Mark Valencia: Trying times for English National Opera

Britain’s second opera company is having a bad week, after its departing chairman accused the artistic director of losing £10million

Terry Gilliam's production of Benvenuto Cellini was a critical and box office hit for ENO
Terry Gilliam's production of Benvenuto Cellini was a critical and box office hit for ENO
© Richard Hubert Smith
No one who loves English National Opera can fail to have wondered, in the company's more wayward moments, what goes on behind its closed doors. Folly upon folly has dogged ENO during John Berry's decade-long spell as artistic director. From Sally Potter's motorway Carmen to Christopher Alden's car-crash Die Fledermaus, with a dozen or more choose-'em-yourself lapses in between, could nobody save him from this litany of poor judgement?

Now we know: it's not all been fawning and self-delusion behind the scenes. Departing chairman Martyn Rose has marked his own exit with an Exocet letter, widely reported in The Times and elsewhere, and it's aimed squarely at the AD, accusing him among other things of losing the company ten million pounds during his tenure. His message is unequivocal: Berry must go.

From a purely artistic perspective, I can't agree. And if that surprises anyone who's heard me moan about this woeful Lucrezia Borgia or that vile Julius Caesar, bear with me.

As a mathematical semi-illiterate I'll skate lightly over matters of good housekeeping and balance sheets ("a ticking timebomb", according to Rose), but in theatrical terms at least there's been mileage in John Berry's philosophy. Whatever else we've come expect at the Coliseum, it'll never again be anything safe or predictable – and a portfolio stuffed to the gills with pretty period productions would have sounded ENO's death-knell well before now.

What's more, the St Martin's Lane company is currently in the throes of a long-overdue renaissance, and Berry deserves recognition for that. After the excitement generated by Benvenuto Cellini last year, the upturn has continued in the current season. Strong new productions of Otello and The Girl of the Golden West have stemmed the tide of bad work, and Richard Jones's lauded WNO staging of Wagner's The Mastersingers of Nuremberg is imminent. As for new and modern operas, these too have been worth their salt, with both Thebans and The Gospel According to the Other Mary garnering bouquets rather than the customary brickbats.

A company hit: The Girl of the Golden West (ENO)
A company hit: The Girl of the Golden West (ENO)
© Robert Workman

Berry's oft-derided (not least by me) predilection for hiring inexperienced practitioners from other media, notably film, is vindicated at least in part by the brace of Berlioz gems that Terry Gilliam has created for the company. Would these ever have happened without his risk-taking? Almost certainly not. And in the light of Mike Leigh's Gilbert & Sullivan biopic Topsy-Turvy there's a reasonable chance that lightning will strike twice when the maverick director stages The Pirates of Penzance later this year.

Honest inspirations like these are more likely to improve the company's fortunes than the tawdry marketing gimmicks of recent years. Those 'opera undressed' performances smacked of desperation – hardly anyone dolls up for the Coliseum now anyway – while the condom campaign for Rufus Norris's production of Don Giovanni was just buttock-clenching, and not in a good way. ENO's sad chase for young audiences has been conducted with all the suavity of a dad dancing the macarena at a rave.

'Bonkers pricing tactics'

Besides, it's a truism that marketing can be counter-productive if the product itself isn't up to snuff. Cadbury's may flog me one 'new recipe' Creme Egg but unless it tastes as good as the old one I'll be off to Mars, thank you very much, without a backward glance. So it is with opera: no racy publicity could disguise the fact that Norris's Don Giovanni was dreary as hell, so why would disillusioned newbies risk getting their fingers burnt a second time?

Cold-shouldered: most of Jonathan Miller's ENO productions, including La bohème, are on their way out
Cold-shouldered: most of Jonathan Miller's ENO productions, including La bohème, are on their way out
© Tom Bowles

ENO needs to build up a loyal following rather than slice its potential constituency away by offering twaddle, and that will take time because for the past ten years it's been a chronic self-harmer. This is the real dark side of Berry's tenure. I've lost count of the number of classy repertoire productions that have been put to the sword in favour of fly-by-night concept shows – 'the unrevivables'. Casualties of the race to be cool range from Robert Carsen's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Nicholas Hytner's Magic Flute to practically everything of Jonathan Miller's save The Mikado.

And don't get me started on their bonkers pricing tactics. Rack 'em up here; slash 'em down there… The only certainty nowadays is that there's always a deal to be had at the Coli, so who's going to pay top dollar up front? You'll do it once, discover you've been had, and next time either stay away or get savvy.

But money has to come from somewhere. The company has struggled to come to terms with its reduced grant from Arts Council England and was humiliated recently when at a very late stage it cancelled a rare regional project that has left its producing partner, Tom Morris's Bristol Old Vic, high and dry. That's pretty bad for a company whose middle name is National.

Update: 30 January 2015 – ENO confirmed this morning that company chief executive Henriette Götz has also stepped down, just days after chairman Martyn Rose's departure. Götz, who was appointed only nine months ago, has reportedly been at loggerheads with John Berry for some time.

The loss of not one but two senior figures is especially sobering as it's no longer possible for anyone to claim, as an ENO spokesperson did earlier this week when responding to comments in Rose's resignation statement of internecine warfare at the highest level, that "there is a lot in the letter that is baffling,.. I have no idea why he would write that letter".

In difficult times like these it would be to everyone's benefit if ENO would conduct itself in public without resorting to such coy spin. For the sake of the company's artists and employees, if for no one else, a policy of greater transparency would be a healthy first step towards recovery.

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