There are very few companies I’d be genuinely sorry to see go out of business. In fact, if I exclude sadness caused by disruption to my life – my bank or my employer going bust tomorrow would, I admit, be a bit of a pain – there’s really only one: English National Opera.
ENO has been part of my life since I was seven years old. That’s when my dad first sang at the Coliseum (he has continued to do so on and off for twenty years since). I wasn’t much of an opera fan then, but by the time I reached my twenties, I’d learned to love it – and ENO has done more to nurture and deepen my passion for the art form than any other institution could.
Whatever its critics may say, the company does have a uniqueness that means British opera would be much the poorer without it. It’s unpretentious (comparatively at least), its shows are undoubtedly more accessible as dramas for the fact they’re in English, its productions are innovative, its repertoire is broad and the musical standards are sky high. It has the occasional flop, as any theatre company that takes risks is bound to do, but these do not add up to anything to be concerned about from an artistic point of view.
Sadly, the same cannot be said of the company’s finances. The Arts Council has got fed up and cut funding by 30%.
ENO’s inexperienced Chief Executive, who’s inherited a desperately difficult situation, has responded by making sweeping cuts, including to the chorus, who are now going on strike as a result.
There is wrong on all sides here. The Arts Council could have reduced its subsidy to ENO slowly over a number of years to give the company a fighting chance of filling the gap. I think the chorus has overplayed its hand by calling a strike over the issue of a handful of job losses and a shift from 12-month to 9-month contracts: I know too many opera singers who would bite your hand off at the prospect of 9 months paid work in a year.
The biggest concern, though, is the company management. Music Director Mark Wigglesworth is right that the company can’t cut its way to victory. But his boss, Cressida Pollock, seems to see things differently. On 2 March, she announced the company needed to cut £20 million in costs over the next 4 years. She only shared one idea for how the company might increase its revenues: get rid of its summer season at the Coliseum so they can make more by renting the place out.
This is thoroughly depressing. Not because the plan to rent the Coliseum out during the summer is a bad idea – in fact, I think it’s probably quite sensible – but because if that’s the only idea for revenue generation that Ms Pollock has up her sleeve then it’s only a matter of time until ENO implodes. It’s the equivalent of IKEA saying “nobody seems to like our flat-pack furniture any more, but never mind, we can always re-mortgage all these big blue buildings we own.” At best, it means that ENO might survive as a property management business with a little artistic production company attached to it.
So what’s a better solution? Crazy as it may sound in these austere times, my focus would be on growing the audience. According to hawks in the wings – a blog that looks at finance and strategy in the theatre industry – ENO’s average capacity over the last decade is 74% with total annual audience numbers hovering around 200,000-250,000. In 2015/16, they’re putting on a total of 111 shows – almost half the number put on in the company’s busiest year ever: in 1991/2, there were 219 performances.
So, at least theoretically, there’s plenty of scope to get more people through the doors of the Coliseum. The company’s identity is built around the idea of opera for the people. Is it really unthinkable that half a million people might go to a show at ENO every year? Wimbledon gets that many people through its gates in 13 days. I refuse to believe that there is no scope for growing the market for ENO’s productions.
Financially, the upside of doubling the audience may be minimal or even non-existent – at least in the short term – because achieving it would require lowering the average ticket price and increasing the number of performances (and therefore costs). But politically, it would be a lot harder for the Arts Council to stand idly by and watch ENO fold if its audience numbers were growing.
So what might an aggressive growth strategy for ENO look like? I believe it would need to address two areas in particular:
1. Pricing. According to a recent Economist article, Amazon updates its price list every ten minutes in response to data it’s constantly collecting on its customers and competitors. This is what’s called “dynamic pricing”. Airlines have been at it for decades, varying prices in line with demand – on the principle that a full plane is always better for business than an empty one, even if you’ve had to sell seats at knock-down prices. It’s high time this kind of thinking were applied to opera. No airline would accept an average capacity of 74%!
As an under 30, ENO is incredibly good value for money: I can get some of the best seats in the house for £20. But I do not relish the choice I’ll face after my 30th birthday: either go on paying the kind of sums I’m used to paying for a night at the opera and be relegated to the back of the auditorium, or start paying four or five times as much. Unless a show is so popular that it’s selling out every night, I don’t see why it makes sense for me to be faced with this choice, particularly as I’m actually most likely to choose the third option: don’t buy a ticket at all.
2. Image. It’s no secret that opera is held back by the perception that it’s elitist and snobby. This isn’t an innate truth but it’s in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. ENO is the only top flight UK opera company that is well positioned to challenge this perception. It has a totally different feel to Covent Garden or Glyndebourne. It’s more welcoming, less stuffy and caters to a wider range of tastes.
The company needs to get out of its current bunker mentality and go on a PR offensive to make more of these attributes. It needs to leverage some of its stars, most of whom don’t have plummy Home Counties accents or names like Cressida (unfortunately, the Chief Executive’s name makes her an unlikely spokeswoman for the people’s opera).
World-beating Scottish bass-baritone Iain Paterson writes affectionately about the company that launched his career on his personal blog. Others – from Sir Thomas Allen, the man whose story was the inspiration for Billy Elliot, to Gwyn Hughes Jones, the humble Welshman who sings like Pavarotti – would doubtless lend their voices to a PR campaign if they felt like there was a positive vision of ENO’s future worth fighting for.
Cressida Pollock is right that ENO cannot hope to simply hunker down and weather this storm, but her strategy at the moment seems to amount to little more than trying to make sure the company’s decline is slow and orderly. It’s time for a bold, growth-orientated approach. It’s time to take more risks, not fewer. Better to go down all guns blazing, playing to a full house, than to eke out another year or two of survival for the sake of it.
It’s double or quits time for ENO. Fingers crossed for double.
 Note, the 30% is of the Arts Council grant to ENO, not the total ENO budget. Arts Council funding is currently responsible for approximately 50% of ENO’s overall budget, so this cut amounts to 15% of the total budget.
 Note, the Save ENO campaign disputes this figure, arguing the more accurate way to represent what’s needed is a £5 million cut in the annual budget that is sustained over the next four years. As far as I can tell, these are two different ways of presenting the same number, but it’s notable that the Chief Executive has gone for the version that sounds more drastic.