Thursday, December 10, 2015

Letters of support plead for ENO's lifeblood

Stormy weather: ENO's chorus in Martinu's Julietta. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

London stands to lose a lot more than Kasper Holten (see yesterday) at this rate. Sir Antonio Pappano (music director at Covent Garden) has written an open letter to The Times, warning that cuts to the English National Opera chorus members' contracts and the limiting of the season to a grand total of eight operas could destroy the company.

Today The Guardian carries two letters of support for ENO, one from the head of Equity's live performance section, the other from a group of ENO stalwarts and other musicians including David Alden, Sarah Connolly, Marin Alsop, John Eliot Gardiner, Stuart Skelton and Sir Willard White. Read them here.

The threat to the chorus is particularly noxious - because over the past few years ENO's chorus has been among the best in the business. Many, many times they've proved the highlight of the performance: their vibrancy, accuracy and intensity in The Flying Dutchman was unforgettable, for example, ditto The Death of Klinghoffer, and in Benvenuto Cellini the way they belted out "Applaud and laud all art and artisans!" with such relish will stay with me for a very long time. Indeed, were I to list all the works in which ENO's chorus has proved its very best feature, this would be an overlong blogpost.

But what's really insidious is the underlying sense that perhaps the chorus is believed, somehow, by someone, somewhere, to be something that can and should be chopped back. That it doesn't really need to be there. That it's subsidiary to the "star" soloists, a poor relation to the business of a tenor hitting the high notes.

Guess what? The chorus is the lifeblood of opera.

Can you think of many operatic masterpieces that could survive without their chorus? For the majority of great opera composers, the chorus is a character - often the central character. Peter Grimes is all about the chorus, which becomes the seething almost-lynch-mob of the Borough. Parsifal's choruses are integral to the music's detailed, mesmerising tapestry. Anyone fancy Nabucco without the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves?

And by the way, being an opera chorus member isn't something just anybody can do. If one thinks "chorus" and pictures a nice amateur choral society trotting out Messiah with one rehearsal a week and scores to read from, that's not what's going on here. Opera choruses are not keen amateurs; they are seasoned professionals who learn everything from memory, have to work with those demanding directors, have to do very strange things sometimes (in Munich's Manon Lescaut the Bavarian State Opera Chorus had to bob about in fat suits...) and work extraordinary hours for not a great heap of remuneration*. The soloists are the cherries on the cake. The chorus is the cake.

"Without them there is no ENO" declares the luminaries' letter.

Applaud and laud all art and artisans, please: once more from the top!

* Note: in some German houses the chorus is rather well paid, in some cases earning more than some of the soloists.