World-beating: ENO’s Doctor Atomic
On Music

Inquest into the death of ENO

The cause of death, in this coroner’s verdict, is a prolonged failure to address reality

This article is taken from the December/January 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

One morning half a lifetime ago I was sitting in a garret office at theLondon Coliseum listening to the Queen’s cousin tell me what the public really wanted. The Earl of Harewood — George, when you got to know him better — was managing director of English National Opera from 1972 to 1985.

Neither he, nor anyone else, saw any kind of conflict between the “people’s opera” being run by a king’s grandson, an Earl with a vast estate in Yorkshire. This was by no means the weirdest of a catalogue of anomalies and amateurisms that has now led to the defunding of London’s second opera house. Before long, ENO will be taught in college as a model in how not to make an opera.

The company was founded at the Old Vic during the First World War by Lilian Baylis, a Christian spinster who believed London’s working classes would be elevated by having affordable world class theatre, ballet and opera. In 1931 she upgraded to Sadler’s Wells Theatre in Islington, where John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Margot Fonteyn and Frederick Ashton would all make their names.

Opera was the Cinderella of the arts, not least because Baylis had it sung in English for the benefit of her proletarian audience. At Covent Garden, the stars sang French, Italian and German and the snobs looked down on local talent. Sadlers Wells finally hit the headlines in June 1945 with Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, the first English masterpiece in a quarter of a millennium, but joy was short-lived as Covent Garden took the lion’s share of state funding and the Wells ran dry.

A 1968 move to the West End signalled a revival, with Frank Matcham’s majestic Coliseum offering not only the biggest stage but almost 3,000 seats, promising economic viability. Harewood renamed the company English National Opera. Reginald Goodall created a stupendous Ring cycle in a credible new translation by Andrew Porter. A subsidiary company, Opera North, was set up in Leeds.

By the time the Earl rose from CEO to board chairman (always a mistake), ENO was performing at high voltage to half-empty seats. A Powerhouse team of conductor Mark Elder, director David Pountney and chief executive Peter Jonas led a decade of bold shows and bleeding losses.

By the time the Earl rose from CEO to board chairman, ENO was performing at high voltage to half-empty seats

Pountney staged a Freudian analysis of Hansel and Gretel with stepmother and witch sung by the same mezzo. Jonathan Miller reset Verdi’s Rigoletto among New York’s Mafia. David Alden tweaked Peter Grimes with the village, not the fisherman, as guilty party. His brother Christopher set A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a paedophile public school. Harrison Birtwistle’s momentous Mask of Orpheus had its world premiere.

These were exciting times for those of us who go to opera to be challenged, less so for lovers of Carmen. Jonas appeared nightly in front of the curtain, begging us for donations to fix a leak in the roof. In 1993 he moved to Munich, making its state opera the best in Europe. He showed me a nice man in the next office whose job it was to protect him from deficit. ENO never had that discipline.

The next boss at the Coliseum was a BBC programme maker, Dennis Marks, who boasted the lowest-ever ratings for a TV opera. With an untested conductor, Sian Edwards, and novice stage directors, Dennis never stood a chance, particularly with the Coliseum in need of repair. I wrote a Telegraph column titled “Is it English? Is it National? Is it Opera?” Nobody seemed to have an answer. A new board recruited the knowledgeable Nicholas Payne from Covent Garden, only to fall out with him over modernist stagings. Payne was replaced by Sean Doran, who had never run an opera house before. What were they thinking?

John Berry was promoted from within to artistic director and kept things buzzing. He brought in film directors — Anthony Minghella, Penny Woolcock, Mike Leigh — to create shows that were effectively dry-runs for New York’s Metropolitan Opera, notably a long-running Madam Butterfly. Berry favoured US composers — John Adams, Philip Glass, Nico Muhly — while maintaining the best of English theatricality. The orchestra, under Ed Gardner, never sounded better.

However, an abrasive chairman claimed that Berry was overspending. Arts Council England, the funding body, temporarily suspended ENO from its portfolio. The next CEOs were, successively, a management consultant and a youth-TV executive. When the company’s funding line was finally cut this month, there was little uproar. ENO was a much-loved maiden aunt being laid gently to rest.

Did it have to die? The cause of death, in this coroner’s verdict, is a prolonged failure to address reality. Take opera in English, a founding act of faith. In the vast Coliseum the words were hard to hear, so subtitles were screened above the stage. We faced a Brobdingnagian drama of a Lithuanian tenor mangling Verdi in a foreign tongue while a trendy translation flashed above our eyelines.

The decline and fall of the ENO is a lesson to all working in the arts that you cannot kick problems down the road

This was comic opera on a boardroom scale with a lamentably unEnglish lack of irony. The decline and fall of England’s national opera is a lesson to all working in the arts that you cannot kick problems down the road. ENO died not for lack of cash or love but for want of definition.

Remembered at its best, ENO was a world-beater. Kurt Weill’s Street Scene, set on a Brooklyn front stoop, has never been so powerful. The Pountney-Berry production of Weinberg’s The Passenger awoke hearts and minds to a Holocaust conundrum. John Adams Doctor Atomic made nuclear threat chillingly tangible. Further back, there was Janet Baker as Julius Caesar, Jo Barstow as Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

This was a company with ethos and courage, character and colour. How many surviving opera houses can lay claim to those values?

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