Chorus of rage as ENO gives critics’ coveted extra tickets to young bloggers

English National Opera is changing its free-seat policy in a bid to widen its appeal

English National Opera has won applause for its efforts to attract a wider and more diverse audience as it broadened its pool of performers, composers and directors. But ENO’s latest reform, announced today, puts it on a collision course with a group of people not known for keeping quiet: the opera critics.

The company has decided to stop offering established reviewers a second free ticket to opening nights as it tries to bring in more varied critical voices. Its new scheme, called Response and outlined to the Observer by ENO’s chief executive, Stuart Murphy, is designed to make extra space in the Coliseum for 10 novice critics to learn their craft.

“ENO is all about talent development,” Murphy said. “Our Response scheme is part of that. Opera can be seen as a closed art form, and we think people should be able to review it more emotionally – not just from a technical standpoint about how sections of the orchestra played or how the soprano sang. The question is: did it make you cry, did it make you happy?”

Murphy’s idea is to encourage new appreciations of an art form seen by many as exclusive and forbidding. But his proposal has already caused controversy, with a revolt in the stalls predicted by more than one respected critic. “Reviewing a show for most of us takes place after a day’s work – often a poorly paid one, in this profession,” said Alexandra Coghlan of the Spectator.

“Many of us regularly work 13- or 14-hour days, leaving for work in the morning and returning after the opera. This process is repeated multiple times a week. To take away second tickets not only isolates us from the typically – and crucially – social process of culture-going, but also from our partners and friends. Lose this anchor and you lose the long-term viability of the profession and with it the expertise and experience built up over many years’ work by critics.”

Others in the small band of opera and classical music critics, employed by national newspapers, magazines and websites, are not likely to be happy.

The Observer’s own expert, Fiona Maddocks, is unsettled. “There are so many reasons a second ticket is important,” she said. “Critics, none of us rich, can introduce newcomers to opera. It’s our passion. We’re the best advocates. Going with someone also normalises what can otherwise be a somewhat specialised activity. This decision may backfire. Expect a revolt.”

Other pundits have pointed out that, as the Coliseum seats more than 2,300, burgeoning critical voices can already be welcomed at a first night without upsetting opera’s highest profile cheerleaders.

Murphy said he still values established critics and “acknowledges their training, hard work and skill”, but he points out the company has been giving away 80 free tickets for opening nights, 40 for journalists and 40 for their “plus ones”. Not all of these tickets go to critics, of course, and Murphy said there are no current plans to take away guest tickets from invited editors.

“Financially it is not sensible for us,” he said, “And a lot of people criticise the critics, so it will be quite good to let others have a go and, I suspect, find out that it is not as easy as it looks.”

The selected novices will be coached by Lucy Basaba of the website Theatre Full Stop, and their reviews, positive or negative, will be posted on the ENO site if they are delivered within 48 hours.

“There is no set formula for what makes a compelling review,” said Basaba. “However, the reviewer must be able to capture the mood of an opera quickly and concisely – showing an awareness of the show’s context and director’s vision.

“They will be able to articulate whether they feel the production is apt for our times, as well as provide constructive feedback.”

Murphy said he knew professional critics were under pressure and so he will still offer them a free ticket and a chance to buy another ticket for a guest.

Aspiring new critics must be amateurs and should apply by sending 800 words to Theatre Full Stop.

“We hope these new perspectives will complement those from our experienced hands and look forward to the latter sharing their wisdom with the former as they sit next to one another in the house,” said Murphy.

But Coghlan is unconvinced: “Second tickets aren’t just a nice perk of the job; they are an important tool. Often thoughts are crystallised, challenged or developed through conversation. A ‘plus one’ can function as devil’s advocate, sounding-board and sparring partner as well as a date.”


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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