As someone who used to work at ENO, I have been closely following recent news about the ENO chorus; although they are no longer striking, the chorus still face a large salary reduction, a nine month contract, and a 10% reduction in their workforce. Our national opera company now has a part time chorus. And now their music director, Mark Wigglesworth, has resigned amidst rumours that he was unhappy with the direction of the company. He had apparently made a series of proposals which were rejected as ‘overambitious’. If ENO can’t be ambitious, who can?
I conducted the ENO chorus’s ‘strike concert’ in 2003 – a concert performance of the Verdi Requiem, when they faced a reduction in numbers from 68 to around 50. So this is nothing new; ENO has, over the years, lurched from crisis to crisis. It’s hard not to feel sympathy with the ACE decision to cut their funding; there has been a culture of financial mismanagement for decades.
Cressida Pollock has, on the face of it, done the practical thing - looked for cuts so ENO can live within their means. But, as many have pointed out, she’s looking at the problem from the wrong end of the telescope. Most artistic directors (and it’s telling that ENO doesn’t have one) would be thinking in terms of how to raise more money, lobbying and working with ACE whilst continuing to support their current programme. The work comes first, not the budget; savvy artistic managements maximises even the smallest of budgets by being…creative.
So what about engaging audiences, present and future? The golden years of the Baylis education programme are long past after years of chronic lack of interest from senior management. Compare what ENO does for the audience of the next generation with the extraordinary education work of Glyndebourne - full scale productions on the main stage, full opera commissions - ENO’s work doesn’t even come close.
Darren Henley, the new CEO of ACE is a much underrated figure in all this. We have worked with him when he was head of Classic FM, and found him shrewd, informed and above all, passionate about music. Aside from leading Classic FM to record audience figures and (that dirty phrase) commercial success, he wrote an excellent government report on music education. What better way to his heart (and ACE’s purse strings) than to reforge ENO as a company for the next generation of opera goers?
Then ENO could stand for something again. As well as supporting British operatic talent, it could put education onto the main stage of the house – with a minimum of one new production each season featuring, and aimed at, young people. Productions should be scaleable - and therefore tourable; reduced orchestrations could be commissioned so that smaller groups could go to secondary academies, community halls and summer festivals and show them how amazing opera can be.
So who could lead this education revolution? Well there are 40 people at ENO who are about to be given three months off each year…