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 very 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 many a 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.


8 thoughts on “A few thoughts on ENO

  1. Well said Iain. You have been very generous towards the management and no real mention of the board’s part in all of this..

  2. It is fair to say the current management have inherited an untenable financial position. But they are not all new. Three of the 4 members of the senior artistic team were in similar positions of responsibility to where they are now when so many of these mistakes were made. The only member of the board with artistic experience was also in place.

    It is probably not helpful to point fingers in all directions which is why I will chose to be specific and you will notice these views do not appear in the further media by my doing.

    As Iain said in 2000 the company did over 20 productions. There were 66 in the chorus and an ensemble of 12. Next year the company will do 8 productions. Fewer than half the number of productions. She has said they “have reduced the number of admin staff since 2003”. Have they halved the number? Have they reduced the number this round by a quarter to match the new 75% business model being imposed on other areas of the company?

    As Ann said there are good admin staff and bad, and good managers and bad. The same as artists. I would suspect like with artists – in redundancies often the good people leave.

    We could lose two of our producers when we get an artistic director. We managed without them before when we were doing a lot more productions. The key is in the title.

    They failed us when they chose the last Boheme. Which was only marginally less unpopular in Holland. If only he had listened.
    They failed us when they miscast Boheme. They went for singers with a look rather than a voice. Something they pride themselves on. In which case why not use more of our own young artists. At the very least a principal should be able to manage all the pitches in the score in some of the performances.

    The marketing department also failed us. To close the balcony on a Saturday night for a Boheme is a disgrace, bad reviews or not. Some of the greatest artistic works thrived on, indeed were saved by shocking reviews. The whole point of marketing is spin. Otherwise it’s just designing a decent poster and putting it up in obvious places. Something they also failed to do.

    I could go on, continue to give examples and specifics but I will not. Partly because I agree that too much criticism is not constructive. For what it is worth the individuals of the administrative staff that I know work very hard although sometimes without the best guidance or under the most helpful remit.

    We the workers are all in this together. But the upper management are not taking wage cuts, and if the company goes under, the board don’t lose a job. They don’t lose a lifetime of work, and The Arts Council inherit a very valuable building for the portfolio. Advance to Trafalgar Square. Do not save ENO, do not raise five million pounds.

    1. I agree that everyone is in it together, and I know that passions are running high, but I would urge people to take a breath and refrain from making thinly veiled accusations. That’s not going to help anybody.

      Some administrative staff have also been asked to accept reduced contracts, and some of those good people have devoted much of their lives to the company.

      Let’s not forget them in all this.

      The threat to the chorus is a symptom of a bigger threat to the whole company.

  3. To ‘Telling it like it is’…. I have always loved the chorus (and incredible orchestra) at ENO. It really saddens me that they may be affected by something which is not their fault at all. BUT, it is also not any other member of staff’s fault either! Your comments of blame actually detract from the plight of the chorus.

    I object to stating things as fact or ‘truth,’ when it is anything but….I personally worked for ENO – just because (I presume) you may work in a different dept/don’t know people personally/don’t see or know what others do on a daily basis, doesn’t mean they “HAVE NO FUNCTION”, or “do very little”…even if you state your wildly false accusations as “Gods honest truth”… I understand passions are running high, but seriously?!

    From my experience, Admin Staff are not the bad guys, doing nothing, in over-staffed departments, on fat salaries. In fact they were small teams even then, working hard for the company they love, suffering pay freezes and often working 45-55 hours a week for no extra money or time off. To say “ADMINISTRATORS PICK UP THE LAST FEW LITTLE PENNIES ON OFFER” is unnecessary, vicious and wrong. They were probably the only department NOT to get overtime.

    Also – you want to make the 2 producers redundant?? How ignorant and short-sighted to think an opera company doesn’t need producers! Astonishing.

    In my opinion ENO need to move on TOGETHER. In-fighting or laying blame on different departments wont help. Comments like yours – attacking staff – is just damaging ENOs reputation with untrue accusations and ignorance . It is not winning points. Donors and business investors wont stay away because of possible changes to staff contracts (lets be honest, businesses probably wont care too much) but they ARE likely to stay away if it looks like you are all at war with each other. This along with the press repeating accusations (often false, often clearly started by disgruntled staff, one can tell by the tone of the comments) does nothing but hurt the company and risk its future even more.

    Why would people want that – what is the end game? To save jobs of your friends and instead try force people you don’t know to get laid off instead? Damaging the reputation of the company by hyping the public and the press with negative ‘stories’ on salaries and people being useless? Great. How positive. Go team! etc

    Whatever feelings you have toward harsh, upsetting cuts to the magnificent chorus, ENO can’t (and hopefully wont) just carry on as it is now until it comes to a standstill, runs out of money and just…shuts down. It is very ill-informed to think all will be fine if they simply ‘get rid of the admin staff and management’.

    I love ENO – the creatives, performers and suits. I love the amazing work they do. ALL work hard, ALL deserve to be supported. ENO should all be in this together, it is and always was a collaborative team effort – how about showing a bit of unity and respect? Just a thought…

  4. I share a lot of your views- ENO management’s current attempt to survive is an attempt to deal with draconian cuts that are imposed by a stupid and ineffective arts council. I don’t think its fair to tell ENO to cut their cloth to the tune of losing 5 million a year and on the other hand expect it on some level to function as an opera house- anybody with any knowledge of opera knows an opera company in a major capital city cannot produce high quality work on that sort of grant.

    HOWEVER it isn’t fair to punish the people who make the work, and to put it in an extremely banal way, sing the opera. An opera company survives by the people who get the work on the stage- and I mean in the deepest practical sense.

    There are too many administrators at ENO. ENO does not, for example, need four press officers. The amount of press releases it releases in a season amounts to little more than the word count of a long essay.

    ENO’s development department- over-staffed (about 9 people!)- raises less money than many of the garden house operas that have only one or two people raising money.

    The Marketing department produces posters that look like amateur productions of your local musical society- and yet that department is over-staffed for the work it claims it produces!

    ENO has two producers whose roles would be redundant if the executive team could actually organise anything. They have high earners (all of whom are administrators, of some form or another) in that organisation- at least 10 people- who earn over 60,000 pounds a year. WHAT DO THESE PEOPLE DO? The god honest truth is very, very little. There is a culture of laziness endemic in this organisation because the previous artistic director was a bully and surrounded himself with people to pick up his shit. Those people actually have jobs that HAVE NO FUNCTION. Not their fault, but its the truth.

    And yet it isn’t those people that are going to go. Its the musicians- the crew- the stage management- the singers- these people are the people who will suffer WHILST ADMINISTRATORS PICK UP THE LAST FEW LITTLE PENNIES ON OFFER.

    1. I would counter some of that argument with the fact that the administrative staff have taken many cuts over the years as well. It’s far too easy to develop an “us versus them” attitude to administration, and, in the same way that there are good and bad singers, there are good and bad administrators, too. It’s not fair to condemn them all because one or two aren’t up to scratch. I know that many people who work every bit as hard on the administrative side as the performers do on stage feel aggrieved that the hard work they do on behalf of the company is never appreciated. They’re just tarred as “the management” even though they have no input whatsoever into company policy.

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