Criticism on Fridays: Re-Evaluating the Perspective on the English National Opera Crisis

Here’s How the English National Opera Can Continue to Serve The Nation

By Polina Lyapustina

The English National Opera, one of the largest British operatic institutions and a famous international opera stage, is going through hard times now. After several years of poor economic performance and the recent resignation of its CEO, ENO has lost its £12.6 million core annual funding from Arts Council England starting next year. Instead, the opera house was proposed to receive £17m over three years to “develop a new business model” and has suggested it would move to Manchester or anywhere else out of London.

Following this announcement, the international community, including the major opera stars and top management of numerous theaters, came to the defense ENO. 

Among the numerous letters, coming in response to the announcement, Peter Gelb of the Met Opera said, “The Arts Council’s decision to cut funding entirely for the English National Opera and tell the company to move to Manchester seems remarkably short-sighted and damaging, not only to the ENO but also more broadly to Britain.”

Let’s take a look at that statement. Because it is a powerful statement to make – Not only this decision is bad for the institution, but it’s also bad for the country.

But, let’s not be unfounded about this. The Arts Council England is the national development agency for creativity and culture, which publicly funds art and culture in the UK. A spokeswoman for the company said that 90,000 people went to the ENO’s 63 performances last season, a figure that means each ticket was propped up with £137, or about $168, of state funding. 

Public (or state) funding means that the money they distribute comes from taxes and the national lottery. Therefore, the Arts Council England mainly takes into account and protects the interests of the people of the UK (and rightfully expect the theaters would do too). And by people, I mean all people of the UK, all of whom fund their culture.

Not only opera lovers who can be proud of the ENO’s productions (but still cannot fund them), not only Londoners (who are probably the only ones who can afford the prices of the tickets to ENO’s performances, with only 400 places under £25). Every single person in the UK.

Even, or maybe especially those approximately 14.5 million people living in poverty in the UK, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s UK Poverty Profile 2022. That’s more than one in every five people.

One in every five. Can Peter Gelb estimate how the cut of ENO’s funding and its relocation would affect them? I cannot say if the MET’s general manager has enough expertise to understand that, but I know who does. The Art Council England’s Chief Executive Darren Henley and his team.

To be clear, I don’t think they are saints and do absolutely everything right and fair. And yet, I’m sure that people who have been building the funding system for arts and culture in the country since 1946 have a better understanding of such complex cases. 

Every three years, the organization builds a strategy that solves current problems and guarantees long-term development for the culture of the state. They also draw conclusions and reports on the results of each period. And the results of ENO were, no surprises, very poor. 

Meanwhile, the 2023-26 Investment Programme is clear (and fair), and it’s well-presented on the organization’s website. 

“All the decisions we have made in this National Portfolio are rooted in the vision set out in Let’s Create. It was born out of the conversations we had with people all over England that helped us shape that 10-year strategy. Time and again they told us they wanted to see and experience the best creative activities and cultural events in the places where they lived.”

This also leads us to comprehend another important part of the next three years’ plan — the Transfer Programme, which aims to bring the highest level of culture to other regions of Britain and to give the opportunity for professionals in the art fields to work in places where they live. 

The possible relocation of ENO to Manchester made headlines and caused too much dissatisfaction, so loud that it offended the residents and the mayor of the city.

“If you can’t come willingly, don’t come at all,” Mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham said.

But no matter how it was presented, it had nothing to do with any “punishment” or harm for ENO. There’s simply a demand for opera institutions out of London (and, let’s be honest, it doesn’t look like there was a huge demand for ENO in the city). There’s a demand for high culture outside of London. So what is so bad about it? 

Manchester is the biggest city in Europe without a resident opera company but it does have a wholesome classical music background. The Halle Orchestra, BBC Philharmonic, Manchester Camerata, and Manchester Collective reside there. The city is also developing its performative infrastructure, and in 2023 will have a £210m new venue, Factory International, run by the Manchester International Festival, which will need world-class performances to fill its 1,600-seat theatre.

The only thing that Manchester or any other city but London cannot provide is capital rates for tickets. And ENO certainly doesn’t know how to deal with that. And that’s certainly a grave moment, but here I’d also question: what we are crying about?

The large co-productions that eventually never made box office, even in London? The current model based on major funding from the Art Council spent on fabulous productions that don’t attract enough spectators and money simply doesn’t work. It only keeps the institution on artificial life support. Those opera lovers, who insist on keeping the company in the capital, don’t understand that they are actually killing ENO, and, they are burning the tax-based funding on a funeral pyre. 

But there are ways to reduce expenses. There always were, but without the decisive action from the Art Council, ENO would never start changing. The relocation of a headquarter (which does not prevent ENO from performing in London by the way) may work. 

The cuts in wages works too, and it’s already done, but it went way smoother than one can imagine, and that is probably why it never made headlines. The new administration, understanding the local specialty, which is more helpful and less costly than renowned managers working internationally, may work in many ways. 

And then, the new approach for production and funds may and will certainly work. “No” to overly inflated budgets. Does that sound bad? Would the star singers/directors help ENO by charging the theater less in this period of change, or would they prefer to only offer their support with words? 

A heavy and unwieldy, but such fragile opera world shuddered at the news that the state institution was threatening one of its theaters as heavy and unwieldy as the industry itself. But this the Art Council was and is the hand that feeds the art and culture with money of taxpayers. And why should we be surprised and offended when one day they ask ENO to work for the good of people instead of fabulously and with a style, no one can argue that and yet — some people still want burn the funding for their vanity?