This is not one of my usual posts – this is me, speaking for myself and bemoaning the sad fate of a company and an art-form which I hold dear. Feel free to use it as a non-fiction analysis if you wish, but, unusually, it is not intended to have any role in the education of my students, beyond its message.
So, why do we bother? Why are so many people incensed at the actions of ACE in devising a rescue plan for ENO that involves reducing the number of performances and performers, rather than seeking other ways to cut costs? It isn’t that this apparently elitist art form has to pay an inordinate wages bill to the chorus after all, even with a 4 singer reduction in numbers from 44 to 40. The introduction of a forced layoff for 3 months a year is hardly going to replace the £5 million pound cut in subsidy, nor is it going to achieve any part of restoring this once great company to a level of fiscal security and prosperity.
I thought I might ask my friends on Facebook and Twitter to write something about why we should care about the demise of a company which 30 years ago was held in sufficiently high esteem around the world that tours in the USA and Russia were successfully undertaken, or a company which 40 years ago still undertook touring to the provinces… The poor financial balancing of the Harewood years still haunt the company, it seems, but it is interesting that these years of apparent excess coincided with the most exciting period of artistic life in the company’s history.
My love for ENO dates from 1975. I am odd. The first two operas I saw were Die Meistersinger von Nuremberg and Gotterdammerung – and I came back for more. For me, there was no company to match the casts I heard at that time – Hunter, Remedios, Bailey became my musical heroes. As a teenager I learned the Ring from the ENO recordings and still hear moments of the text in those translations even when listening to the German originals… sad? As a student at KCL I queued for ROH proms and was thrilled to hear Remedios as a Siegfried at the ROH in 1982 (?). That was fine cast throughout and only effaced by the staggering Tristan with Solti driving Dame Gwyneth Jones, John Vickers and Norman Bailey at the same venue. My bread and butter opera was always found at ENO. Prokofiev’s War and Peace with Bailey and Masterson (and just about any able bodied singer) gave a chance to hear Sir Thomas Allen in the Coliseum – a star from Floral Street in the other place. Amongst shows I inhaled at that time were the Miller Rigoletto and a Pountney Dutchman, along with the Pountey Janacek cycle in various forms – Makropoulos with Dame Josephine Barstow stands out.
When I left university and was earning money to attend the postgraduate opera studies path which I followed, I worked at ENO as a stage door keeper from Summer 1984 until Autumn 1985. I saw everything, made numerous friends and managed to be on the door when an armed robbery took place… Importantly though, whether on the door or working in the Front of House, I knew that I belonged to this company. And what an exciting company it was back then – ground breaking new work such as Glass Akhnaten alongside “classic” productions such as the Hytner Xerxes and the Pountney Rusalka. And this was a company built on true ensemble – everyone knew each other and the sense of care was tangible throughout. Maybe I am looking back with over-rosey spectacles? Hopefully the Opera Director Paul Curran who was in the Front of House Team at the time might be able to comment?
I became a singer and started my career at Scottish Opera in 1987. I cannot describe my excitement at the moment that my hero, Norman Bailey, actually spoke to me – in the queue for coffee in a rehearsal break. This was a link. Several of my teenage heroes from ENO crossed my path (more memorable for me, I imagine) – Alberto Remedies even smashed a chair over my head in Jenufa – what an honour. It all linked back to 1975…. As I developed I got to know Norman Bailey well enough to work with him as a coach and teacher from time to time, especially when I was part of the National Opera Studio – run by Richard Van Allen – another figure of awe from ENO…
I never sang a show at ENO. I did jump in bizarrely at an open dress rehearsal of Mikado – another ensemble member of the day – Carole Watson, the House manager who has sold ice creams when I worked the door – made the announcement to the audience in which she welcomed me back to ENO. I was thrilled, but I imagine regular opera goers were slightly bemused! My career took me abroad for much of the time and I do not have any regrets that Naples, Cologne or Seattle replaced Bedfordbury in my life. I was very glad that before I hung up my tonsils in 2003 I had worked as a cover at the Coli. Returning to the Upper Circle Bar, somewhere where 20 years earlier I might have been croaking my way through an aria as an embryonic singer, to rehearse Golaud or Kaspar meant much to me. After all, this was my operatic nursery.
The Pountney/Elder Powerhouse may well have cost an inordinate amount of money, but the quality of the product from ground-breaking directorial work by the likes of Alden, Jones, Vick, Hytner , Miller and, of course Pountney himself, and the quality of musical guidance by the likes of Sir Mark Elder or Sir Reginald Goodall or Sir Charles Mackerras enabled a company with a strong roster of contract artists to present the highest artistic standards and to push the ROH all the way on a weekly basis. Well cast favourites of the repertoire ran for long periods enabling the more esoteric operas to play to less than full houses – how many Miller Rigolettos or Vick Butterflies paid for the ground breaking Freeman Akhnaten? The apparent fact here is that the casting from strength featured several singers of a calibre rarely heard at ENO now – British and commonwealth singers who had perhaps started at Sadler’s Wells and were retained on contract or by negotiation – thus ENO audiences heard genuinely world-class performances by some of the great British singers of the day without paying half a week’s wage to sit in the stalls. Singers like Sir Thomas Allen, Dame Janet Baker, Alberto Remedios, Norman Bailey, Valerie Masterson, David Rendall, Graham Clarke, Arthur Davies, Richard Van Allen, John Rawnsley, Anne Murray, Philip Langridge, Sir John Tomlinson… one could go on and list almost every major British Artist of the late 20th century as appearing at ENO.
With time, the casting seemed to change – perhaps pennies overruled artistic merit at times, perhaps many of the apocryphal stories about John Berry when he arrived at the company and was in charge of casting were slightly less apocryphal and slightly more truthful – “Is there a mezzo role in Aida?” was a favourite for a while – gallows humour perhaps.
Certainly the decision to lay off the experienced roster of staff singers did not raise standards in any way. Youthful enthusiasm and a 3000 seat auditorium does not always work well. It could be argued with confidence that the decision to purchase this theatre was an error if the casts were not chosen an a similarly grand scale. It is too big. Few theatres in Europe approaches its cavernous size and alarming breadth of stage. This is an issue – it is too big in many ways for Classical opera and needs casts who can amply fill the auditorium when singing the larger late-romantic works for which it is suited. One wonders how different the story might be today had the company placed itself in a more standard 1500-1800 seater at that time. Much more suited to opera in general and much easier to sell out.
As time passed, prices rose. Audiences are now asked to pay “international” prices for seats at all levels – the product on sale inconsistently justifies these prices and so the audiences drop off. Increasingly, productions are shared with other houses and the lack of a recognisable “house” product effects the attitude of audiences who used to welcome the chance to see “their” singers – Mezzo Jean Rigby was a prime example – loved by regulars who were all aware that she had graduated from Usherette to Principal singer at ENO and seems to have the company tattooed into her very being. Interestingly Mark Wigglesworth, the recently resigned GMD, also began his association with ENO in the early 80s as an Usher. I find it hard dot believe that this association had not added a frisson to his decision to take the post when it was offered, and possibly to his disappointment when the company began to stray so markedly from the company he believed he was taking over.
The company needs radical help – it has been left in a parlous state, but no artistic endeavour tends to improve its position by actively reducing the amount of opportunities and audience has to engage with it. To actively reduce the chance to inspire the next generation of audience and performer alike is a dead-end process resulting in a steady slip towards oblivion. Why would hitherto loyal company members hang around if better offers come up? The new contract will not allow them to work at seasonal festival houses because the window is too small – when push comes to shove, do you put up with being treated like a dispensable branch of a company evidently viewed by the Arts Council of England as unworthy of the major investment needed to restore it to a strong artistic position?