Death of the English National Opera

November 8, 2022

Acting like the Roman Emperor in the arena of old, Sir Nicholas Serota, the Chairman of the Arts Council, gave his verdict on the Arts Council grants for the next three years.  For the ENO it was a thumbs down and thus the Arts Council have signed the death warrant for the venerable 90-year-old company.

There has been an undercurrent for a considerable time from some of the North of England council members, that London does not need two opera houses and that the roughly £12 million grant per annum given to ENO could be better spent elsewhere in England, and so, with the wave of a hand, the bells tolled, and ENO’s future was dismissed.

This dastardly act gave no care for the 600 full and part time employees, nor the incredible work done with the concurrence of the Arts Council over the last six years to reshape and manage the opera business.  For the first time in two decades the business was no longer losing money and had converted its activities to making a modest profit.

There is no doubt that ENO has gone through some tough financial times in the past, but its turnaround over the last few years under the management of its chairman Dr Harry Brunjes, its CEO Stuart Murphy and its board of directors has been nothing short of remarkable.  It promised reform and delivered on it.

ENO has lost its grant which has basically gone to support events in the North of England.  However worthy these causes are, surely it is not right that their benefit should be at the cost of destroying London’s second opera house.  ENO has performed at and taken care of the London Coliseum Theatre for several decades.

So, who are these worthy men and women whose decision making has taken us to this point?   Well frankly there are so many that it is impossible to mention them all here and to try and find them on the Arts Council website is as difficult as they can make it. The Chief Executive is Darren Henley who is an author and a graduate from Hull.  The Deputy Chief Executive responsible for Arts and Culture is Simon Mellor – who is not related to his more famous namesake, David Mellor who was single-handedly responsible for the transfer of ownership of the Coliseum to the ENO when he was Minister for Arts.  Simon Mellor was responsible for establishing the Manchester International Festival.  Simon Mellor’s position in relation to ENO feels a little bit like death by a thousand cuts!

But of course, they are all led by the Chairman of the Arts Council and the chief Brutus of them all, Sir Nicholas Serota, who has led the Arts Council since 2017 and has also led the Durham Commission on Creativity and Education.

There are of course many others who are culpable in this heinous crime, but because the Arts Council is a law unto themselves and has expanded its reach and personnel all over the UK, they are of course untouchable, and their financial decisions regarded as rightful and unchallengeable.

As a former ENO director and opera reviewer, I know I won’t be alone in regarding the Arts Council’s decision to destroy this great institution as unconscionable, unjustified and one which does no credit to the institution of the Arts Council itself.

They have played ENO with possible suggestions for the company transfer its operations to Manchester, and at the same time offering £17 million as a sugar coat for this transfer. There is no acknowledgement of the enormous difficulties involved in transferring an arts organisation and its people, 200 miles away from London.  And with ENO having been removed as an Arts Council client, there is no promise of any future support. Even if there could be sufficient audience in Manchester, which is unproven, this doesn’t take into account the opera tourists that flock to London and the Coliseum.  And what could the real cost be of such a complicated move to Manchester even if there would be a new or current venue capable of accepting a company of the size and calibre of the ENO?

This is another ill-thought-out proposal by three men in grey suits, at the pinnacle of an Arts Council so diminished in its decision making, but with the power that it wields in an authoritarian and holy autocratic way.  Shame on you, but I suspect the battle has only just begun.

Written by David Buchler, former ENO Director and Chairman at Buchler Phillips, the UK’s leading independent corporate recovery, restructuring and turnaround boutique firm.

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