Is this ENO’s swan song?

I went to see The Mastersingers of Nuremberg at English National Opera on Saturday. There are six more performances. You MUST go see it. I don’t care whether you like Wagner, or even opera – just go and see it. It’s beautiful, funny, poignant, magisterial and overwhelming. And there may never be another chance to see anything quite like it – at least not in London.


OK, maybe I’m being a tad melodramatic. It’s hard to tell whether the latest “troubles” at ENO are just one of the company’s regular wobbles or something more serious. Both the Chairman and Executive Director have stepped down in the last month, citing (unofficially) differences with the artistic director John Berry. And the Arts Council has, as of last week, dropped the company from its portfolio of organisations that are guaranteed funding up to 2018, putting it instead under “special funding arrangements” – which actually means ENO will get slightly more money over the next two years than it would have done otherwise, but with more strings attached.

Inevitably, there’s been a lot of finger-pointing and passing the blame around. Even if the short-term impact on funding of the Arts Council’s decision is actually net positive, there’s no doubt it signals a pretty major loss of confidence in the commercial management of ENO. Which is hardly surprising given that, following recent resignations, the company’s commercial management appears to be more or less non-existent at the moment. And it’s also not entirely surprising that the kind of people who can put on an artistic spectacle of the scale and calibre of this current Mastersingers production aren’t necessarily so strong when it comes to things like budgets and business plans.

Meanwhile the Arts Council has done itself no favours with the artistic community that is the backbone of ENO by speculating that the company may need to re-visit the question of whether it really requires a full-time orchestra and chorus. That’s one way to get yourself cast as the villain.

The trouble with all the mud-slinging is that the more entrenched each group becomes – those who think ENO needs to sort out its P&L versus those who think it should keep putting on shows like Mastersingers no matter what the cost – the less likely it is that a satisfactory compromise will be found.

So where do we go from here? There’s no doubt that reform of one kind or another is not only needed but inevitable. And to be truly successful (rather than simply kicking the can a bit further down the road), the reform agenda needs to recognise that there are multiple dimensions to ENO’s current predicament. Sustaining a national opera company doesn’t just require a compelling artistic vision: it also needs a credible economic plan (who’s going to pay for this?) and strong political leadership (what kind of society do we want to live in anyway?).

Fifty years ago this month, the UK government published its first ever white paper on arts policy, overseen by Jennie Lee, the first ever Arts Minister and widow of Nye Bevan, the man responsible for the establishment of the NHS. It heralded the start of a five-year period in which (get this) Arts Council funding tripled – from £3.205 million in 1964-5 to £9.3 million in 1970-71. As Arts Minister throughout this period, Lee built on the foundations laid by Labour revisionists like Roy Jenkins and Tony Crosland in the 1950s in making a robust political and economic case for investment in the arts. The 1965 white paper asserted that ‘in any civilised community the arts… must occupy a central place,’ and Lee also pointed on several occasions to the benefits of a thriving cultural scene as a means of attracting tourists.

Whereas Jenkins and Crosland – both quintessential cosmopolitan, elitist liberals – were relatively unconcerned about the arts being London-centric, Lee, the daughter of a Fife miner, was an early advocate of widening access across the country. This is an issue that’s still very much alive today – especially for opera.

But, regardless of their differences, what stands out when looking back at this era from the perspective of 2015 is that these were very senior figures in the government of the time who were willing to consistently and vociferously make the case that the arts were integral to their vision of a good society. They have no contemporary equivalent. In a sign of the times, we no longer have an Arts Minister, but a Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries (even at his most dystopian, George Orwell couldn’t have come up with a title half as crass as that). If you google the name of the current incumbent, Ed Vaizey, along with the word “arts”, the top news item that comes up is a story from June last year about the Minister describing arts organisations that are unable to attract philanthropic funding as ‘pathetic’.

This is not a partisan issue. Nobody on the Labour benches has shown any sign of wanting to stand up for the arts either. There’s not a single senior politician of any stripe willing to stick their neck out and seriously challenge the accepted wisdom that the arts are a luxury we increasingly can’t afford.

But it’s no good simply decrying this absence of political leadership. The onus is now on arts organisations to stand up for themselves and project a vision of the kind of society Britain could and should be – and be clear about their role in it. That means getting out of the current defensive mentality and embracing reform. It means addressing questions about access and engagement much more boldly than most companies have done in the past. And it means collaborating and coalition-building – we must think and act as a sector, and speak with one united voice.

In other words, what British opera needs is a Hans Sachs. In the current ENO production, Scottish bass-baritone Iain Paterson masterfully and movingly portrays Sachs as a reformer who balances deep love, respect and loyalty to the traditions of the mastersingers’ guild with a willingness to challenge and poke fun at the stuffier elements of the status quo. He shocks his fellow mastersingers by advocating flexibility when it comes to their beloved rules. He recognises the value of public support, not just as a tool for effecting change, but as critical to the integrity of the institutions he seeks to uphold. And he acts throughout – excepting the slightly hectoring nationalist rant Wagner foists upon him at the very end – with an air of humility and selflessness that makes him all the more compelling.

The current crisis at ENO is about much more than a failure of management – it’s about a failure of leadership. If Mastersingers is the company’s swan song then it’s a hell of a way to bow out. But I hope it isn’t. I hope it’s a call to arms.

Either way, go see it.

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One Response to Is this ENO’s swan song?

  1. Pingback: Beauty and evil: Wagner’s Meistersinger and the Goethe Oak phenomenon | Musings of a young Londoner

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