New work is the battleground for opera flagships’ fight to survive

A scene from ENO's current production The Mikado. Photo: Chris Christodoulou
Simon Tait is a former arts correspondent of The Times and is co-editor of Arts Industry magazine.
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Arts Council England, we’re told, is going to rethink its opera policy following the shock news from English National Opera. ENO’s figures for 2012 were almost sneaked out under the wire with no press conference or even news release, but you can’t keep figures like these quiet for long: the 2011 surplus of £48,000 had become a deficit of £2.47m.

ENO becomes the first major subsidised arts organisation to go into the red, a development that in the 1990s would have meant resignations. ENO blames the subsidy cut of 15%, but the disastrous figures owe much more to poor box office.

Attendances went down from 80% to 71% - in the largest theatre in London that kind of absence is very noticeable – despite the fact that ticket prices had been kept fairly low in order, ENO said, to attract new audiences.

Twice in the past the arts council has come to the rescue of ENO (the chairman of which is ACE’s new chair) and has been happy to do so. Under John Berry ENO has been daring with the programming and perspicacious in the understanding of what the audience will take a punt on. At the moment, ENO seems to be living on reserves which have been much depleted in the last 12 months, so in other times ACE’s largesse may might have been called on again. Not any more, here is no ACE largesse, and Berry will be criticised for his devotion to new and unconventional work.

[pullquote]Opera, notoriously opulent, needs to be less so, new work needs to be on the basis that new theatre and tickets have to be cheaper[/pullquote]

ENO is one of two ACE flagship opera companies, the Royal Opera House being the other, and the traditional demarcation has long been clear: ENO for the “ambitious and innovative”, as its annual report says, and in English, Covent Garden for the traditional and international. But that old differential may be changing.

A few days before ENO’s bombshell came, the ROH’s new director of opera, Kasper Holten, announced a sharp left turn to its opera policy with “new work (no longer) on the periphery of our programme” but suddenly at its heat. No longer is the Linbury Theatre there to be devoted to education and the diversions of Deborah Bull’s ROH2: with Bull’s departure last year, ROH2 has gone too and “has given us the opportunity to do something we’d been talking about for a while” Holten said.

The Linbury is to become, from 2015, the opera house’s studio theatre where new work will be tried out with a view to progression to the main stage if it shapes up. Holten said he has tested out the sponsorship response and found that there is enthusiasm for modern opera, particularly among trusts and foundations which are becoming an increasingly significant alternative souse of funding to subsidy.

He and the music director, Tony Pappano, are commissioning young British composers, joining other opera houses around the world to co-commission, and so confident are they that plans have been inked in as far ahead as 2020 when four composers, including Mark-Anthony Turnage, have been commissioned for new pieces that reflect “What preoccupies us today?” Or, presumably, as near 2020 as they can get.

The question will no doubt be raised, as it always does at times like this, whether we can afford to support an art form that appeals to so few with something like 15% of the entire ACE budget. The answer, as Streetwise Opera that I talked about last week would say, is a resounding “Yes!’, and with the genius of a young composer such as Thomas Adès merely among the range on offer now, audiences that in 2008, say, would never have dreamed of going to Covent Garden are clamouring for their half price stand-bys.

The difference between now and two years ago is not that the art form’s changes are unappealing, it is that the audience is harder up now that ever. Opera, notoriously opulent, needs to be less so, new work needs to be on the basis that new theatre – smaller casts, simpler sets, longer runs – and tickets have to be cheaper. unless Holten and Pappano have got it very wrong, it isn’t new work that is the problem, it is how and where it is presented.