But he now has a string of superlative productions behind him and enters his new season next month clutching armfuls of trophies (the company has won every major award going this year). It’s all come in the wake of a period of audacious risk-taking and the forging of new initiatives which have taken ENO into hitherto uncharted territory.
Berry comes across as a resilient man, steadfast in his pursuit of excellence and boundary-smashing. “One of the first things I did,” he tells me, when we meet shortly before the new season begins, “is get a new Music Director on board.”
Few would disagree that the appointment of the then 31 year old Edward Gardner was a shrewd move and that the conductor has rapidly become a major asset to the company. “That decision has had a knock-on effect with everyone, including the audience,” Berry adds, “he’s helping spread the word about opera to a much wider profile of people.”
I question him on this holy grail quest for the coveted younger audience, something that seems to have marked his time as artistic director. He catalogues the differing profiles for a number of productions, and the words “young,” “multicultural,”and “inter-disciplinary” are well to the fore. “It was very interesting on Doctor Atomic” when Gerry Finley was off one night,” he says, “when the announcement was made, there wasn’t a murmur from the auditorium. That’s because this wasn’t a regular opera-going audience.”
I suggest that there’s an element of vanity amongst arts managers and marketeers in this need to get beyond the traditional, middle-aged, middle-class, white audience. “I suppose I do get great pleasure from seeing a young audience coming in,” he says, “you have to ask yourself why you’re doing this. I’m very at home in an environment where I can take any risks I want to. Fortunately, at ENO, we are able to do that. It’s great to work in an environment where you can charge £20 for L’Amour de loin and get in a different audience.”
Asked what he sees as a good first opera for a new attender he, maybe unsurprisingly, names without hesitation Jenufa, (ENO’s acclaimed production of the opera was revived last season), rather than the usual Carmen or Boheme. I go further and suggest Le Grand Macabre (Ligeti’s surrealistic “anti anti-opera” which opens the season next month) but he feels that’s a step too far. “The music is hard. The music-language is bizarre and brilliant, full of incredible imagination, but could come as quite a shock.”
Some of the recent successes have come as a surprise, even to Berry. Who would have thought that Handel’s four hour Partenope, given a radical make-over by Christopher Alden, would have been a public hit and scoop the coveted Olivier Award for Best Production earlier in the year? He was surprised as well as delighted at the production’s success.
Another risky venture which really paid off was Alden’s brother David’s expressionistic take on Britten’s Peter Grimes which resulted in what was for many one of the most thrilling evenings of opera for years. “We could easily have alienated the very strong Britten following ENO has with a production like that,” he says, “but it was one of those rare performances where everyone seemed to love it.”
At the other end of the scale, a low point came a couple of years ago, when hot on the heels of the utterly dreadful Kismet (itself a controversial route for an opera company to take), there was a string of productions which really made it look as though Berry, just 18 months or so in the job, was losing his grip and playing into the hands of his harsher critics.
He appointed film director Sally Potter to produce a new Carmen, closely followed by a design-dominated new Aida, spearheaded by the exotic Zandra Rhodes, as flimsy it turned out as the silk elephant that flapped its way through the triumphal march.
In both cases, the directors (Jo Davies for the Verdi) were inexperienced in opera and theatre and, with a gobsmackingly awful Coronation of Poppaea at around the same time, it looked as though Berry and his company were floundering badly.
I suggest that the problem was an audience-led approach – that he defined his intended audience and then tried to fit the product to what they would want (for instance, a target of young trendies was heavily-marketed designs by a famous fashion icon, albeit with no theatrical experience or instinct). That’s certainly how it looked at the time and it didn’t bode well for the future.
Return to form
Fortunately, once that dip had been navigated, the company returned to work of the calibre of David McVicar’s The Turn of the Screw and it soon became clear the danger was past (although the season just gone had its dullest moment with Così fan tutte directed by another theatrically-unseasoned film-maker).
With hindsight it’s easy to see Carmen and Aida as experiments that didn’t quite come off (an indulgence no innovator should be denied). They were perhaps a necessary part of a process that, at its best, has injected new life and new audiences into the art form.
The failures (although an unrepentant Berry understandably doesn’t see either of the productions as such and says he’ll continue to employ film directors) are entirely forgiveable when they are followed by work such as the two marvellous Young Vic seasons and the sensational Peter Grimes.
The company has crossed the river to the intimate Young Vic for two seasons now, producing exciting work – last year a superb Punch and Judy and stimulating Lost Highway and this the controversial Katie Mitchell-directed After Dido. It’s another bold experiment which has widened ENO’s scope and altered the profile of opera audiences.
Without the willingness to innovate and take risks that Berry unwaveringly displays, we probably wouldn’t have either such lows or highs. Of course, it all depends on how you measure success. The critics may have largely panned Carmen and Aida but both shows sold out (the latter has since been revived) and they undoubtedly did reach out to a lot of new attenders, quite an achievement for such core repertoire. Ironically, Berry found himself “under fire” at a time when you couldn’t get a ticket at the Coliseum.
The new season consists of 12 new productions and just four revivals. With over half of the programme made up of 20th Century operas, this artistic director is continuing to push his luck. Most major houses would steer clear of such repertoire but John Berry intends sticking around at ENO for some time to come and he’s in no hurry to lapse into familiarity and predictability.
The new ENO season opens on 17 September with Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre. Other 20th Century works are Turandot (October), The Turn of the Screw (October), Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (doubled with The Rite of Spring in November), Satyagraha (February) and Katya Kabanova (March). Henze’s Elegy for Young Lovers plays at the Young Vic in April and the season will end with a devised new work in conjunction with Punchdrunk.
Other works are Rigoletto, Handel’s Messiah, Lucia di Lammermoor, The Elixir of Love, Tosca, The Pearl Fishers and Idomeneo. Details of all productions at www.eno.org
- Simon Thomas