Mike Leigh on board for The Pirates of Penzance opera

Filmmaker to direct English National Opera production of Gilbert and Sullivan classic at Coliseum next year

Mike Leigh once berated directors for failing to understand Gilbert and Sullivan, resulting in "boring, bland, sentimental, self-conscious, often gratuitously camp productions, which entirely miss their point".

But now the film director will get his chance to show them how it is done, with the English National Opera on Tuesday announcing that Leigh will make his debut at the Coliseum next year, directing The Pirates of Penzance.

Leigh joins an impressive list of filmmakers who have tackled opera at the ENO, including the late Anthony Minghella, Terry Gilliam, Mike Figgis and Penny Woolcock.

Casting is well advanced for the production and Leigh has a creative team in place, but the ENO's artistic director, John Berry, admitted he had no idea what a Mike Leigh opera might look like. "All I know is my producer and technical director are going to see the first designs next week so I would imagine in two or three weeks' time I'll get a flicker."

Leigh's interest in Gilbert and Sullivan is well known – his 1999 film Topsy-Turvy was about the pair's fraught working relationship – and he has expressed firm views on how their works should be staged. Writing in the Guardian, Leigh said the operas have "often been misunderstood" and they had "their dark side, their hard edge".

That may be news to anyone learning the words to "I am the very model of a modern major-general" for their amateur production of The Pirates of Penzance, but it helps set up a mouth-watering prospect for operagoers in 2015.

Leigh's opera debut will be one of the few occasions where he works with another writer's script – he is known for improvising many of his films.

Topsy-Turvy was a departure for Leigh, best known for his sometimes bleak portrayals of modern life. Here was a full-scale historical costume drama, his first, and it earned four Oscar nominations – winning two awards for costume and make up. The Observer's Philip French wrote: "No doubt Mike Leigh feels that with his socially realistic plays and films over the past 30 years, he has paid his Fabian dues and can turn his attention to Gilbert and Sullivan with a clear conscience."

Berry said Leigh, who has been working on his film Mr Turner – to be screened in Cannes next month – was a remarkable director. "I contacted Mike in the same way I contacted Terry Gilliam. I sort of lured him into an idea that he fell in love with. The great thing about the Mike Leighs of this world, the late Anthony Minghella, Terry Gilliam is they are really interested in doing different things.

"We have many challenges here, one of them is not the challenge of attracting great artists."

The ENO is expecting a huge amount of interest and will put 45,000 tickets on sale across 19 performances, with opening night on 9 May.

Leigh is one of the most eye-catching elements of a 2014/15 season that will also include an opera based on 9/11 as well as new productions of Verdi's Otello, Wagner's The Mastersingers of Nuremberg and Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades.

The ENO is known for its adventurous programming and Berry said ambition and risk taking would remain central.

An example of that is a new opera by the British composer, Tansy Davies, inspired by 9/11. Between Worlds, directed by Deborah Warner, is based around six individuals. "It is not a political view of terrorism, it is just a story about these people," said Berry. "It is a big moment for us, a big moment for that subject matter and it will be a big challenge to treat it in a sensitive way but try to do something extraordinary musically. It is a major thing for us."

The ENO is also announcing a series of "commercial partnerships and transformative projects" to ensure a sustainable future for the company.

Two years ago the ENO was in serious financial trouble, posting a loss of £2.2m, a shortfall it covered from its reserves. Today it will announce a small operating surplus, with average income per performance up 13%, and audience capacity up from 69% to 76%.

The four initiatives to cut costs and increase income are intended to help prevent another wobble. They are:

• A long term partnership with theatrical impresarios Lord Grade and Michael Linnit to produce a musical a year which, they hope, might transfer from the ENO to the West End.

• To make the Coliseum busier when there are no performances by signing a £1m-plus deal with a commercial company which would see the bars and restaurant open during the day and a foyer coffee shop.

• To create a new production centre bringing the company together under one roof, rather than the scattered way ENO works at present. Berry said they hoped to have an idea of where by the summer.

• Researching the future of audience experience and stage technology in a new partnership with University College London.

Berry said ENO, which next year will receive £17.9m from the public purse, had to change. "The days of just asking for the same amount of money to do the same thing … that has moved on now. In the decreasing circles of public funding, we've just got to become more resilient and we need to create a future for the company beyond the next few years.

"The route to that is absolutely about collaboration and partnerships."

The season will also see the return of Peter Sellars to ENO as a director in residence for the first time since Nixon in China, with two connected pieces which "give a voice to women in stories usually told by men". They are the world staged premiere of John Adams' The Gospel According to the Other Mary and the UK's first fully-staged production of Purcell's The Indian Queen, which will have sets designed by the US graffiti artist Gronk.

Other productions include the ENO's first opera for children, created by Joanna Lee and called The Way Back.

Berry said a key tenet of the ENO was making it an affordable night out. "Opera can tell the big stories about the world we live in more effectively, more viscerally than any other art form. It should be available to everybody at a reasonable price and if you want to come and see an opera here you can come for £5."

• This article was amended on 29 April 2014 to correct the title of John Adams's The Gospel According to the Other Mary.


Mark Brown, arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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