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8 November 2022

English National Opera is a cultural lifeline – but we have been decimated by cuts

Arts Council England’s withdrawal of our general funding will have reverberations across the entire arts ecosystem.

By Harry Brünjes

During the pandemic the English National Opera shone. The company is used to balancing artistic aspiration with financial reality, so when crisis loomed we paid out all contracts and requested a modest cultural recovery fund loan – working closely with Arts Council England to help to ensure the UK remained a cultural powerhouse.

We presented La bohème to socially distanced audiences in their cars from a huge stage erected in Alexandra Palace’s car park – which won us a Bafta. We collaborated with the BBC to bring Handel’s Messiah and Mozart’s Requiem to homes across the country.

We felt ENO had a pivotal role to play supporting the country’s response to the pandemic. We launched ENO Breathe, a social prescribing medical intervention which, in partnership with Imperial College NHS Trust, uses opera singers’ breathing techniques to help patients with long-Covid to recover from their symptoms. It was peer-group reviewed in the Lancet, the medical journal, and proven to increase patients’ breathing confidence. Two thousand people in 85 NHS Trusts have benefited.

We were shocked to learn from Arts Council England in a meeting last week that ENO was no longer to be a National Portfolio Organisation – selected leaders in their fields with a responsibility to protect and develop the arts – and our general funding would be cut to zero. We were informed that ENO might be allocated a “transition fund” if it were to relocate from its home for the last 55 years, the London Coliseum, possibly to Manchester. There was no warning, no consultation. We were told for the first time 24 hours before Arts Council England made its plans public, on Friday 4 November. It is only now that the full consequences of this decision are fully understood: the loss of a national institution in London that is approaching its centenary and the loss of livelihood of hundreds of loyal, devoted and talented people.

The suggestion that ENO relocate comes despite the fact that we were specifically advised not to propose a move outside of London in our original application. The suggested transition fund would come to £17 million over the next three years, £20 million less than our usual investment.

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[See also: Sara Baume: “I’m attracted to artists who find new ways to tread the same ground”]  

ENO has an established reputation for national projects. Manchester is a brilliant city with a fantastic arts ecology but the transition will take time – it could take as long as four years to move – and the ENO has only been given five months left at the Coliseum. We were advised that ENO would retain ownership of the Coliseum but must use it as a commercial asset and make it available for other National Portfolio Organisations to use at favourable rates. 

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The modern ENO has an excellent relationship with both Arts Council England and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. We have benefited from their support, understanding and availability. Following the announcement the Arts Council publicly praised our “great achievement” as a “well-run charity”. Therefore, we simply do not comprehend this decision.

Arts Council England had previously announced that 15 per cent of funding for all London-based National Portfolio Organisations would be cut to support the government’s levelling up agenda. Instead, while other organisations have had losses, a drastic cut that will have reverberations across the entire arts ecosystem has fallen one large organisation that employs a permanent staff of nearly 300 (and many more freelancers) has been decimated.

In our proposal we set out a commitment to more operatic work outside of the M25, while continuing to create brilliant work at the Coliseum. This season we have been performing to 80 per cent capacity paid-for audiences in spite of Covid anxiety and the cost-of-living crisis.

Several commentators have misrepresented that our £12.6m annual subsidy was used solely to pay for our opera performances at the Coliseum. This is not accurate. For every pound we receive we generate two. For the past four years we have taken opera out to audiences wherever they are – in school canteens to over 10,000 children, or in community centres from Liverpool to Littlehampton. And the investment has allowed us to subsidise all tickets. As the nation’s gateway opera company, we invest in the future, providing influential training schemes for emerging singers, musicians, conductors and opera critics.

This is now all in jeopardy. ENO has been singled out as the company that will have to close or reinvent itself, no longer supported in its pivotal role in developing British musical and production talent. ENO was founded by Lilian Baylis to create opera for everyone. We have remained true to this for the past 90 years. Let us hope that such ambition does not have to diminish in light of these rash political decisions.

[See also: How Jacques Testard made Fitzcarraldo a prize-winning literary powerhouse]

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