To cut funding from English National Opera heralds the death knell of this much-loved institution
Forget the barbs and worn-out gags of Prime Minister’s Questions. The real dramatics were taking place just down the corridor on Wednesday, where Lords adorned in ermine and a troupe of beguiling fairies occupied one of the committee rooms – part of English National Opera’s (ENO) chorus from Iolanthe.
Although the comic absurdities of Gilbert and Sullivan’s great satire of an ineffectual political class may well mirror some exchanges we see across the Chamber, the performers’ visit to Parliament had a serious purpose: to protest the Arts Council’s recent decision to withdraw funding in its entirety from ENO and other London-based arts organisations, including the Donmar Warehouse, from April.
The Arts Council’s suggestion that English National Opera moves to Manchester with roughly a third of its current funding is a deluded fantasy
The announcement, made with virtually no consultation or notice, has rocked the sector. After all, ENO, whose founding aim was to bring opera to the masses, has been in existence for nearly one hundred years, is internationally renowned for its artistic excellence, and remains “one of the most dynamic and imaginative organisations working in the country.” Not my words, but those of Sir Nicholas Serota, the Arts Council’s chair. So why exactly has the decision, which as the ENO’s management have made clear, heralds the death knell of this much-loved institution, and puts at risk the jobs of hundreds of skilled, world admired people, been taken?
It would appear that a rigid dogma to redistribute funding away from the capital at any cost, coupled with a fundamental misconception of opera as a high, esoteric and inaccessible art form has led to ENO being a regrettable but, ultimately, expendable victim of levelling up. The reaction of artists and parliamentarians from across the country, not just London, as well as the 65,000 people (and counting) who have already signed a petition in response, demonstrates how misguided many believe that view to be.
Indeed, ENO is the premier gateway opera house. It is the only company that always performs in English, fifty per cent of its audience are opera first timers, one in seven are under the age of 35, eleven per cent are ethnically diverse (more than any other United Kingdom opera house), and tickets are totally free to under 21s – and start at £10 for everybody else. It is the model of accessible art.
What’s more, it remains the training ground for British artistic talent, where many of our best singers and musicians cut their teeth, and has a real, lasting awareness of, and commitment to, its wider social impact. Just look at ENO Breathe, its award-winning partnership with 85 NHS Trusts that helps people suffering from long covid and is funded entirely by charitable donations, or its learning programme with 800 schools nationally. All of this is at risk if the proposals proceed.
I believe passionately in the ability of the arts to inspire and improve lives, but the Arts Council’s suggestion that ENO moves to Manchester with roughly a third of its current funding is, quite frankly, a deluded fantasy. Neither the Mayor of Greater Manchester, the proposed venue - which in any event, is acoustically unsuitable – or Opera North (which does fantastic work itself) have been consulted. The belief that Mancunians should welcome with open arms a pale imitation of ENO and be grateful for it in the name of redistribution, certainly isn’t my understanding of levelling up. It’s crass obstinance that will leave everybody worse off.
While it is true, funding decisions like this are the responsibility of the Arts Council, ministers should stop using it as a cat’s paw and hiding behind its status as an arm’s length body. The die was cast by Whitehall diktat and it is for the government to intervene.
A proper strategic review of opera provision is needed, but this goes beyond opera. It’s about how we improve access to culture, remove barriers to the arts, and nurture British talent. As Peter Gelb, the general manager of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, wrote recently, the decision is “remarkably short-sighted and damaging, not only to the ENO but also more broadly to Britain.” I couldn’t agree more.
Sir Robert Neill is the Conservative MP for Bromley and Chislehurst.
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