Contemporary opera and musicals come into focus in English National Opera’s 2006/7 season, as the company aims to diversify and reach wider audiences. At a press conference held at the London Coliseum today (16 March 2006), artistic director John Berry and chief executive Loretta Tomasi revealed plans for nine new productions in the forthcoming season (which begins in September 2006), alongside three revivals – including, as previously tipped (See The Goss, 21 Feb 2006), a return for ENO’s first foray into mainstream musical theatre, the 2005 hit On the Town.

Leonard Bernstein’s 1944 musical is re-directed by Jude Kelly and choreographed by Stephen Mear, and features original cast members Lucy Schaufer as Claire de Loone, Rodney Clarke and Andrew Shore. It will be conducted by Simon Lee and runs in rep for 20 performances from 23 April to 25 May 2007 (preview 20 April).

On the Town will be followed on the musicals front by a new production of Kismet. The Arabian Nights-inspired piece – with a book by Charles Lederer and music and lyrics by Grand Hotel’s Robert Wright and George Forrest - follows the remarkable changes of fortune that engulf a poor poet during the course of one incredible day when Kismet (fate) takes control. Kismet opened in New York in 1953 and in London in 1955, the same year that it was made into a Hollywood film directed by Vincente Minnelli.

No cast has yet been announced for ENO’s production, which runs for 19 consecutive performances, including three Saturday matinees, from 27 June to 14 July 2007 (previews from 25 June). Kismet will be directed by Gary Griffin, whose 2003 production of Pacific Overtures at the Donmar Warehouse won an Olivier for Outstanding Musical Production.

Meanwhile, the team behind the West End’s Shockheaded Peter and the National Theatre production of Theatre of Blood, Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch of Improbable, direct the UK stage premiere of Satyagraha, about the life of Mahatma Gandhi. The political piece by Philip Glass will be performed in its original Sanskrit, for nine performances between 5 April and 1 May 2007.

Prior to Satyagraha, ENO will open the season with Gaddafi, a new opera by Steve Chandra Savale, the Asian Dub Foundation, and television playwright Shan Kahn, about the life of Libyan political dictator Muammar Gaddafi (pictured). The piece, directed by David Freeman, combines traditional Indian music with drum and bass, reggae and punk, and features rap artist JC001 in the title role. It runs for six performances from 7 to 16 September 2006.

Speaking at today’s event, John Berry said: “Revivals are increasingly difficult to sell, and they have to be done for the right reasons. We want to attract new audiences by branching out into new music and embracing more popular music. The challenge is whether the new audiences who come to see these productions will come back again.”

Of their plans to stage more musicals, Berry said: “We are not the first opera company to stage musicals. We are not ruling out future works by Bernstein and other musical theatre composers. We had such a great success with On the Town that we wanted to find another musical we could do justice to, and Kismet is wonderful for the company because there are so many roles. We all felt really invigorated by On the Town, so it will be good to revive that as well as doing a new musical production.”

However, Loretta Tomasi denied ENO has any intentions of competing with the commercial West End: “The West End brings a musical in with a view to running it for the next five, ten, 15 or even 20 years. We are only running our musicals for 20 performances. It would not be financially viable for the West End to run a musical for only 20 performances, but we could not sit here and justify us running one for a year or more. What we can bring to bear on a musical is the forces that just aren’t practical in the West End. For example, most of the pits in the West End don’t have enough room for all the orchestra members we will have, which we feel are needed to do the musical justice.”

The season, which is sponsored by Sky and Artsworld, will also feature new opera productions of La Traviata, Jenufa, The Marriage of Figaro, The Gondoliers, Agrippina and Death in Venice. Those are programmed alongside revivals of La Boheme and La Clemenza di Tito, the latter of which will be conducted by ENO’s newly appointed music director, Edward Gardner.

- by Caroline Ansdell