Sunday, January 27, 2013

Another 2 1/2p on the ENO issue

My interview with English National Opera's artistic director, John Berry, attempted to address a few tough questions. The company has won every award in town. It has also turned out to have a £2.2m deficit for the 2011-12 financial year. The piece is in The Independent, here.

[Above: Ed Lyon and Roderick Williams in the Oliver Award-winning Castor and Pollux.]

Time to reflect a little...

Reactions to my article via Twitter were intriguing. I have the impression that some read in it only what they wanted to read, which is normal enough, but means that false impressions may have circulated. Right at the start I ask whether ENO has been flying too close to the sun - all those awards, all those new, risky productions. Obviously, the answer is yes. John Berry does acknowledge that perhaps mistakes were made, admitting that with hindsight perhaps they should not have done Weinberg's The Passenger or Glanert's Caligula. He doesn't "blame the audience", as one or two people muttered; he says, of The Passenger, "...but I couldn't sell it." He does acknowledge that there is a price-tag in taking risks, saying that he has no choice now but to "rebalance" the programme; and he also makes the point that the international co-productions that are the chief focus of this article enable the staging of work that ENO could never have afforded on its own.

Naturally the economic climate is nasty and the combination of that with the £1.3m cut in ENO's ACE grant accounts for a large proportion of the problem, but that isn't all there is to it. Some question why ENO has such a big a deficit when other artistic institutions don't. Clearly, a strategy of artistic risk that's then whacked with a massive grant cut is a kind of "perfect storm". But also, sadly, it's only a matter of time - and probably not all that much of it - until other institutions find themselves in the same boat. ENO is merely the first. (I lived through the '80s: been there, seen it all before, bought the t-shirt, now using it as a mop.)

Perhaps ENO is in a kind of double-bind with its international co-productions. Ingrained tastes in audiences vary a great deal from country to country, even from city to city. So, if you're going to produce an opera in collaboration with a place that is used to pushing the boat out in terms of directorial concept, it may not go down especially well with UK audiences, and you can probably forget it in America. (ENO is not the only place that's come up against this: think of "that" Rusalka last year at Covent Garden.) Perhaps that is why the Met is the most frequent of ENO's co-producers; a beautiful Satyagraha; a Klinghoffer [above] that was sensitive and visually striking; but a comparatively dreary Gounod Faust that was not very interesting at all.

I put the question of varying audience tastes to Berry. He defended his decisions, as you'd expect, and it's only fair that he should have the chance to do so. He pointed out that British creative work, this way, is exported and showcased all over the world. Yesterday someone asked where the singers are in all this. They don't usually do the travelling... In that Faust, we had the very fine Toby Spence. At the Met, they had Jonas Kaufmann.

Without those partnerships, and without a strong artistic vision, we might risk being reduced to wall-to-wall Gubbay-style Butterflies and Carmens, because there wouldn't be enough money for anything else. But the fact remains that "Eurotrash" productions have never been favourites with British audiences, yet houses in Germany, Austria, Belgium, Spain and elsewhere want them, expect them, encourage them. Essentially: you could be stuffed if you do them and stuffed if you don't.

On the other hand, even an old favourite like Nicholas Hytner's perennial production of The Magic Flute was not particularly full when I attended a few months ago; it's beautiful, but has been very thoroughly seen. A new one by a top director (there are rumours of Simon McBurney) with performance to match might draw the audience much more.

But here's another thought: as one canny "tweep" mentioned, it's the music that sells opera. Last year's ENO Rosenkavalier, in the staging by David McVicar, was as glorious a performance vocally and musically as anyone could have wished, with Ed Gardner going great guns in the pit and a cast consisting of Amanda Roocroft, Sarah Connolly and Sophie Bevan, with John Tomlinson as Baron Ochs [left: Tomlinson & Connolly]. It was outstanding. It was unforgettable. I've been stirred, shaken and overjoyed by many, many performances I heard there last year. Gardner's conducting in The Flying Dutchman; Peter Hoare singing in Martinu's amazing Julietta; the list could go on and on. Under Gardner's music directorship, the standard has shot up to a whole new level, and there have been some terrific decisions in the casting department.

Are there solutions to the financial woes? As Berry is the first to admit, there will have to be a "rebalancing" of the programme, and one suspects that various structures in the company's operation will need a long, hard look: ticket pricing, website, marketing, message. ENO runs on minimal staff already and it neither likes nor could afford cinecasting. But most of the clangers, to my view, have been in the question of how they get the message across, or don't.

Round the corner from the Coliseum is the Royal Opera House, with its Tosca, its Trittico, its, er, La Sonnambula and its, ooh, Robert le Diable (if you're grumbling about turkeys, I've seen more of them there in the past couple of years than at ENO)... Christmas dinner aside, Covent Garden gets the Great Big Whopping International Names. It's the place you go to see Gheorghiu, Kaufmann, Calleja, Terfel, Stemme, DiDonato, Florez, Beczala, Pappano, Bychkov...

ENO can't compete with that - or so we'd think. Yet ENO has its fair share of stars too: Toby Spence and Sarah Connolly are regulars, Stuart Skelton's rise and rise has happened largely on the boards of the Coli, Sophie Bevan has become a meteor under their auspices, Gerald Finlay brought the house down in Adams's Doctor Atomic [right] - these people are among the best in the world. And of course they pop up frequently at Covent Garden too. As for Gardner, I find him one of the most exciting conductors in the country at the moment. The standard seems to be so high now that that is almost taken for granted. Should we not be told about this a little more often?

But with Covent Garden doing the big traditional productions - Copley's perennial Boheme, Zambello's Carmen - and pulling in the grandest names, ENO needs a different, distinct identity, a defined and individual brand. Now it has one, and it is in these adventurous, internationally-minded productions.The new audience Berry seems to want to reach is not necessarily the one for fabulous star singers, but the one for experimental theatre.

Now, if it is going to keep doing cutting-edge, European-style directors' opera, which people may not "like", and it doesn't mind if not everyone likes them, it has to do a better job of convincing its public that it is OK to go to something and be provoked or stimulated or disturbed by it, rather than necessarily liking every moment This isn't "blaming the public". It's a question of how to speak to them. That will be up to marketing, box office strategy, et al, and will mean cutting out misfiring or patronising schemes like the "Undressed" venture. It's quite a few years since the incident of Aida and the cut-out-and-colour paper dolls, but these things stick in the mind. 

I sympathise with ENO's aims, their integrity, their courage and their musical standards [left: Ed Gardner, who works a lot of magic]. I don't "like" everything they do, but I'd rather be surprised, startled and stirred than bored silly. And if they're boxed into a no-risks, please-the-crowds corner, all that creativity might go down the drain. They deserve support for their vision and their ambition and their achievements. (I mean, that's a lot of awards they've got. Really. It's not just me that's cheering for all this.) That doesn't mean failing to acknowledge that there'll have to be some changes.

In a way, ENO is a little hobbled by its original mission statement. It's gone beyond English or National. It could be better described as British International Opera. That in turn might raise and slightly shift our expectations of what they're about - if it's weren't for the likelihood of such a name being shortened to BIO. And opera in English? That's a topic for another time...