Liverpool and Manchester are “really strong contenders” to be the new home of the English National Opera (ENO), its chief executive has said, after the cultural body was forced to leave London.
Stuart Murphy, who steps down later this year, said three potential bases would be selected by the end of May and a winner chosen by the end of this year.
Murphy said Liverpool and Manchester were in strong contention but that Bristol, Birmingham and Nottingham were also in the running.
“I don’t want to close any one of them down, but Liverpool and Manchester are really strong contenders,” he told the Guardian.
The ENO is looking for a new home after Arts Council England (ACE) reduced its general public funding to zero in November as part of plans aimed at diverting culture money outside London.
The 92-year-old opera company will still stage performances at the London Coliseum, its West End residence for more than half a century, but ACE has said its base must be outside the capital if it is to receive £24m in public funding over three years from 2024.
Critics have questioned whether there is sufficient appetite for opera to sustain the ENO outside London – an assumption sharply rejected by figures including the Greater Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, who described it as based on “residual, out-of-date attitudes”.
The ENO has accepted its fate, albeit reluctantly, and is due to move into its new home early next year.
The final decision will be taken by the ENO and its board but the shortlist will be put to ACE, which is thought to favour a move to the Midlands or north of England in keeping with the government’s broader levelling up agenda.
Murphy said Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham and Bristol had been whittled down from 14 places originally in the frame.
East Croydon had been considered but the ENO was given a “very clear steer” by ACE that its new base should not be “within close proximity of the capital”, Murphy said.
He added that there were “pros and cons” with each of the five contenders. Liverpool was a “really, really strong contender”, he said, describing its hosting of the Eurovision song contest as an “amazing demonstration of how much they love culture”.
He added: “Manchester has loads to offer as well, as does Birmingham. Birmingham is enormous, they’re really excited for us to be there – as is Nottingham, Bristol. Extraordinary.
“The type of ENO you’d get in Manchester might be very different to the type of ENO you’d get in Birmingham or Liverpool or Bristol or Nottingham.”
Manchester has been considered to be the frontrunner but the city is already home to the Hallé orchestra, which plays to 120,000 people a year, and regularly hosts performances by Opera North, which recently described itself as “Manchester’s company”, despite being based 36 miles away in Leeds.
Liverpool, meanwhile, is home to Britain’s oldest surviving professional symphony orchestra, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, which became fully professional in 1853.
An ACE spokesperson said the ENO was developing plans “based on a reimagined artistic and business model with a primary base out of London”.
She said the potential £24m budget available between 2024 and 2026 would allow the opera company to make a “phased transition” to this new model “and will include work split between their new main base and London”.
“The shared ambition is for the ENO to be in a strong position to apply to the Arts Council’s National Portfolio of funded organisations from 2026.”