There can be no true “levelling up” of culture across Britain unless we hang on to the places where top performers work together, the veteran opera star Sir John Tomlinson has argued. The international singer’s plea for Arts Council England to think again about moving the English National Opera (ENO) from its London home comes as rumours build that it is to go back on its shock decision to withdraw annual funding from the company.
“Every singer needs a thriving musical world around them,” said Lancashire-born Tomlinson, who is president of the Royal Northern College of Music. “You cannot develop your talent in a vacuum.”
Speaking to the Observer, a source close to the arts council claims a new plan for the survival of the ENO may be drawn up early in the new year. So far, no mayor of a major northern city is thought to have welcomed the prospect of becoming home to the London company.
“I felt total disbelief,” Tomlinson said of the moment he learned that the foundations of the ENO, based at the London Coliseum since 1968, were to be ripped up. “The company has ticked all the boxes for years now. I only hope the Arts Council think again.”
Tomlinson, 76, is one of opera’s most respected bass-baritones. He has, he revealed, written to Sir Nicholas Serota, chair of Arts Council England (ACE), to state the case for retaining the ENO. Forty years ago he was part of a 30-strong group singing together in what is judged a “golden age” for the opera company, as it toured the country from its base at the Coliseum. Since then the number of performances in the capital and across Britain have been cut back dramatically as levels of public subsidy have declined.
A spokesperson for the ENO did not comment on the suggestion its enforced move is under review, but confirmed that talks are continuing: “We cannot currently give any details of our ongoing negotiations with ACE, but we are continuing to encourage them to develop a strategy for opera to inform sustainable and consistent investment in the sector,” they said.
Last month, when news of the loss of £12.6m annual funding was announced, the company was granted a one-off investment of £17m for three years while it moved. The best use of this allotted money is now at the centre of discussions.
The ENO spokesperson added that the company has welcomed debate in the Lords and Commons this month. The grant withdrawal was also recently criticised on ITV’s This Morning by presenters Holly Willoughby and Phillip Schofield.
Earlier this month, Darren Henley, the chief executive of ACE, confirmed during a select committee appearance in parliament that the organisation recognised the importance of keeping the London base.
The ENO spokesperson said: “This is something we are continuing to campaign for, along with the reinstating of our funding. A strong London base is crucial in allowing us to assist ACE in delivering the government’s levelling up agenda and meaningfully serve places across the country, and it is vital that this is delivered on full funding and with extensive consultation, and in a realistic timeframe.
“MPs and lords criticised the lack of transparency in the decision-making process around the allocation of arts funding. The ENO have been excellent and have consistently met the targets ACE have set, something they have admitted themselves, so we continue to seek clarity around their decision to remove us from the National Portfolio. The work we do to welcome new and diverse audiences to opera is vital, as evidenced by the support of over 78,000 people who have now signed a petition in support of us,” added the ENO spokesperson.
Debate in the Lords focused on the term “grand opera”, which fans of lyric theatre believe was deliberately used by ACE to imply that the art form is overblown and irrelevant. Sir Peter Bottomley MP argued that ACE has ignored the growth in the numbers of people attending opera. “It has flawed figures, no strategy and a flawed consultation – a flawed approach from day one,” Bottomley said.
Tomlinson agreed that while opera can be performed on any scale, with or without a “grand” proscenium arch, the singers still need to be top calibre. “Of course you can put an opera on in a car park anywhere in Britain if you like, and I have sung to audiences in many unusual places, but you still have to have great singers to make it work and they need to have had years of experience singing in bigger productions to learn those skills. And I needed all my skill to do those shows.”
Born in Oswaldtwistle, Tomlinson sang with Accrington Male Voice Choir as a teenager and recalled that a trip to London to see a professional full-scale Italian opera was regarded as “the real stuff”. His career has since taken him all over the world, but he has continued to appear regularly at the Coliseum and Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House.
The singer, who is to appear in a new, small-scale opera based on Shakespeare’s King Lear next month, remains convinced that classical singers must develop together near a “critical mass” of other talent: “You need experience around you to gain experience.”
The new opera, The Shackled King, tells the story of the original play in flashback as Lear and his youngest daughter Cordelia are restrained in prison. Tomlinson will appear in the London premiere at Wigmore Hall opposite mezzo-soprano Rozanna Madylus as Cordelia, in the work, which has been written for him by composer John Casken.