Last week, English National Opera produced shocking news. It arrived on the back of the previous week’s season openings of two operas based on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, at which the rumour mill was operating at full tilt.
Artistic director Daniel Kramer had stood down after just three years, but that was more than five months ago. Who was going to replace him? Those in the know muttered the words “Annilese Miskimmon”. They were right.
So what was the shock? It was that she’s startlingly well-equipped for the job.
I’m not being sarcastic. When it comes to appointing an artistic director to run an opera company in a 2,359-seat house, you’d think that previous experience of running an opera company would be near the top of the list of job requirements but neither Kramer nor his predecessors John Berry (2005-15) and Séan Doran (2003-05) had done so.
Berry and Doran were, coincidentally, both clarinettists who had moved into senior positions in arts management. Doran had run the Perth Festival and Berry was ENO’s head of opera casting. After Doran left suddenly, the board promoted Berry and the house’s executive director Loretta Tomasi to artistic director and chief executive without opening the jobs to competition.
Kramer, in turn, arrived as a freelance theatre director with a maverick reputation and a handful of operas to his name including two for ENO. The first was a highly regarded production of Harrison Birtwistle’s notoriously fierce Punch and Judy at the Young Vic. The second was a wildly idiosyncratic take on Duke Bluebeard’s Castle in which Bartók’s musico-dramatic masterpiece was shrunk to fit the idea that Bluebeard was a version of the Austrian rapist and murderer Josef Fritzl.
My judgement about Miskimmon is nothing personal since I’ve never met her and have only seen one production she has directed – Glyndebourne’s Madama Butterfly in 2016, in which musical values outweighed dramatic strengths – but personal taste is not the issue.
When Richard Eyre stepped down as artistic director of the National Theatre, he told me he believed the building should be run by a theatre director. It was crucial, he argued, that it should be someone who understood not only how to lead a major arts organisation with hundreds of staff members and a national profile, but someone who knows how everything stands or falls on what happens in the rehearsal room.
At 45, Belfast-born Miskimmon is only three years older than Kramer but still relatively young in a world in which opera companies are predominantly run by older white men. Yet in addition to directing productions across the UK, Europe and beyond, she has already led Opera Theatre Company Ireland, then worked as general manager and artistic director of the Danish National Opera, and, since August 2017, has been director of opera at Norwegian National Opera.
At ENO, she’ll have her work cut out. Last season’s finances were unusually strong, thanks in no small part to hit productions of Philip Glass’ Akhnaten and the musically magnificent production of Porgy and Bess, the biggest seller in the company’s history.
But the latter is seriously expensive to revive because of its huge scale and the vast cast must be played by suitably experienced black singers, which meant bringing in talent from abroad. As well as looking for the best available voices, as the company does throughout its casting, ENO couldn’t use its own chorus which is predominantly white.
But opera houses don’t survive on rarities like those. They need ‘bankers’. Unlike repertory theatres that would never programme the same production of Twelfth Night or The Cherry Orchard every other year, opera houses thrive on the cost advantages of repeated revivals of audience-friendly core repertoire – key works by Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Bizet, Strauss and a few others.
Take La Traviata. Berry persuaded German director Peter Konwitschny to direct a new production of Verdi’s tune-drenched consumption tragedy. Konwitschny’s radical rethink stripped away all traditional trappings – and the interval(s), thus reducing bar profits. It fascinated those tired by dozens of traditional productions but bewildered those less conversant with it. When it returned two years later, many of the former group were underwhelmed because they were no longer witnessing the shock of the new.
Kramer dispatched that in favour of his own new production that he promised would be “the party of the century”. Way over-budget, the over-produced, under-directed result was, as Kramer was forced to concede, unrevivable.
Compare that with the Royal Opera production, which is returning in December for the umpteenth time. It opened in 1994: that’s 25 years of no new set-build, lower rehearsal costs and all the other cost advantages of revival.
Berry and Kramer produced few revivable “bankers”. Creating ENO’s future repertoire needs to be one of Miskimmon’s top priorities.
Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/david-benedict