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Crisis at the ENO


alison
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Having just seen Scheherezade's post linking to the ENO petition, I was wondering why ENO wasn't being discussed on these boards.  Is everyone who posts here an "original-language-only" opera enthusiast?

 

Please feel free to discuss ENO's current dire straits here - within the bounds of the AUP, of course.

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Yes, I'm afraid I'm an 'original language enthusiast' so don't know too much about ENO.  I DO know that they are in dire straits at the moment, and I'm very sorry to hear it.  I do hope they are rescued, if that's the right term!

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Well, here is my view, for what it's worth. I used to go to ENO all the time (as well as ROH) when it was Pountney-Elder. Postmodern directors tropes were fresher then, or better, or I was simply younger and had seen less, in any case I had many a happy evening. The theatricality was often exciting compared with ROH park-and-bark, the chorus a belting glory and sometimes the band were the best in town.

 

I remember, randomly, a wonderful War And Peace, some sensationally exciting Verdis I saw again and again (Macbeth, Simon B to name just two) and of course I was seduced by the charms of Jonathan Miller's productions (Rigoletto, Mikado). The repertoire was bigger than ROH (Busoni, anyone?) so often worth going just to learn. Not near my programmes at the moment but I must have seen dozens of different shows over the years.

 

Then we moved abroad and by the time I returned to London ENO seemed to have become something of a self-parody. Many times the productions seemed not original, or daring, or exciting but simply bad, in some cases not even competent, the chorus still doing well but the conducting much less reliable. Increasingly I would leave at the first interval. The last time I saw a show again and again was the final run of Nikolaus Lehnhoff's Parsifal, as wonderfully conducted as I have ever heard anywhere in the world (by the wonderful new music director appointment, not everything ENO has done recently is bad, Mark Wigglesworth).

 

One hears stories about a weak board and lousy management and goodness knows what else. Now we are invited to campaign, but exactly what for I am not sure (this fight over the chorus terms and conditions is surely a proxy for much else as well, on all sides of the argument). I am older now and less interested in dodgy shows by young directors, badly sung and boring to listen to - so I am against that. And many works go much better in the original language, the political point seemingly now outdated.

 

I have not applied for the vacant post of artistic director and wish whoever is appointed great wisdom, better bosses, new resources, much inspiration - and a little bit of luck.

Edited by Geoff
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I don't go to the opera but I wonder whether one of the problems for ENO is that the RO has moved into the 'cutting edge' / challenging space which was previously occupied by ENO. An example is the Anna-Nicole Smith opera which was commissioned by the ROH.

 

The Coliseum is a huge albatross. It's difficult to fill it for anything other than the best known works of opera and ballet. It does not have the attraction of the ROH as a glamorous night out and so it's always going to be a poor relation to the ROH in that respect. It doesn't help that the building is located in a rather scruffy side street. Things have improved somewhat recently, but service standards could still be improved. In the past I've been unable to get a cup of coffee because the bar had no fresh milk. I've also had to complain about a programme seller who called me a liar. Many bar snacks are unappetising although they are better than they used to be (who does the catering?). There doesn't seem to be anybody who thinks in terms of how to make a performance at the Coliseum a special night out. Where are the fresh flowers or well tended plants and other little touches which make the building feel a glamorous destination?

 

I believe that making savings in the chorus will ultimately prove to be a costly mistake. If performance standards drop (which I think is inevitable with a part time chorus) then fewer and fewer people will go to see ENO and it will get harder and harder to fundraise. I suspect that the ENO needs a smaller house but where will it find it? I believe that the company is not permitted to tour within the UK. Could this restriction not be relaxed? Perhaps there just isn't enough of an audience for two full time opera companies based on a London.

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Having just seen Scheherezade's post linking to the ENO petition, I was wondering why ENO wasn't being discussed on these boards. Is everyone who posts here an "original-language-only" opera enthusiast?

 

Please feel free to discuss ENO's current dire straits here - within the bounds of the AUP, of course.

Yes, my preference is for opera in the "original language" and I think ENO needs to change its policy if it wants to survive.

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I don't go to the opera but I wonder whether one of the problems for ENO is that the RO has moved into the 'cutting edge' / challenging space which was previously occupied by ENO. An example is the Anna-Nicole Smith opera which was commissioned by the ROH.

 

The Coliseum is a huge albatross. It's difficult to fill it for anything other than the best known works of opera and ballet. It does not have the attraction of the ROH as a glamorous night out and so it's always going to be a poor relation to the ROH in that respect. It doesn't help that the building is located in a rather scruffy side street.

 

Was the Anna-Nicole Smith opera well received?

 

I very rarely go to the opera, but when I did go to the ENO, I thought that the words didn't quite fit the music properly, and thought it was probably best to hear them in the language in which the opera was originally created. 

 

Incidentally, I wouldn't say that the Coliseum is located in a scruffy side street.  It is in St Martin's Lane, just off Trafalgar Square!  It gets scruffy because of the amount of tourists in the area. 

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I'd be more inclined to think of Bow Street as 'a scruffy side street' than St Martin's Lane.  At least you can see the stage from every seat at the Coliseum which is more than you can say about Covent Garden. 

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My feelings - and I think that most opera-goers would agree - is that opera is generally, and massively, diminished by substituting a (frequently cringe-worthy) English translation for the original language. That said, the ENO is still the go-to baroque house. Most of its baroque output easily surpasses the ROH efforts - even Domingo couldn't redeem the ROH Tamerlano, whereas Iestyn Davies and the rest of the cast in the ENO Rodelinda was as good as it gets. And baroque translates more successfully into English. Even Kasper Holten's recent, and highly successful, Globe outings have trodden that path with barely a murmur of dissent.

 

What doesn't work is bel canto, verismo, grand opera - almost anything but baroque. The inherent musicality in the libretti is invariably sacrificed and it is increasingly difficult to find any justification for the stilted English translations when we have a multi-lingual society where surtitles are the norm and where English is, in any event, unlikely to be the first language of a large part of the audience.

 

I have heard opera sung in the original language at the ENO but generally due to a last minute cast substitution where the substitute wasn't familiar with the English translation. The overall effect was much improved. I also know of many people who deliberately avoid ENO performances purely because they dislike the use of English.

 

The ENO chorus, I think, is fabulous, and the conducting frequently surpasses some of the guest conducting recently in evidence at the ROH. The ENO has also been importing a series of largely unknown but world class singers, many from the United States, and all of them, musically, a match for the star turns down the road. Production values and the choice of directors has, until recently, been a little more vexed. Until a couple of years ago, criticism was increasingly, and validly, levelled at the ENO for hiring 'fashionable' film or theatre directors who had no understanding of or, worse, actively disliked opera. As a result, audiences defected in droves and the ENO could scarcely give away tickets. Over the last year or so there has been a real turnaround with high quality productions such as the recent Meistersinger and the re-vamped Magic Flute, along with theatrical Viagra such as the Terry Gilliam Benvenuto Cellini. The ROH, on the other hand, has been fielding unpopular directors - Michieletto's William Tell and the Martin Kusej Idomeneo to name just two.

 

I don't see why there isn't room for two world class opera companies in London. Other cities with only a fraction of London's cultural nous manage it. And the prices at the Coliseum (or some of them) are infinitely more affordable. Quite apart from their £20 secret seats, there are a whole range of seats in the balcony (which has the best accoustics in the building) priced at as little as £12, all with perfect sightlines.

 

I strongly agree with Aileen's comment that cuts in the chorus will prove to be a costly mistake. The ENO's salvation must lie in maintaining its excellence. Over the last couple of years it has taken large strides in this direction, and in cutting the puerile, unpopular production values that drove away its core audience, and it should be rewarded for its successes by a commensurate increase in its Arts Council grant. If more money is required, and I have no doubt that it is, then by all means rent out the Coliseum for part of the season to big, transatlantic money-spinners or hire out the building for high-profile events.

 

So finally, Geoff, I was very sorry to read that you haven't applied for the artistic director post. Why not?

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There's a 2-page feature in today's Times 2 supplement on ENO's forthcoming production of Philip Glass's Akhnaten - some 3 hours, mainly in ancient Egyptian and Hebrew without surtitles, so possibly something that will test the Coliseum audience's for minimalism to a very considerable extent.  The Director, Phelim McDermott, says "if you come, be prepared to go into altered states."

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Was the Anna-Nicole Smith opera well received?

 

The first run was sold out, and I don't remember that they had to discount tickets then. I don't remember reviews being particularly ecstatic (personally I thought once was more than enough, there wasn't much wrong with it, it just wasn't very interesting). The revival was pretty poorly attended I believe, and I do remember discounts for that run.

 

Regarding the ENO generally, I'll go if they do something that was originally written in English or that I'm unlikely to see anywhere, but otherwise, I don't see why I'd go see something that isn't in the original language or my native tongue. There are a lot of non-British people in London, they are cutting themselves from this audience (and tourists as well).

 

 

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My feelings - and I think that most opera-goers would agree - is that opera is generally, and massively, diminished by substituting a (frequently cringe-worthy) English translation for the original language. [...]

 

What doesn't work is bel canto, verismo, grand opera - almost anything but baroque. The inherent musicality in the libretti is invariably sacrificed and it is increasingly difficult to find any justification for the stilted English translations when we have a multi-lingual society where surtitles are the norm and where English is, in any event, unlikely to be the first language of a large part of the audience.

 

I have heard opera sung in the original language at the ENO but generally due to a last minute cast substitution where the substitute wasn't familiar with the English translation. The overall effect was much improved. I also know of many people who deliberately avoid ENO performances purely because they dislike the use of English.

 

 

I came to the conclusion years ago that opera translation for performance purposes (as opposed to just being for surtitles, for example) has to be about the toughest job going in the translation industry (apparently nuclear physics is a doddle :) ).  Not only do you have to produce a text which is fit to be sung, has an appropriate level of comedy/pathos etc., fits with the music and so on, but you may be unfortunate enough to be working out of a language whose rhythms fit the music perfectly into one where the rhythms are reversed, so it's always going to be a struggle.

 

Talking about improved effects, I realised some years ago how different the experience can be sitting in different parts of the Coliseum.  One night, early in the run, I got a half-price seat in the front Upper Circle, I think it was, for Eugene Onegin.  It was marvellous!  Admittedly, it's my favourite opera anyway, but even so it was a particularly overwhelming experience.  So, I decided I'd go again - and this time I'd take a friend who claimed not to like opera.  I told her she'd absolutely love it.  We were a few rows further back than the previous time, underneath the balcony, and the difference was incredible.  Where I'd been totally caught up in the drama and the music first time around, as it hurtled to its conclusion, this time I just didn't feel involved at all - and my friend hated it.   Probably all because we were sitting in an area where the music couldn't penetrate properly :(

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  • 2 weeks later...

Geoff, undoubtedly steps need to be taken, I just don't feel that these are the right steps. Nor does Malcolm Sinclair, the Equity president, who contrasted ENO management's shortcomings (the loss of three key leaders in a few months) with its recent, outstanding artistic output, due in no small measure to its beleaguered chorus.He goes on to point out that :"The current management, which appears to have the backing of the Arts Council, believe that the change needed is a smaller chorus with their pay cut to 75% of its current level. This is the wrong change. Choristers pay will fall to £25K a year, inevitably forcing many to leave for other work. ENO will use freelance singers to make up numbers who will need longer and more expensive rehearsals and might not be able to reach the artistic heights of the permanent chorus. With the artistic heart of the opera ripped out, disappointed audiences will drift away sending ENO further down its spiral of decline. ENO must change – but to attack the very people who deliver its artistic excellence is mistaken and will do nothing to save the company."

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The hollowing out of ENO goes way back. It is a crying shame that their training system was broken: over many years repetiteurs and permanent music staff guaranteed continuity, a secure company and the next generation of British singers. This made ENO indispensible and undoubtedly deserving of government support. What happens on stage was only the most visible part of the operation.

 

But backstage (and therefore invisible) cuts, however disastrous, do not provide good opportunities for political posturing. I have absolutely no idea how to get out of the mess but it seems far too late to rely on old-school union arguments, even if they have merit.

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There's a relevant article about the ENO chorus by David Nice in The Arts Desk.

I had also read David Nice's article, John, and agree with almost all of the points that he makes. To name but a few, the inappropriate McKinseyite slash and burn policy, more particularly when no alternatives have been considered, the general lack of consultation either with the chorus or the Friends of ENO, and total absence of any voice from the company on the board, the unwillingness to correct pertinent factual errors and, in marked contrast to Kaspar Holten at the ROH, to reply either personally or at all to written concerns.

 

I am sure that most people would agree that ENOs problems are almost exclusively administrative and not artistic and that their current problems can largely be traced back to the inability of the administrative arm to sell its product and its wrong-headed obsession with bringing in young people at the expense of its core audience due. It is not difficult to draw the conclusion that this may be due, in no small part, to the fact that only one board member has any hands-on experience of an opera company. It is equally hard to disagree with the analogy put forward by Vladimir Jurowski that the proposed action is akin to cutting off someone's foot and expecting them to participate in running competitions.

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  • 1 month later...

I have just received an email from ENO announcing the appointment of Daniel Kramer as their new Artistic Director.

 

I know something of his stage work (Punch & Judy, Bluebeard) and he's directing the upcoming Tristan and Isolde, but I know nothing of his credentials as a leader.

 

Any thoughts?

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