Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Enquiries usually come too late

ENO: sink or swim?

The meltdown facing ENO at the moment is disgraceful. No artistic director has yet been appointed. Mark Wigglesworth has elected to walk away from his music directorship at the end of this season - having made clear that he believed maintaining a full-time company was absolutely fundamental, he probably felt he had no choice after the chorus deal was reached last week. In a resignation letter sent to musicians, he made this clearer still: "The company is evolving into something I do not recognise..."

In an article last month, he declared:

The Arts Council’s recent decision to cut ENO’s subsidy by £5m a year and the financial crisis that that has created demands that we rethink and reassess what we do and how we do it. How we respond to this challenge will determine our future success. I believe a fresh approach will fail if it compromises the company’s experience and expertise. Without the commitment, sense of ownership, love, and pride of the people who are the essence of ENO artistically, we have no right to ask for any curiosity, loyalty, or passion from our audience. ENO’s identity as a team defines its past and will be its greatest asset in protecting its future. Cutting the core of the company – musicians and technicians alike - would damage it irreparably.

The company is left, therefore, effectively without artistic leadership and in the hands consultants. The confusion beyond is...confused. One extra bit of trouble is that now Wigglesworth himself is being blamed for adding to it. It has to be said that a strong resignation statement from him throwing the whole filthy business wide open would have been handy, but has not been forthcoming. It wouldn't be surprising if some agreement has been reached that obliges him to do no such thing. (Arts organisations out of their depth are better than you might expect at muzzling those who know too much.)

Wigglesworth is a fine musician and a sensitive, thoughtful, principled person. What ENO actually needed in that job this season was an absolute bruiser.

But all this takes the focus away from the real problem, which was the original, punitive slashing of the ACE grant by 29 per cent. How was any company supposed to survive that intact?

The Magic Flute (pictured above in ENO's inspired production by Simon McBurney) shows a couple undergoing trial by fire and water, protected by their love for one another, their seeking after wisdom and the magic of their music-making. This is ENO's Magic Flute moment. If it can emerge, swimming rather than sinking, it will be stronger than ever. The difference is that in The Magic Flute the people subjecting Tamino and Pamina to the trials do want them to succeed.

If ENO were to fold, it would be a stain of dishonour upon British cultural life. ENO was, and still should be, the People's Opera. If it is murdered, there will need to be a post-mortem. Many of us would demand a public enquiry into its fate. That would come too late. We need it now, while the company can still be saved. We need to keep the big picture, first and foremost. The single most important thing is that the bean-counters cannot be permitted to sacrifice a company that at its finest is a national treasure and that reminds us at every performance of the best and most beautiful things of which human beings are capable.

(Here is a little light reading about management consultants.)