’s director of music, said in a blog post that she had seen “almost no growth in demand” for large-scale opera over the past five years, and had decided to prioritize funding for the art form “at different scales, reimagined in new ways” such as staging productions in parking lots, or pubs. Darren Henley, the Arts Council’s CEO, wrote in The Guardian that “new ideas may seem heretic to traditionalists,” but that opera needed to reinvent itself to “remain exciting and meaningful to future generations.”

On Thursday, Henley told British politicians he was having discussions with the ENO over how it could keep showing work in London, as well as elsewhere in England, but added, “We can’t fund them in London.” (The Arts Council declined an interview request for this article.)

While English National Opera’s future is hanging on officials’ whims, its audience seems hopeful that it will remain in London, somehow. At the Coliseum last week, before a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Yeomen of the Guard,” the atmosphere was relaxed and informal. Audience members in winter coats and bobble hats arrived on foot, rather than in sleek cars, and headed into the theater, where a merchandise stall was selling T-shirts with the slogans “Choose Opera” and “#loveENO.”

Nick McConagh, 72, said he had been coming to the ENO since the 1970s because its tickets were affordable. “It disproves the belief that opera is for the rich,” he said.

Nearby, Hatti Simpson, 30, with pink hair and tattoos, said she fell in love with opera after taking advantage of the company’s cheap ticketing for young people. Cutting the ENO’s funding and forcing it to move out of London would be “an absolute travesty,” she said.

Two hours later, when the lights went down at the end of the show, the audience of nearly 2,000 applauded and cheered. After the cast had taken several bows, Neal Davies, a Welsh baritone, stepped forward and quietened the crowd for one final number. “I’m here to sing the praises of English National Op-er-a, who strive to make the medium both radical and pop-ul-ar,” he sang, to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General,”

If the company did not exist “your life would be a dull-er one,” he added. That prospect, Davies bellowed, “was almost as unthinkable as Gilbert without Sul-liv-an.”

The audience cheered loudly. But it was unclear if anyone outside the building was listening.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Today's News

December 11, 2022

NFL owner by day, rock 'n' roller by night

Dutch artists turn to gold at Bonhams Old Master Paintings Sale

Do Ho Suh opens exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia

A groundbreaking generative digital artwork by Beeple, opens at M+ today

Morphy's adds quality and beauty to holidays with elegant Fine & Decorative Arts Auction

Stephenson's to auction the last of Perry Pfeffer's legendary collection of rock concert posters

Mysteries of a Venetian perfectionist revealed in Washington

Goldin Acquires Sell My Comic Books, enabling anyone to seamlessly appraise & list their comics for sale

Red 1963 Chevrolet Corvette Coupe with rare split rear window brings $129,800 in Miller & Miller's auction

Art Rotterdam 2023 new sculpture park celebrates connection with the city of Rotterdam

Box covering Columbus statue in Philadelphia must be removed, court rules

Madeleine Bialke, M. Florine Démosthéne, Sahara Longe, Nadia Waheed at the Alexander Berggruen Gallery

Ora Ora signs rising artist Joseph Tong, exclusive representation in greater China and South Korea

Dundee Contemporary Arts presents a new body of work by Glasgow-based artist Matthew Arthur Williams

Latest exhibitions at the Moss Arts Center at Virginia Tech, features works by Craig Drennen and Steve Locke

"José Lerma: Quieto, Quietud, Quietudes" at Almine Rech in Shanghai, China

Hamish Kilgour, whose New Zealand cult band had reach, dies at 65

An opera company's precarious future has some worried about a ripple effect

When Jewish artists wrestle with antisemitism

Review: Michelle Dorrance returns to the Joyce. Where's the zip?

47 Canal opens Danielle Dean's second solo exhibition

Museums, Exhibits, Artists, Milestones, Digital Art, Architecture, Photography,
Photographers, Special Photos, Special Reports, Featured Stories, Auctions, Art Fairs,
Anecdotes, Art Quiz, Education, Mythology, 3D Images, Last Week, .


Ignacio Villarreal
(1941 - 2019)
Editor & Publisher: Jose Villarreal
Art Director: Juan José Sepúlveda Ramírez
Writer: Ofelia Zurbia Betancourt

Royalville Communications, Inc
Founder's Site. Hommage
to a Mexican poet.

The First Art Newspaper on the Net. The Best Versions Of Ave Maria Song Junco de la Vega Site Ignacio Villarreal Site
Tell a Friend
Dear User, please complete the form below in order to recommend the Artdaily newsletter to someone you know.
Please complete all fields marked *.
Sending Mail
Sending Successful