Thursday, 24 March 2016

Solutions for the ENO? Vision not pettiness

Recrimination is like masturbation. It's all very well, but not ultimately  productive. Myopia has  marred too much of the debate about the future of the ENO: small minds focusing on small issues, unwilling or unable to handle wider issues.  The ENO deserves better.  So read Rupert Christiansen's latest on the ENO.  It's worrying when you find  common ground with Rupert, though in person, he's always  nice to me. But then, so is David Mellor. Agree or disagree, the article's better than the woefully vacuous cut-and-paste that usually passes for opinion. 

So whither the ENO? The ENO plays a vital role in keeping the cultural ecology in this country healthy. Many people, for reasons of their own, would be glad to see it go, but the ENO's demise will damage the system long term. The fact is, the arts market is global, and will become increasingly more so with technological change.  Like it or not that means London.  London is economically, demographically, historically where it's at.  Spreading resources might serve political agendas, but that's not how things work in the real world.  Shakespeare didn't stay in Stratford.  Communal arts need a focused community in order to thrive. Micro-mini organizations just can't provide the right critical mass.  It's wiser to concentrate resources for maximum impact, rather than to water things down by multiplication.

Politicians and their stooges with their pork-barrel values cannot comprehend that you can't grow culture by diktat. The arts are not a form of social engineering. The arts are no panacea for inequality, deprivation and a poor education system. If schools could operate properly, arts organizations shouldn't need to do their job for them. Politicians love the word "accessibility" because it throws blame on the arts and diverts attention from real problems  elsewhere.

What then are the options for the ENO? The absolute fundamental is that it's an arts organization whose primary purpose is to deliver artistic excellence. And that it does, give or take inevitable misses among hits. The nature of art is risk and innovation. That was the message of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg which the ENO produced last year in a remarkably effective translation (Read my review HERE).  So innovative work isn't good box office? Think The Mastersinger, Satyagraha, Benevenuto Cellini. Sadly, there are audiences who'd prefer safe, semi-amateur work. There were some who thought that Pagliacci at the ROH should have dispensed with the irony Leoncavallo so specifically highlighted in the Prologue. We'd all become clowns to please that mob. Real success in the arts cannot be measured by sales alone.  What the ENO does best is what it should be doing. Suits may whine, but making money for the sake of making money is not a good way to go.  In the current situation, I'm not sure that mounting more productions is an option.  Maybe things like Sweeney Todd can pay the bills, but they shouldn't become what the ENO stands for.

This is where the ENO stands to make most money, by spreading costs and risks and working with other opera companies and houses, not only in the UK but abroad. It's been doing this for years, making arrangements with the Met, with Amsterdam and so on.  This is how the business works and why it is done. It's where attention should focus, not on gimmicks like a café.  The ENO can't afford to go out of town itself, but it can make money by giving other houses a  home in London and give them higher profiles, and profits to the benefit of all.  At a stroke that would integrate London with other parts of the country, like Wales, the North and Scotland. It would blow out of the water the case for diverting funds from London. The case is not regions versus London, but regions and London working together.   Building up the ENO both in terms of production and in nurturing creativity would reinforce Britain's credibility as a centre for artistic excellence in an increasingly competitive global market.

Besides, sales percentages would look better if there weren't so many seats to sell. The answer is not, however, moving to smaller premises.  The Coliseum is the finest, biggest theatre in the best possible position in the West End.  If the ENO had to move, it would lose the immense benefits of being so central, which would further cut into box office. It would also have to pay commercial rents elsewhere instead of enjoying its current "rent protection" status, which would again rip apart its finances. So why the pressure to leave the Coliseum?  Changing the capacity percentage means nothing if the company loses out big time.  The sad fact is that the Coliseum is a magnet for those who'd like it turned over to commercial  interests, even though it was financed by public money.  One can understand tycoons salivating, but opera fans shouldn't be fooled. The ENO could collapse under the double whammy of losing its prime position and facing higher overheads. Better I think to look for other ways of using the building than as a café, such as closing the uppermost levels and hiring them out for other use.

The onus, therefore, isn't thinking small but thinking big.  The ENO is in a unique position because it serves an English-speaking market. English is a world language, so the marketing possibilities are enormous.  Nowadays, anyone can click onto the network whether they're in Huddersfield or Hokkaido. Salford or Seoul. They'll go where there's something compelling to listen to, not because it pleases local politicians.  Moreover, because the ENO has a commitment to the English language, it could use that to its advantage by promoting work in English. Already it has a reputation for Britten, Turnage,  Glass and Adams, which it could build on. It's brought other British repertoire to the fore, like Vaughan Williams's Riders to the Sea and the wonderful Pilgrim's Progress (see my review HERE)   Supporting modern British repertoire is also vitally important.  There is good new work in English out there, but unfortunately a public and a press that doesn't know or care.  Imagine if the ENO had nabbed George Benjamin's Written on Skin?

There's also no reason the ENO couldn't do other British repertoire like plays or concerts, which don't cost so much to mount but would draw income.  That would make the most of being so close to Trafalgar Square and St Martins in the Fields, where people go for music already.  to corner the tourist market, whi8chn iusn't just international but also British.   What the ENO really needs is vision, not suits and bean counting. But it can't do vision unless it gets support from Arts Council England, from the government and from the otherwise petty-minded public.

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