English National Opera is to open up its normally closed and gloomy foyer as a wine bar and cafe as part of its wider comeback plan to build a sustainable financial future.
The £1.2m project announcement could be considered small in the overall scheme of things, but ENO sees it as a significant statement of intent.
ENO had its funding cut in the last Arts Council England funding round and has been riven by internal strife, losing both its chairman and executive director in recent months. In February it lost its place in ACE’s national portfolio and was placed in special funding measures.
Artistically, however, ENO is having a golden period and despite its woes the company recorded a surplus of £208,000 for the last financial year and reported box-office income per performance up by 11.4%.
“It has been clear to us that we have not been as creative off the stage as we are on the stage,” said the company’s artistic director, John Berry. “When you walk into the building you have no sense of the adventure you are about to witness on the stage ... it is all rather dark and gloomy.”
The restaurant group Benugo is funding the £1.2m renovation of the ground floor. The plan, drawn up by the architects Robin Snell and Partners, is to slide back the forbidding brown doors, which are a familiar sight to any Coliseum-goer, and open up the foyer to the street with a newly installed cafe and bar.
ENO is the last major arts organisation in London to open itself up in this way and admits that it wants to be like the Young Vic, which is buzzy and busy during the day as well as the evening, even when audiences are in watching plays.
Unlike the Young Vic, however, the ENO will have to clear away the tables and chairs before performances just to get people into their seats.
The project itself will help reverse ENO’s fortunes but Berry and the interim chief executive, Cressida Pollock, said it had to be seen as part of a bigger picture, which will see other parts of the building being opened up for events and to the public.
The company has also joined with the impresarios Michael Grade and Michael Linnit to produce, they hope, money-spinning West End musicals. The first fruit of that partnership is the current run of Sweeney Todd with Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel, which had a queue of people in front of the locked brown doors on Wednesday morning waiting to get £10 day seats.
Pollock took over as interim chief executive last month after a stint last year working with ENO on its business plan as an employee of the management consultants McKinsey.
She said: “What I really want to say is how much I fell in love with the organisation during that work. I fell in love with the people, the team, what we put on the stage, the whole company.”
The 2,359-seat Frank Matcham-designed Coliseum is a Grade II* listed building and whether ENO gets approval for its plans remains to be seen. Berry said they hoped to get work under way in early 2016.