Most chorus members would quit if ENO leaves London, survey suggests

Exclusive: ‘Baffling’ levelling up plan to move company to another city may lead to staff exodus, says Equity

Most chorus members at the English National Opera (ENO) would be forced to leave their jobs if the company relocates outside London, because of ties that include children at school, caring responsibilities, and partners with jobs in the capital.

More than two-thirds would leave the profession altogether, according to a survey by Equity, the union that represents chorus members.

The opera company had its public funding cut from £12.8m a year to zero in November as part of a drive by Arts Council England (ACE) to divert money outside the capital, reflecting the government’s levelling up agenda. ENO was told it could reapply for funding if it left its base at the Coliseum in central London.

The move triggered an outcry. An open letter signed by the mezzo-soprano Dame Sarah Connolly and other leading opera figures described the cut as a “hammer blow to the opera industry”.

In January, ACE agreed to give ENO a grant of £11.4m for the coming year “to sustain a programme of work” at the Coliseum and to start planning for a new base outside London by 2026. Further funding was “available in principle”, with a package expected to be announced this week.

ENO is considering a number of cities for its new base, including Hull, Newcastle, Birmingham, Nottingham, Truro and Manchester. “We are definitely up for [moving] if the funding is right, but we just need to take it carefully with staff and work out who would stay in London and who would move,” ENO boss Stuart Murphy told the Stage last month.

The ENO chorus – described by the company as “one of the finest professional operatic ensembles in the UK today” – comprises 34 permanent employees and three on contracts. Three-quarters responded to Equity’s survey.

Of those, 82.1% said they would have to leave their jobs if ENO relocated full-time or for the majority of time outside London. Nearly three in 10 said they had children in school in or near the capital, half had caring responsibilities in or around London, and almost nine in 10 had other household members reliant on work in the capital.

If ENO split its time between the Coliseum and another city, only 21.4% said they would be able to move out of London part-time. In this scenario, 75% said they would have to leave their jobs at ENO, with six in 10 saying they would leave the profession altogether.

Paul W Fleming, Equity’s general secretary, said: By pulling the rug from under the ENO, Arts Council England is asking a long-established workforce to upend their whole lives, for a vague promise of potential work, written in the sand.

“This highly skilled, diverse and world renowned chorus is expected to suddenly move to an unknown place, for an unknown reason by the Arts Council, who seem to have made this baffling decision with zero thought for its consequences for the workforce, the audience and the ability of people across the UK to access opera.”

A spokesperson for ENO said: “The ENO has made clear that to help support the government’s and ACE’s levelling up agenda we should sustain our base at the London Coliseum while increasing our activity out of London. At a proper funding level this would allow us to maintain our world-class chorus and orchestra and we continue to ask ACE [and the government] to recognise this to protect the livelihoods of this brilliantly talented group of people.”

Members of the ENO chorus will meet a group of cross-party MPs on Tuesday to raise their concerns about ENO moving its base out of London and its public funding.

About 300 other ENO employees and freelancers, including musicians, costume, makeup and technical staff, will be affected by a relocation.

• This article was amended on 29 March 2023. An earlier version incorrectly stated that “more than seven out of 10” chorus members had children in school in or near London; the finding of the Equity survey was actually “nearly three in 10” (29%).


Harriet Sherwood Arts and culture correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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