Friday, 11 December 2015

What's really ahead for the ENO ?

At last, something of a debate about the future of the ENO, thanks to an open letter in the Times signed by eminent dignitaries, and, signfigantly, Antonio Pappano, who knows something about the real business of opera.  Pappano is right: the public is entitled to know what's really going on behind the scenes.

The ENO is an important part of the overall arts network in this country and abroad. What happens to the ENO impacts on everything else.  The real problem is that there is no coherent arts policy in this country, and even less understanding of Britain's role in the ecology of the international arts. There have been many reports in recent years, worryingly all written in the same kind of corporate-speak, which makes one wonder if there's some kind of self-perpetuating industry generating reports for the sake of creating reports. So everyone says the same, they must be right ?  Not.

What we really need is cogent analysis. Will that be possible with an Arts Council England structurally hamstrung on a philosophy that negates the simple fact that Britain is a centralized country?   Or policies that reflect demographic change?  And that technology is changing the whole way the arts  and audiences operate. The arts are very much part of the British economy, and possibly one of the biggest exports, not only in financial terms but also in terms of national prestige.  The arts also have significant foreign policy impact. In an era when hearts and minds count as much as bombs, we'd be crazy, to undermine what puts the "Great" into Great Britain. The previous ENO Chairman, Peter Bazalgette,  moved on to become Chairman of Arts Council England. He said he was not involved with the decision to slash funding to the ENO. However, he should have been in a position to appreciate where the ENO fits into wider arts policy, nationally and internationally.

So why not a coherent, consistent arts policy that deals with wider issues? Pigs might fly. There are far too many vested interests with too much to gain from breaking  things down into bite-sized pieces so they can be consumed more easily. The NHS, the BBC, the transport infrastructure and much else were built up by public funds and commitment. Now they're morsels ripe for commercial cherry picking. The media, politicians and the public don't do joined-up thinking anymore, so no-one cares.  But there is a strong business case for supporting the ENO as part of the national arts industry. I've written about this many times  See HERE for example. 

So what's ahead for the ENO? First, we need to get away from the constant rehash of the same old canards, like the resignations of Martyn Rose and Henriette Götz. Neither of them were in their jobs long enough to have much impact.  Even before she joined the ENO, Götz was smart enough to walk away from a car crash before it happened.  Since the media don't actually do journalism anymore, they fall back on the same old  clichés. What is relevant about the Martyn Rose resignation was that he claimed that John Berry was "the problem not the solution". Just as in many organizations, internal feuds are part of the system, it's no big deal. Businesses don't always operate on purely business principle.  So the real question, now that Berry is gone, would be how that logic still stands. 

The rescue plan for the ENO predicates on piecemeal measures like turning the building into a café, which, frankly I don't think means a bean. Much wiser to use parts of the building not usually open to the public for corporate events and so on.  

The idea of cutting the orchestra and chorus is also short sighted. Savings would have to be offset against the impact on personnel. Musicians can't find work elsewhere because the summer hiatus happens all over the country.  Besides, musicians are the lifeblood of the company. Trash them and sacrifice what makes the company good.  The ENO hosts other performing enterprises, notably Russians ballet and some English National Ballet productions,  so it's not as though no income is coming in.

Then there's the Coliseum itself, the  biggest theatre in the West End , wonderfully situated in a perfect position   How commercial interests would just love to get a bite of that!  Booting the ENO out might be good for some, but it would cause further problems for the ENO.  It occupies the Coliseum under an agreement which means it doesn't pay commercial rent. If it went elsewhere, rents would escalate, while a less prime position would make it less convenient for visitors.  Higher costs, less sales? Not smart. In any cse, I'm not convinced that commercial interests could make the Coliseum pay, though they might think so.

Touring is also not an option. The projected production at the Old Vic in Bristol fell flat because it was too expensive.  Because the industry operates on a co-operative network, whereby different companies host each other's productions.  More could be done in this way, though. The ENO could become "Opera North London" or "Scottish Opera London" just as the Royal Opera House hosts outside work. The ENO did the WNO's Mastersingers of Nuremberg which to many was an even better experience, even without Terfel.  This kind of integration between houses benefits all and makes money. If only policy makers understood how the business works!

For 2013-2014, the ENO published a version of its accounts which showed an optimistic surplus (more here). Of course it's not a full account, but as a private company it's not required to open its books. So what is the basis of Arts Council England's savage cuts? Let someone else analyze that. I'm not paid to do investigative journalism – if such a thing still exists.  We don't have the figures either way, and have to go on Arts Council England's say-so.  But against the figures, whatever they may be, we need to balance them against wider considerations.  Success cannot be measured by crude things like bums on seats.  Closing the topmost gallery, for example, would instantly change occupancy stats. No-one goes there anyway.  The true value of the ENO lies in its place as an integral part of British cultural life,.Which is why we need a coherent national arts policy which addresses reality.

LATEST : In the Times, Raymond Gubbay has written a letter criticizing the ENO for not doing shows over Xmas shows, which is a bit unfair as other places eg the South Bank, don't do normal programming in this season.  Gubbay does shows at the Barbican at Xmas, and he and Classic FM use the Royal Albert Hall for shows of their own.  Even  more signifigantly, though, Peter Jonas, who was Chairman of the ENO when the Coliseum deal was done, reveals that, if the ENO were to be shut down, the Coliseum might revert to the Arts Council.  I can't quote the Times verbatim, but anyone who sunscribes can do so themselves.

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