England no longer values ​​the profound and strange art of opera, and that leaves us all poorer | charlotte higgins

men Kyiv, daily performances at the National Opera Ukraine are acts of courageous defiance against the Russian invasion. They symbolize what the country is fighting for: life, culture. In Britain, outside the war, we seem prepared to destroy our culture without outside help.

The news that public funding for English National Opera has been removed is shocking, but not surprising. Earlier this year, former culture secretary Nadine Dorries insisted that Arts Council England, the arts funding body, get £24 million a year out of London. The idea was to redistribute it to the places identified in the Tory level-up agenda. The severity and abruptness of this cut to the capital, which was on an English budget already threadbare thanks to George Osborne’s austerity measures, was likely to always spell disaster for one of London’s great arts organisations.

ENO, seen from a certain perspective, is a piece of cake: it is the second largest opera house in the capital, with a lot of financial instability in its history, and it receives a relatively high proportion of subsidy compared to its turnover. (The ENO management argue vigorously against this, saying that its financial model works, that it reaches audiences beyond its theater through digital media and broadcast, and that it has made great strides in employing artists from diverse backgrounds and attracting new audiences. youths).

The English National Opera production of Poul Ruders' The Handmaid's Tale at the London Coliseum in April.
The English National Opera production of Poul Ruders’ The Handmaid’s Tale at the London Coliseum in April. Photograph: Robbie Jack/Corbis/Getty Images

The company’s financing offer to ACE, when it was presented earlier this year, was in fact in response to the leveling agenda. He suggested founding a small, nimble spin-off company called NEO (an anagram of ENO, meaning new), which would take up residencies in theaters across the country. ACE’s response, when the cuts were announced on November 4, was to accept the idea of ​​NEO, the satellite, while rejecting the planet, ENO. Financial assistance was offered to the company to make the transition to this new (and of course, smaller) staff. At the end of the three years, the new organization will be able to reapply for regular ACE funds. Manchester was floated, apparently ripped from the air, as a potential base. ENO employs 300 world-caliber people, including an opera orchestra, choir and behind-the-scenes staff. Based on this idea, most of them would not be part of the new ENO, or NEO, wherever or whatever it turns out to be.

To understand the meaning of this, it is worth looking at the origins of ENO. Its history dates back to the pre-war period, when visionary businesswoman Lilian Baylis began putting on opera at Sadler’s Wells Theater in London. In 1968, the company moved to the London Coliseum, the largest theater in the city. In 1977, Opera North was founded as its branch (which soon became fully independent). Opera North, an excellent company based in Leeds, regularly performs in Salford, one of the reasons why the suggestion of ENO moving to Manchester is so bizarre.

Some may wonder if London requires two opera houses. Others may wonder: why so few? Berlin has three, also Paris. In fact, the Royal Opera House and ENO have traditionally played complementary roles. The Royal Opera is all about international singers of world status. It offers a luxury experience (it’s even sponsored by Rolex) with ticket prices, for the most part, to match. ENO has traditionally been rougher (though no less slick and professional), with a more casual atmosphere and cheaper tickets. Generations of audiences have heard his first opera at the venue. It’s there for everyone, and it’s not some elitist playground (think Labor Party deputy leader Angela Rayner, proudly photographed at an opera this summer, defiant tweeting in the face of deputy prime minister Dominic Raab’s criticism of all people: “Never let anyone tell you you’re not good enough”). Crucially for opera in this country, ENO has also provided a stage on which British opera singers, particularly early in their careers, have made a name for themselves. That’s why some of Britain’s greatest artists, Dame Sarah Connolly, Sir John Tomlinson, were in the streets this week, protesting cuts outside ACE headquarters, vociferously.

The former secretary of culture gave ACE a bad pass. He now he has proceeded to play it terribly, unless he really was looking for a furious campaign to rescue ENO. Rather than simply acknowledging the impossibility of the situation Dorries placed him in, the staff have attempted to justify their decision in terms that seem false. They point to a wave of smaller-scale grassroots opera companies presenting works in parking lots, pubs, or “on your tablet.” This is the future of opera, they say. (“Grand opera” is a deeply misleading phrase, and it seems ACE is deliberately using it for its undertones of pretentiousness and pomp. grand opera in fact it refers to a specific subcategory of works, often on historical subjects, written in the early 19th century). I have seen brilliant small-scale opera productions in non-traditional venues: last year I saw a wonderful interpretation of Bluebeard’s Castle in an old chapel, for example. However, excellent as it was, it was not the work as Bartók, its composer, conceived it. That would have required the scale and weight of a full orchestra, in an opera house. Which wouldn’t make it some mysterious, remote, old-fashioned thing called grand opera. It’s what we call… opera.

In fact, it is opera, that remarkable, throbbing, intense and emotionally overwhelming art form, that is perversely in danger of being overlooked. As are the artists that compose it: composers, directors, conductors, musicians, singers. ACE cannot and should not dictate what the future of an art form might be. That’s for its creators. ENO itself, in its eagerness to champion its audience development efforts and speak out about initiatives like ENO Breathe (a pioneering project helping those recovering from Covid-19), can also sometimes overlook claims in the form of Deep, strange and haunting art. itself. That slight sensation of absence has not been helped by the questionable decision of the last years of reduce opera performancesweakening the core of the company.

Amidst all this, there has been good news for arts organizations in leveling target areas in Blackpool, Stoke, the East Midlands and elsewhere. It’s wonderful news that money is pouring into artist-run companies like Claybody Theater Y Restock in the Potteries, where I come from. But the bitter truth is that this is a zero sum game. There was no extra money for this “rebalancing”. The blow to ENO is likely to result in people losing their jobs, misery for families, the flagrant waste of extraordinary skills, a huge loss for the public and a gaping void where once a great company nurtured generations of young British singers. talented.

Significant leveling of economic conditions in England could be achieved, but only through serious investment in infrastructure, for example rail links and public transport. What is happening here is purely gestural and deeply destructive.

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