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A few thoughts on ENO

Anyone who knows me, knows the high esteem in which I hold English National Opera.

It’s home. It’s where I learned my craft. It’s the place where I have enjoyed some of the proudest moments of my professional career.

A year on the Jerwood Young Singers Programme, followed by three years as a full company principal, gave me the tools of the trade and honed my ability to use them. It’s fair to say that without ENO, my career would have followed a very different path.

For many years I have watched, in baffled bemusement, the machinations that have inevitably led this wonderful company to its present precarious position.

It’s never good policy for singers to comment on management decisions, such rashness being tantamount to biting the hand that feeds you, but equally, there comes a point when one has to speak out, so frustrating has the situation become.

The crisis at ENO, precipated by the draconian actions taken by Arts Council England, have forced the new management into desperate measures to keep the company afloat.

Laying off chorus members and asking those who remain to take a substantial salary reduction was never going to be a popular move. The swiftness and strength of the public response has proven this beyond any doubt. Nobody wants to see ENO decimated, least of all those innocent performers who now find themselves staring down the cold barrel of the corporate gun.

As a former chorus member myself (from 1996 to 2000 I was a member of Opera North Chorus), I know only too well the value of a well-trained professional chorus to any opera company. Over the last 15 years I have spent hundreds, even thousands of hours working with the chorus of ENO. I know them, not just as a consummate group of professionals, but also as individuals, people with whom I’ve shared a many pint and laugh. They are my colleagues and my friends. I know only too well how hard they work, and how little reward they receive.

To work as a professional chorister in London is financially very tough. This isn’t the Metropolitan Opera. These people don’t make six-figure salaries. Far from it. To propose a 25% reduction to their already meagre earnings means that it will simply be unfeasible for many of them to continue in their job. They will, quite literally, not be able to afford to do it. And that’s just the basic salary. If they are placed on part-time contracts, what are the implications for pensions and benefits?

This isn’t the first time this has happened either. In February of 2003, the chorus were forced into strike action over plans to cut 20 jobs. In my time with the company, I have witnessed their number being steadily whittled down from 65 to their current 44.

In 2005, the company’s ensemble of soloists was abandoned, and 15 fine colleagues (and myself) were informed that our contracts were not being renewed.

I say this to point out that ENO has plenty of “previous” in laying off performers when the going gets tough.

It’s all too easy to point the finger at ENO’s current management and cast them as the villains, but, in considering all this, I think it’s very important that we acknowledge that this new management has inherited an ongoing, untenable artistic and financial position. After all, it is not they who are responsible for the Arts Council’s appalling decision to remove ENO from the National Portfolio, placing them in “special measures”, and reducing their funding by £5 million (approximately 30% of their annual subsidy). Whist I disagree with their proposed methods of steadying the ship, I sympathise greatly with the problematic hand they have been dealt.

In considering the current state of ENO, it’s only fair that the public should be made aware that recent steps have been taken to save money on the management side of things. In order to raise income, the company has vacated its costly offices on St. Martin’s Lane, relocating to far less practical spaces within the Coliseum itself, and also in Lilian Bayliss House, the company’s rehearsal venue in West Hampstead. Recent months have also seen much restructuring of the management and administration in a serious attempt to make savings.

This crisis at ENO is far from “current”. What we are seeing now is the result of many years of discord between ENO management, their board, and the Arts Council. Successive governments have imposed significant cuts to Arts funding, sometimes seemingly gleefully passed on by the Arts Council, and therefore ENO has been, for many years, a front-line casualty in the ongoing dismissive attitude of British politicians to the importance of the arts.

In 2000, when I made my debut with ENO, the company was engaged on upwards of 20 productions a year. Now, they’re struggling to maintain ten.

The size and scope of the company has been steadily diminishing over the last fifteen years. Mismanagement or poor governance, it doesn’t really matter why, or who is to blame.

What matters is that it stops now. What matters is that that ENO survives. It’s time for a line to be drawn in the sand.

To our politicians I say this – please realise once and for all that art is not a luxury, it is a necessity. Fund it properly. And if you don’t want to, grant tax breaks to those individuals who do.

To the Arts Council I say this – do your job properly, and protect institutions like ENO, while we still have them. Once they’re gone, they’re gone, and you will be seen as the one standing over them holding the bloody knife.

To those who would continue swinging the corporate axe in the direction of performers I say this – it’s the thin end of the wedge. If you doubt that, just take a look north of the border for a glimpse of what the future holds for you. An opera company is made up of performers, musicians, and technicians, not bricks and mortar. It is they who win you those awards of which you’re all so fond. It is they who maintain those high artistic standards of which you’re all so proud.

Cherish them. Don’t punish them.