An Opera Company’s Precarious Future Has Some Worried About a Ripple Effect
LONDON — When Leigh Melrose, a rising British opera star, looked at his calendar recently, much of the next three years were blocked out for one company: English National Opera. He was signed up to sing multiple roles there, starting with the lustful dwarf Alberich in the company’s new “Ring” cycle, a coproduction with the Metropolitan Opera that was meant to head to New York.
Melrose said that he’d had his wig fitting for that role, and that rehearsals for “The Rheingold,” the first installment in Wagner’s four-part epic, were scheduled to begin Dec. 28.
But now, he said, all those plans seemed uncertain. Last month, Arts Council England, a body that distributes government arts funding here, announced it was shutting off a grant to English National Opera worth 12.4 million pounds a year, or about $15 million. The Arts Council instead gave the company a one-off grant to help it develop “a new business model,” including a potential move to Manchester, 178 miles north of its current home at the London Coliseum.
On the same day, the Arts Council also slashed funding to other major opera companies including the Royal Opera House, by 10 percent, and Glyndebourne Productions, by over 30 percent.
Melrose said those cuts came as a “total shock,” adding that the long-term future of the “Ring” in both London and New York did not look good. If the E.N.O., as English National Opera is known, had to move away from London, “How can it keep on doing the rest?” Melrose asked. “How can it carry on doing anything?”
For the past month, the fate of the E.N.O. has made headlines here. Musicians, critics and politicians have been arguing over whether the decision to cut the company’s funding is a sensible response to a declining interest in opera, or an act of cultural vandalism. Concerns have spread beyond Britain, with companies in Europe and the United States warning that the global opera ecosystem may suffer, too.
Dozens of senior opera figures — including Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera’s general manager, and Yuval Sharon, the artistic director of Detroit Opera — signed a recent letter to The Times of London, warning of a wider impact. “Everyone across the world has long looked to the United Kingdom as a center of artistic excellence,” the letter said. “We fear that this decision signals to the world that they — and we — must now look elsewhere.”
Gelb said by phone that he had already pushed the Met’s run of the “Ring” cycle back a year, to the 2027/28 season, “for casting reasons.” But, he added, “if the E.N.O. doesn’t exist, we obviously can’t collaborate with it.”
Christopher Koelsch, the chief executive of Los Angeles Opera, said that the E.N.O. had “historically been a crucible for creativity and experimentation,” noting that numerous stars including the conductor Edward Gardner, the composer Nico Muhly and the director Barrie Kosky had done early or important work at the company.
Los Angeles Opera had been planning a new coproduction with the E.N.O. for its 2024/25 season, Koelsch said, though he declined to give further details and said he had not been in contact with the company since the funding cut was announced. “I think they’ve got other things to focus on,” he said.
Newspaper coverage of opera in Britain is usually restricted to the arts pages, but the ferocity of debate here in recent weeks has propelled it to the front pages, and made it a major topic on social media.
The company has been urging opera fans to pressure the government and the Arts Council to overturn the funding decision. More than 74,000 people have signed an online petition started by the singer Bryn Terfel.
John Berry, who was the E.N.O.’s artistic director from 2005 to 2015, said that the company had coped with funding cuts before: In 2014, it lost a third of its government grant after failing to meet box office targets. But it would be “impossible,” he said, for the company to deal with a total loss of subsidy unless “a guardian angel” appeared. That was unlikely, given Britain lacked a culture of philanthropy, he added.
Britain’s major opera companies have a unique funding model that is halfway between American companies’ reliance on philanthropy and European houses’ dependence on state funding. The E.N.O.’s Arts Council grant currently represents over a third of its income. In contrast, the Los Angeles Opera gets about 5 percent of its income from public grants; the Met, about 0.5 percent.
English National Opera traces its history back to 1931, when Lilian Baylis, a theater owner, established the Sadler’s Wells Opera Company to bring the art form to popular audiences. That founding aim is still central to the company, which stages all its work in English. Those performances, at the London Coliseum, have a more relaxed atmosphere than the ones at the nearby Royal Opera House, with audience members often wearing jeans rather than tuxedos, and generous policies to give free or discounted tickets to people under 35.
It made its global reputation in the 1980s when it became the first British opera company to tour the United States and debuted a host of major productions including Nicholas Hytner’s much-praised 1985 staging of Handel’s “Xerxes.” Under Berry’s leadership, the company also started to act as a test bed for productions heading to the Met, with productions of Philip Glass’s “Satyagraha,” Nico Muhly’s “Two Boys” and Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” among others, premiering in London before being tweaked and sent to New York.
Despite those triumphs, John Allison, the editor of Opera magazine, said in an interview that the company had recently been lurching from crisis to crisis with a string of high-profile resignations, financial difficulties and a declining number of works presented.
Fewer performances meant that the Arts Council was subsidizing each E.N.O. ticket sold to a greater extent, and the company was often criticized for providing poor value for public money.
A spokeswoman for the company said in an email that 90,000 people went to the company’s 63 performances last season, a figure that means each ticket was propped up with £137, or about $168, of state funding. The spokeswoman added that attendance was lower than usual that season, because of the pandemic, and that the opera reached many more people through other means, including television broadcasts seen by 2.2 million viewers.
The Arts Council has defended its decision. Claire Mera-Nelson, the agency’s director of music, said in a blog post that she had seen “almost no growth in demand” for large-scale opera over the past five years, and had decided to prioritize funding for the art form “at different scales, reimagined in new ways” such as staging productions in parking lots, or pubs. Darren Henley, the Arts Council’s chief executive, wrote in The Guardian that “new ideas may seem heretic to traditionalists,” but that opera needed to reinvent itself to “remain exciting and meaningful to future generations.”
On Thursday, Henley told British politicians he was having discussions with the E.N.O. over how it could keep showing work in London, as well as elsewhere in England, but added, “We can’t fund them in London.” (The Arts Council declined an interview request for this article.)
While English National Opera’s future is hanging on officials’ whims, its audience seems hopeful that it will remain in London, somehow. At the Coliseum last week, before a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Yeomen of the Guard,” the atmosphere was relaxed and informal. Audience members in winter coats and bobble hats arrived on foot, rather than in sleek cars, and headed into the theater, where a merchandise stall was selling T-shirts with the slogans “Choose Opera” and “#loveENO.”
Nick McConagh, 72, said he had been coming to the E.N.O. since the 1970s because its tickets were affordable. “It disproves the belief that opera is for the rich,” he said.
Nearby, Hatti Simpson, 30, with pink hair and tattoos, said she fell in love with opera after taking advantage of the company’s cheap ticketing for young people. Cutting the E.N.O.’s funding and forcing it to move out of London would be “an absolute travesty,” she said.
Two hours later, when the lights went down at the end of the show, the audience of nearly 2,000 applauded and cheered. After the cast had taken several bows, Neal Davies, a Welsh baritone, stepped forward and quietened the crowd for one final number. “I’m here to sing the praises of English National Op-er-a, who strive to make the medium both radical and pop-ul-ar,” he sang, to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General,”
If the company did not exist “your life would be a dull-er one,” he added. That prospect, Davies bellowed, “was almost as unthinkable as Gilbert without Sul-liv-an.”
The audience cheered loudly. But it was unclear if anyone outside the building was listening.