The future of opera is in car parks, pubs and on tablets rather than in lavish productions in grand venues, the chief executive of Arts Council England has said, amid a growing row over its removal of funding for the English National Opera.
Darren Henley acknowledged that the decision to slash ENO’s funding to zero and insist it find a new home out of London “seems stark” and “nothing can take away the pain of artists, performers, technical teams and audiences who love the company”.
But, rather than sounding a death knell for ENO, the arts council wanted “to support a bright, if different, future” for the company.
ENO says it has the support of politicians from all parties, celebrities and audiences in its campaign for the arts council to reverse its decision.
On Monday, workers in the culture sector will lobby the arts council to reconsider “devastating funding cuts” to arts organisations across the UK, including ENO. Ronald Nairne, who sings in the ENO chorus and is a member of Equity, which is organising the protest, said the removal of ENO’s funding would be “catastrophic” for its 300 full-time employees and hundreds more freelancers.
The actor Maxine Peake said: “We must not believe this false narrative that pits London against the regions, but fight to ensure the proper funding of the arts across the whole of the UK.”
In an article for the Guardian, Henley wrote: “If we consider the future of opera and classical music more generally, it is clear some things must change. There will always be a place for the grand opera currently staged by the Royal Opera House, ENO, Opera North, Glyndebourne and other ‘country house’ opera companies; the swelling overtures, glorious sets, rousing choruses and breath-taking arias create an overwhelming, eternal sense of awe.”
But, he added, “a new generation of audiences is embracing opera and music theatre presented in new ways: opera in car parks, opera in pubs, opera on your tablet. New ideas may seem heretic to traditionalists, but fresh thinking helps the art form reimagine itself and remain exciting and meaningful to future generations of audiences and artists.”
Last year, during Covid restrictions, Scottish Opera performed Puccini’s La Bohème in the car park of the company’s Glasgow studios. It has also undertaken several pop-up opera tours in outdoor venues.
The arts council had increased its support for “grassroots” opera and classical music organisations. Opera would continue to receive £30m a year from Arts Council England.
Among the organisations the arts council is funding for the first time is OperaUpClose, which stages “unintimidating” and affordable opera and takes it on tour to theatres and venues including castles, warehouses and schools across the country.
The Pegasus Opera Company, based in Brixton, south London, will also receive regular funding for the next three years. It nurtures artists of African and Asian heritage – historically underrepresented in opera – and runs a community choir.
In its three-year settlement for arts organisations announced last week, the council cut ENO’s £12.8m annual grant to zero, saying the opera house must move out of the capital in order to be considered for funding in the next round starting in 2026.
It offered ENO £17m to help with relocation costs and to devise a new business plan. The decision came after the government instructed the arts council to divert resources away from London to organisations across the country as part of its levelling up programme.
Henley rejected accusations of vandalism and “metrophobia”, saying a third of arts council funds had been allocated to London organisations.
“The arts council will always embrace opera, even if we support it in a variety of new ways … Our ask is that ENO, and other opera companies with pioneering track records, come together and invent a future for new audiences. This decision may have come as a shock, but now we must embrace the shock of the new.”
Stuart Murphy, ENO’s chief executive, said last week that the arts council had held a gun to the opera house’s head and that it should reverse its edict.
ENO offered free tickets to under-21s, and one in five of its singers are ethnically diverse, he said. An example of the opera house’s innovative approach was ENO Breathe, a free programme for people recovering from Covid who were experiencing breathlessness and anxiety.