Wednesday 24 February 2016

The ENO chorus: heard but not heeded

Famous last words: at the end of my Arts Desk reaction in March 2015 to Arts Council England's punishment of English National Opera, I wrote (with apologies for self-quotation): 'the artistic team is doing superlative work under difficult circumstances, delivering time after time. It would be criminal to see it disembowelled. So here's hoping newly-appointed CEO Cressida Pollock can build on what's daringly best about the company rather than plunge in with slash-and-burn techniques.'

'Slash-and-burn', unfortunately, is the way of McKinseyites like Ms. Pollock, according to a distinguished friend of mine who has had many meetings with their ilk during her years of working in the NHS. Said friend pointed out how the policy is to bring an organisation or department ruthlessly to its knees, then move on and wreak havoc somewhere else.

Ms. Pollock (not pictured in the second image by Robert Workman above: that's Elza van den Heever - I think - as Ellen Orford in the ENO Peter Grimes) started off well enough. I liked the look of her at first nights, where she seemed very engaged and to be having fun. She did indeed make a start with reducing ticket prices. Then the bombshell fell, which most of you know all about, from my banging on about it - and I'm not about to stop: 25 per cent reduction in the annual salary of the chorus (pictured up top with astounding new Verdi/Wagner soprano Tamara Wilson in the ENO Force of Destiny), accordant with a season due to run from September to March only.

That is unacceptable, unarguable, wrong. Period. Yes, money has to be saved, but there is no indication that Pollock and the Board have been listening to the alternatives put forward so far by many among the 5,800 petitioners on (the number is still rising; there's also an Equity petition which 5,000 + have signed to date). Their numbers include singers, directors, conductors, designers, actors and some of us critics. I'm especially proud to have drawn Vladimir Jurowski's attention to the situation. I thought he'd be a Mensch about it once he knew the facts and he was, writing:

 It's an appalling and unfair way of trying to resolve the financial and managerial crisis in which this wonderful company has found itself for way too long!! I have worked with ENO Chorus and know how incredibly dedicated and hard-working they are! And without its chorus no opera company would be able to carry on. It's like cutting off somebody's foot first and then expect this person to participate in running competitions -- either sadism or colossal stupidity!!! Cut its chorus and you'll kill ENO surely! And with the loss of ENO London's and UK's cultural landscape is going to suffer irreparable damage!!! We have been through similar crisis in Berlin several years ago and yet with some COLLECTIVE EFFORT all three(!!!) opera companies have been saved and continue working successfully... What ENO obviously needs now is a new talented Intendant with a new artistic policy and ideas, not a mutilated chorus!! And the Arts Council's silence is both worrying and shameful.

Jurowski and other famous names have left eloquent comments. Cressida Pollock's only 'reply' has been an unconvincing statement on ENO's website (she may have invented a new verb, 'to casualise'). But she's not addressing people directly. Yes, it's sour grapes from me that she hasn't, after a week, replied to an email I sent her. This is poor: let me use the example of the harder-working Kasper Holten at the Royal Opera in terms of a leader who's responded personally, and personably, to everyone I know. Ms Pollock has a PA, doesn't she? But no, not so much as a 'your comments have been noted' reply. (Pictured below: the ENO Pagliacci, brilliantly reworked by Richard Jones as 'Ding Dong!' performed in a northern repertory theatre - high time that returned; photo by Richard Hubert Smith).

This is the message, FYI, not different from what I 've been writing and saying elsewhere, and attempting to be constructive in asking for alternatives.

Hello Cressida (if I may),

I hope by now that you've seen enough proposals of alternative courses to be taken for ENO not to strike at its heart and its morale. It's true that something needs to give, but despite what you've written on the company website, the administration is not down to its bare bones. Does it really need 11 people in one department to raise a mere £5 million, for instance? Why are there no orchestral musicians or company singers on the board?

Perhaps the best way of all for everyone in the company to show goodwill is for all to take a much lower paycut than the one proposed for the chorus, say five per cent for a year or two until things turn round.  

As you will have seen from all three productions Mark Wigglesworth has conducted so far this season, the quality has never been higher. It simply can't be compromised - and above all you don't want to lose the best conductor ENO has ever had.

I should also recommend a proper debate about the issues involved. Contingents like the Friends of ENO feel badly let down by lack of consultation.

Best wishes,


The petition's been running for three weeks now, and there's been no sign of a rapprochement. A lot more people's voices need to be heard by the board - including said Friends, whose money the admin is happy to have, but not their thoughts. A student told me of one who was brushed aside by a board member in the last crisis and told to enjoy the opera, not worry his head about accounts (he happened to be a top accountant. Needless to say he withdrew his support).

I mean what I wrote about Wigglesworth as Music Director; he deserves an Artistic Director of similar vision to work with, and soon. The chorus also sang its fairly routine stuff in Bellini's Norma with sheen and passion, and to a huge ovation on first night. They did what Christopher Alden's clunky production asked them to do, and to be fair, he brought them forward on the curtain call for a second ovation. By the way, I'm not anti-Aldens; C's Britten Dream was a radical rethink that worked for me.

Make no mistake, a full-time chorus in a big company is not part of a museum culture but essential for 20th and 21st century masterpieces too: without it, no top-notch Peter Grimes, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Turandot, Julietta (pictured above by Robert Workman) or The Gospel According to the Other Mary, to cite a few essentials among the kind of electrifying music-drama ENO has been doing best for years. So, for the third time of asking - and having sent out a round robin to 150 students, with the result of five bothering to comment, I know it has to be repeated - sign and comment on The Spirit of Lilian Baylis's petition if you haven't done so already.

UPDATE (26/2) The Chorus has voted 100 per cent in favour of a strike after an Equity ballot. They were to be seen and heard earlier this morning outside ACE headquarters.

No sign of a shift from CEO or Board. This list of mostly irrelevant worthies, poorly put together, tells us all we know as to why there needs to be a clean sweep in this part of the ENO admin. Only one member has had any previous hands-on experience of opera companies.

Just read a response from ENO management to the strike proposals. No amount of arguing is going to justify the injustice of making professionals take a nine-month salary per year. No hint, even, of investigating alternative avenues (for alternatives there must be).

SECOND UPDATE (29/2) Not to namedrop, but to point out a further dimension to the argument: I was having supper with four singers of note (to put it mildly) - our beloved friend Linda Esther Gray (pictured above second from left), Valerie Masterson (left), Meryl Drower and Clare Moll - plus other spouses, and they made this point very passionately: that the chorus were such a rock and support to them when they appeared on the ENO stage. They pointed out that such experience and solidarity is especially important for young soloists and were horrified at the prospect of dissolution. Valerie has in fact signed the petition and I urged them to phrase their feelings in comments, but if they don't, this is a record of what they said.

A second e-mail  I sent to Cressida Pollock last week has also so far gone unanswered. And she has not corrected the factual errors on her ENO website statement. This does not bode well for 'listening'. No doubt the management will be trumpeting the nomination of the very chorus it's aiming to destroy, along with the ENO Orchestra, for the Olivier Awards' Best Achievement in Opera. They have to win, don't they? I'm sure Felicity Palmer, Antonio Pappano and Tamara Wilson, the other nominees, will cheer them loudly if they do.

THIRD UPDATE (5/3) Cressida Pollock's latest statement on the ENO site: quite apart from the spin and the unfair misrepresentation of the company's artists' attitude to negotiation, it contains a figure that is categorically wrong, stating ENO's need to survive on an annual budget of £12.38 million. That's the Arts Council subsidy, not the entire figure, which is twice that amount. Not impressive for a McKinseyite from an accountancy firm. The error has not been corrected despite repeated requests.

Things may turn even nastier with the arrival of a very aggressive 'negotiator' taking an alleged cut of £800 a day. Not encouraging when said negotiator played a part in the destruction of Scottish Opera as we knew it.

A wise head on young shoulders has just updated a very thoughtful blog entry on the situation here. And here are eloquent words as ever from a known and trusted colleague.


Wonderful message today from Sir Peter Jonas (pictured), the only administrator in the whole sorry affair to speak sense. OK, so that's because he's very much on the side of Save ENO, but still, this is good.

The Board of ENO do not heed or take kindly to advice and are behaving autocratically and irresponsibly towards the company, employees and art form that they are charged with protecting and supporting. They also fail to raise, from within their numbers and from their network of acquaintances, enough money to take up the financial slack after squeezing the maximum amount of financial income from the company’s work. This is on its own irresponsible. They have also failed to argue and fight ENO’s corner by directly confronting the ACE and by enlisting enough support in the political arena. These failures are impeachable but the sad truth is that it is employees, artists and the art form that will suffer the consequences. Over here, on the continent (deemed as irrelevantly “foreign” by the ENO Board) we have also had out battles to save opera companies over the last 25 years but threatened companies have survived because those responsible for them directly and indirectly as well as artists and committed support staff have fought back continually with civil courage and commitment. ENO is the bedrock of Opera in the UK. If the ACE can starve it to an untimely demise then the future of all opera companies in the UK is threatened and the demise of the once proud Scottish Opera is a frightening precedent !!! Mark Wigglesworth MUST be listened to and needs a strong partner as artistic director who should be, together with him, the internal and external figurehead of the company inspiring great work and fighting for the art form, artists and a clear vision of the future. I have not seen or heard any evidence of vision in the utterances of the ENO Board or management since this crisis was made public. THIS is the true scandal. 

Final footnotes: the strike in Act 1of Akhnaten at the last performance is now off, though the troubles are far from abating, and my crucial interview with ENO Chorus members went up on The Arts Desk earlier this week.

As a reaction to their withdrawn engagement in Sunset Boulevard, not a protest, the ENO Chorus is giving three April performances in London churches conducted by Wigglesworth of the Brahms German Requiem in its London version with two pianos. Full details here.

FIFTH UPDATE (18/3) A deal has been reached, but it's far from ideal, not least because the company will still be part-time with no operas performed between March and June. Details here.

12 comments: said...

Thank you for your continuing pressure on Ms Pollock, and your constancy in the cause of the ENO. I, as an artist whose career was practically forged at the ENO, feel so distressed by the shenanigans of recent months, and am utterly in awe of all the people who are coming out and voicing their dissatisfaction with the ACE and the ENO board & management in their approach to the long term issues at hand.

Keep up the good work, and I will also continue to voice my support for not only the ENO Chorus, but all those within and without the company who are threatened by the bloody mindedness and short sighted mentality of those who seem to think that Opera and the running of it can be equated in any normal terms with running "a business". It is shameful that the ACE seems to have no understanding whatsoever of their real role in & for the Arts in England, and that the board of the ENO is so unrepresentative and careless of a genuine artistic institution and the people who give of themselves constantly to justify the existence of it.

My thanks again.
Christopher Robson

David said...

So good to hear from you direct, Christopher. I've seen you being one of the real voices (ie singers) speaking out already, and I'm proud to be in such company. I grew up with the company too, and well remember the first Xerxes, which of course was such a landmark (you WERE the first, weren't you?). It's driving me to distraction, all this, simply because I love ENO so much still, and wonder at how Edward Gardner, who was such a Good Thing for the company, has been succeeded by Mark Wigglesworth, whose conducting and all-round marshalling of the forces I find simply inspirational.

So we just have to keep hammering away and badgering everyone we know to sign and comment. I've learned from recent experience that it sometimes takes time - three times, in the case of some of my opera students and friends. But where ARE all those conductors; where are more directors and others who also owe so much to ENO?

David T said...

I'm pleased to see so many significant names have chipped in with their thoughts on the petition. Interesting what Jurowski says about Berlin, has anyone on the board bothered to look at situations like this?

I'm afraid my experience of being a BFI Governor left me pretty cynical about the attitudes of people who sit at these meetings. It was all talk about branding and sponsorship and politics and money, very rarely was anything discussed in a cultural context. I had to defend Sight and Sound magazine which was threatened with the chop - I pointed out it was the only journal of its kind now in existence in the UK - but looking around at the blank faces at the table I realised no-one there ever bothered to read it!

David said...

Sadly true, David. I wish I could remember the figure I heard was involved in the last 'rebranding' - thousands, certainly, and all they came up with was a slightly slimmer 'O' in the logo for 'ENO'.

Let's hope that the slash-and-burners are compelled to check the alternative routes. I don't know if one can compel them to be accountable on the grounds that public money is involved. Maybe some smart lawyers need to lend their expertise. Equity must be pursuing extra avenues.

Susan Scheid said...

Very sorry to see this, David. I have signed on, as you know, and will keep good thoughts for a better result.

David said...

Thanks, Sue. Getting America interested isn't that easy - my pal who contributes as 'Armer Jacquino' on Parterre commented with a link, and got two respondents (one of whom I know). Yet hundreds can keep a thread going on a diva's dress...Heigh ho. Anyway, 'La Cieca' wished the death of New York City Opera, so what can you expect?

Howard Lane said...

Signed and shared!

David said...

Did you leave a comment too, Howard? Your eloquence would be welcome...and Claire's too.

Catriona said...

David - you will remember similar developments at Scottish Opera, how many years ago now?

David said...

Don't I just (though I had left Scotland by then). If you read the comments on the petition, you will find so many of them invoking Scottish Opera's fate as a terrible warning to the ENO management not to let its company go the same way. It can happen so easily, at the stroke of a pen wielded by a person who doesn't even particularly care for what opera is, can be and must be in the case of a big national company.

Susan Scheid said...

Not really a silver lining here, but I did think of you when I read the chorus would stage a strike during the first act of Glass's Akhnaten.

David said...

Yes, I did write recently that it couldn't have happened to a worse opera...