English National Opera has defended itself against claims by outgoing chairman Martyn Rose that it is losing money and audiences as a result of failures by artistic director John Berry.
The claims were made in a letter leaked to The Sunday Times sent by Rose in December last year to Vernon Ellis, a previous ENO chairman and current president. In the letter, Rose, who last week announced he is to step down in February, said the company had lost £10 million during Berry’s decade-long tenure. He added: “Even this year, I am told we are on track to lose £500,000, which I will wager a safe bet will be over £1 million.”
Rose was seen as instrumental in ENO’s move towards developing new commercial collaborations with theatre companies and producers. In April last year it announced plans to develop “world-class musical theatre” with producers Michael Grade and Michael Linnit.
However, a much-heralded co-production of Orfeo with the Bristol Old Vic was cancelled last November with ENO claiming cuts in grant-aid from Arts Council England were to blame.
The controversy over Rose’s comments comes as the company prepares to launch a business plan aided by a £7.6 million “transitional grant” in response to a 29% reduction in its revenue funding – equivalent to £4.8 million – over the next three years.
In his letter, Rose warned such losses are “unsustainable” and described Berry as “the problem not the solution, and no meaningful change will ever take place while he remains”.
Rose warned: “It is possible that we may already be past the point of no return.” He also wrote: “For the very survival of the ENO, Berry must leave, preferably soon.”
The company has struggled to find long-term stability for much of the past decade and more. Following the departure of general director Nicholas Payne in 2002 over a dispute about artistic priorities with the then chair Martin Smith, ENO required a £10 million “stabilisation grant” from ACE to keep it from collapsing.
With no previous experience of running an opera company, Smith’s successor, Sean Doran, provoked considerable controversy with an approach to programming that included ENO’s first appearance at the Glastonbury rock festival.
A costly staging of Wagner’s four-part The Ring of the Nibelungen in 2004/05 was never seen in a complete cycle. Doran and Payne departed in 2005, quickly followed by Smith after the threat of strikes by technical and front of house staff over rates of pay. There was further industrial turmoil during the 2006/7 season in response to proposed redundancies.
Although the company reported reserves of £5 million in 2009, its attempts to attract new audiences with its Opera Undressed evenings delivered uneven results with falling ticket sales exacerbated by a succession of annual funding cuts in the wake of the 2008 recession.
Three years ago, ENO reported a £2.2 million trading loss, although a spokesman told The Stage the company had delivered a surplus of £208,000 in 2013/14 and was “on course to present a balanced budget for 2014/15”.
Responding to Rose’s claims, acting chairman Harry Brunjes refuted his figures. “The unequivocal fact is that in the last eight financial years the ENO has run an unrestricted surplus of £2.4 million. Our total audience for 2013/14 was up by 11% and audience numbers for the 2014/15 season to date remain stable,” he said.
Berry has refused to comment publicly on the claims.
2001: Businessman Martin Smith appointed chair
2002: General director Nicholas Payne resigns
2002: ENO receives £10 million “stabilisation grant”
2003: Sean Doran appointed artistic director
2005: Sean Doran and Martin Smith resign; John Berry and Loretta Tomasi appointed; crisis over strike threat
2006/7: Redundancy proposals provoke industrial action
2009: ENO reports £5 million reserves
2012: Deficit of £2.2 million recorded
2013: Audiences grow 9% to 205,000; surplus: £2.7 million; Martyn Rose appointed chair
2014: Audiences grow 11%; surplus: £208,000
2014: Commercial collaboration with Michael Grade and Michael Linnit announced
2014: Cancels planned co-production with Bristol Old Vic, blaming funding cuts
2014: ACE announces 28% fall in revenue funding; receives £7.6 million “transitional grant”
2015: Martyn Rose resigns