English National Opera: Where next after being told to move out of London?

English National Opera: Where next after being told to move out of London?

Published on 16th December 2022.

From the Houses of Parliament to daytime TV, a debate has been raging about the future of one of England's leading opera houses after it had its funding slashed and was told to move out of London. Manchester has been suggested as English National Opera's new home - but could that work?

It's not every day that a discussion about opera pops up in between Spin To Win and a preview of Christmas telly on ITV's This Morning.

But last week, Holly Willoughby revealed to viewers that she is "a massive fan" of the English National Opera (ENO), and declared the company's current precarious position to be "utterly heartbreaking".

Co-host Phillip Schofield also lent his support and even took aim at the "half-arsed" response of Arts Council England, whose latest allocation of government funding has put a big question mark over ENO's future.

"When Holly and Phil start to cover it, you know this is broader than just an opera thing," ENO chief executive Stuart Murphy says.

Six weeks ago, the Arts Council announced it was effectively halving the ENO's annual £12m grant from April - and that it wouldn't get any money at all if it didn't move its headquarters out of London. It suggested Manchester, although didn't consult with politicians or other cultural organisations there, or the ENO.

Few argue with making the company national in more than just name, but concerns have been raised about the way the plan has been handled and the possible impact on ENO staff and the quality of work the company can do on and off stage with less money.

In the House of Commons, former culture minister Caroline Dinenage described the plan as "some form of crazy tokenism", while former shadow culture secretary Harriet Harman called it "baffling and an absolute shame".

Levelling up

Mezzo-soprano Dame Sarah Connolly has said the ENO "must be London-based" because that is where "most of the conservatoires are and largest audiences, and [it is] one of the greatest and busiest cultural capitals in the world".

However, the Arts Council was told by the government to move some funding out of London as part of the levelling-up agenda, so has said it simply cannot afford to support the ENO if it is based in the capital.

"Because of these funding requirements that we've got, we need them to think of a different way of operating," Arts Council England chief executive Darren Henley told a Commons committee last week.

He accepted the ENO does "excellent work" and that it should continue to stage shows at its current home, even after the move.

"We still would imagine that English National Opera will be performing large scale opera at the [London] Coliseum in the future," he said. "But we also imagine they might be doing opera at different scales in other places.

"It may be in Manchester, and just to be absolutely clear, they were not instructed by us to move to Manchester. It was an option.

"I know around the country there are many of our elected mayors who at the moment are very interested to see if they could host a company like English National Opera in their cities."

None of the eight directly elected mayors outside London and Manchester would confirm to the BBC that they had offered the ENO a home.

Mr Murphy said he had been contacted by MPs or mayors in about 10 locations to express an interest in hosting the ENO's new headquarters, but declined to reveal where they are.

"I think its headquarters will definitely be outside London," Mr Murphy conceded. "And if we've got enough money, we can we can definitely do that for the Arts Council. But we definitely need a presence in London."

Some local politicians have been less enthusiastic when they have learned the ENO will have half the budget when it moves, he said.

"It's like saying, 'I really want Formula 1 in Leeds.' But actually, it's not Formula 1, it's a bunch of go karts. 'OK, that's not quite what I had in mind.'"

And the debate is no longer just about opera - it has become laced with north-south rivalries. The arts world's backlash to the funding cuts and relocation plan has already risked burning ENO's bridges to Manchester.

Mayor Andy Burnham told them: "If you can't come willingly, don't come at all." (That prompted a call from Mr Murphy to explain they had nothing against Manchester, which seems to have smoothed things over.)

Could Manchester work?

Manchester is the biggest city in Europe without a resident opera company (going by OECD population statistics) but does have a healthy classical music scene, with the Halle Orchestra, BBC Philharmonic, Manchester Camerata and Manchester Collective.

Last week, BBC Radio 3 announced it will broadcast at least half of its programmes from Salford from 2024/25 as part of a plan to create "a UK-wide classical music hub in the north".

Next year, Manchester 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 Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) currently stages operas in Manchester, while Leeds-based Opera North brings short seasons to The Lowry theatre in Salford, Greater Manchester, twice a year, as well as touring to cities including Nottingham, Hull and Newcastle.

Moving the ENO to a location that is already served by an opera company would be "a nonsense", Opera North's chief executive Richard Mantle says.

"Nobody's talked to me about it. The Arts Council hasn't discussed it with us at all. So it's still, in my view, a fictitious idea.

"I just think it's been one of the most ill thought-through own goals the Arts Council could possibly make."

The costs and practicalities of moving the ENO need to be thought through first, he says. "And if you do the cost benefit analysis, you'd probably find actually it's best to keep where it is."

Parachuted in?

Manchester-based soprano Soraya Mafi, who has starred with the ENO, believes there would be space for a permanent opera company in her home city. But taking it away from London "doesn't seem like the right way to do it", she says.

"From a personal point of view, I would love for there to be an opera company in Manchester." However, Mafi cautions that Mancunians may not feel ownership of something that is parachuted in from the capital, especially if there is bad blood.

"It's hard to talk about there being an opera company in Manchester right now because there is so much confusion and anger around the issue, and of course that was because of the handling of it," she says.

"Arts Council England should have said, 'We would love you to have a base in Manchester, or a city further north, but give us a five-year plan and let's look at options, let's have an open conversation about this and handle it delicately and with respect to the company and all the artists that it employs.'"

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According to The Audience Agency, which tracks audience habits, 29% of people in London say they have some interest in opera, which drops to 19% elsewhere in the country.

London may be higher partly because more people in the capital have had more chance to see opera, and having a company like the ENO in the north-west could increase interest there, The Audience Agency chief executive Anne Torreggiani says.

"There's plenty of available audience who'd be interested in a world-class opera company permanently based in Manchester," she says. "The nuances are to do with what kind of opera, how often, and winning new relationships over."

'We want ENO to survive'

The RNCM is currently getting good crowds for its colourful production of Johann Strauss II's Die Fledermaus, set at a party on an oligarch's luxury yacht on New Year's Eve 1999.

RNCM principal Linda Merrick, a clarinettist, believes that if remaining in London isn't an option, the ENO's presence "could only be seen as a positive" for opportunities and the cultural life of Manchester, or whichever city it ends up in.

"The indicators would be that there would be an audience [for it in Manchester], and I think it could develop as well."

She adds: "But for me, the most important thing is supporting excellence and quality in the art form. So we want ENO to survive and to have a strong future beyond this, and to get the investments it needs to do that."

Mr Murphy is hoping the political and public pressure (helped by a petition with 77,000 signatures) will effectively lead to a compromise, with more money on the table.

As it stands, the Arts Council will cut ENO's funding on 1 April 2023 - from £12.6m per year to £17m split over the next three years.

Mr Murphy says the company's plans mean it needs to keep £12.6m for the next financial year - which would leave £4.4m for the final two years of the three-year settlement.

If that is the case, "you're back to talking about the ENO having to close down", he says.

Original News 

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