The English National Opera is mounting a vigorous campaign to retain its base in London after England’s main arts funding body said it would reduce its grant to zero unless it moves outside the capital.
Stuart Murphy, ENO’s chief executive, met Michelle Donelan, the culture secretary, on Thursday to argue that Arts Council England should reverse its edict that the opera house leave London.
The meeting followed a session with the heads of the Royal Opera House, Opera North, the Welsh National Opera and Scottish Opera on Wednesday. “They all want to rally round to ensure ENO stays in London,” Murphy said.
Politicians from all parties and “a whole bunch” of celebrities were supporting the ENO in its pushback against the instruction, he said. By 3pm on Thursday more than 24,000 people had signed an online petition set up by the opera singer Bryn Terfel.
Murphy said the arts council had held a gun to ENO’s head – “not just my head, but the heads of 300 staff and 2,000 freelancers”, whose livelihoods depended on the opera house.
“It takes 15 years to become an opera singer, or wigmaker, or someone who makes detailed costumes. ENO has trained generations of singers, electricians, plasterers, front-of-house people, directors. You can’t just uproot them.”
The opera house had been given 24 hours’ notice of the decision to cut its £12.8m annual grant to zero unless it moved to Manchester, Murphy said. Arts Council England has offered £17m over the next three years to help with moving costs and a new business plan.
In a statement this week, the arts council said: “We require English National Opera to move to another part of England if they wish to continue to receive support from us … ENO’s future is in their hands.”
Murphy said: “They said ‘it’s up to you, you decide the future, but if you don’t do what we say we’re removing the funding’. It doesn’t speak to a compassionate understanding of a very sophisticated beacon of British culture.”
The opera house had been “bounced” into initially acquiescing, he said. “But unlike the arts council, we did the numbers at the weekend and, unlike the arts council, we spoke to people about what effect this would have.”
Opera North, which is based in Leeds and regularly performs in Salford, was furious at the arts council’s requirement, he added.
ENO said its relationship with the arts council had been positive. “For the past four years, they gave us glowing report cards, saying we’d excelled in all criteria, the opera house was well run and financially steady. One in seven of our audience is under 35 [with free tickets offered to under-21s]. One in five singers at the opera house is ethnically diverse. Our average ticket price is £65, not £200.”
ENO Breathe was developed for people recovering from Covid, who were experiencing breathlessness and anxiety. The free programme focuses on breathing retraining through singing.
“I don’t see any other great arts institutions using their wherewithal in the fight against long Covid. To axe the most pioneering opera company that does that, with the most diverse full-time orchestra and chorus in the country, where our average ticket price is a quarter of what it is at the Royal Opera House, is unbelievable.”
The idea of levelling up should not require a company to move its physical base, he said. It was possible to have a presence all over the country while retaining a London headquarters.
Murphy said opera’s business model was based on the ability to fundraise, which was easier in London (metropolitan population 9.5 million) than Manchester (2.8 million).
ENO’s arts council grant accounted for around a third of its annual income. It is based at the London Coliseum in the West End, and is one of two large opera companies in the capital, along with the Royal Opera House.
The Royal Opera House has had its grant reduced from £25.2m this year to £22.2m for the next three years.
As well as the specific grant to ENO, 24 arts organisations were given money by the arts council to move out of the capital by October 2024. The government instructed Arts Council England earlier this year to spend more money on arts organisations outside London as part of its levelling up programme.
• This article was amended on 11 November 2022 to offer a more accurate comparison between the greater metropolitan populations of London and Manchester.