Sunday 24 July 2016

Commercial break: a fantasy about ENO

Regular readers (thank you, darlings, thank you) will know by now how I feel about the situation at English National Opera - in particular, the move to make the chorus part-time as part of the cost-cutting exercise. For any new visitors, though, allow me to re-cap slightly (I will cover some of the ground I've written about before).

Early in 2015, the Arts Council placed ENO under 'special measures'. This meant that instead of providing funding in the usual three-year cycle, the Council scaled it back to two years' worth on condition that ENO puts its financial house in order. What lay behind this decision to increase rather than help relieve the financial pressure on ENO is somewhat obscure (depending on what speculation you come across and where, it could be any or all of bad politics, bad business or bad blood).

However, the board's current course of action seems rather short-termist - as cuts so often are. There may be instant savings to be had, but over time, at a much greater cost. For example, ENO is under orders to fix itself - so when it does recover and return to 'full operations', what then? Re-hire the talent it cut? Recruit far less experienced personnel - who won't have bonded over years to the near-telepathic level the current choristers demonstrate?

What does seem clear is that the actions make no artistic sense at all. The chorus were recently shortlisted for Bachtrack's Best Chorus award for 'The Force of Destiny'. They won the Chorus Award at this year's International Opera Awards and, together with the orchestra, won the 2016 Oliver Award for Outstanding Achievement in Opera (recognising three productions, 'The Force of Destiny', 'Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk' and 'The Queen of Spades'). To say they are performing above and beyond expectations would be an understatement - most businesses, even in straitened circumstances, do not penalise the high-fliers they rely on.

More by accident than design - it was just how the dates worked out - I watched ENO close out its season this year, seeing the final performances of 'Jenůfa' and 'Tristan and Isolde' on 8 & 9 July. One of my more intense weekends. But between them, the two productions seemed to sum up almost everything I love about ENO, and why they're so vital and important.

Any Wagner opera is a huge undertaking, but a crack team of soloists assembled for 'Tristan and Isolde' - particularly outstanding, I felt, was Matthew Rose, who made King Mark a perfectly judged combination of looming gravitas and baffled compassion. Edward Gardner - a former ENO Music Director - returned to conduct and brought out a similar lush warmth from the orchestra that I remembered from 'Mastersingers' last year.

The production was somewhere between haunt and hoot. It was blessed with stage designs by Anish Kapoor, the artist I know best from his breathtaking sculpture 'Marsyas', which filled the Turbine Hall at London's Tate Modern gallery. Since this was clearly not going to be a 'realistic' interpretation, Kapoor came up with stylised, but not totally surreal, locations that promoted a kind of dream-state as the opera's environment. The ship of Act 1 was shown as triangular divisions across the stage, with Isolde restricted to the left chamber and Tristan the right - with them meeting in the middle section only as the potion is taken.

(Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore, from the ENO website. Act 1 of 'Tristan and Isolde'.)

Kapoor then presented a natural looking rocky outcrop in Act 2, but confined within a perfect circle, a 'mind's eye', that later revolved to become the moon. Only in Act 3 did the staging assume a complete symbolism, as the torn backdrop - which could be Tristan's wound, or even his heart - exploded in red. In a superb coup de theatre, as the wounded Tristan (a tireless Stuart Skelton) moved around the stage, streams of blood-red light poured out of him to 'soak' the white expanse behind him.

I personally had a bit of trouble getting my head around the costumes and direction - it looked like a bold decision had been taken to dress the characters in the past despite the SF feel of the staging. I might not have liked a Cyber-nal that much, but at least I would've seen the logic. Here Mark still felt medieval, Brangane and Kurwenal were obsequious courtiers, Isolde almost Geisha-like and Tristan himself as a kind of Braveheart meets Kurosawa. By mixing up these civilisations/timestreams, it could say something about the universality or mystical transcendence of the story, but I felt it was something the performances had to overcome (which they absolutely did) rather than complement.

The point is, though, that everything about the production - the bits that worked for me, and the far fewer bits that didn't - felt brave, fresh and fearless. It had the spirit of ENO in every note - we're going to take on this huge opera, without compromising the quality of the music in any way, but we're going to attempt something different with it, and try to take you with us. I went with them.

The previous night, 'Jenůfa', was simply my idea of operatic perfection, and another aspect of what ENO can do so well: give us an edgy, slightly punk-ish, ultra-realistic view of a classic. This was raw stuff, and exactly the kind of treatment that I feel will be an essential part of reaching 'the young' (whoever they might be!), the untapped potential lovers of opera that the artform needs to attract.

Mark Wigglesworth, the (sadly) now-outgoing Music Director, conducted Janáček's beautiful but unsettling, even churning, score as if the orchestra were sitting on the edge of their seats. Sweeping moodswings, silences from nowhere - the playing was unbelievably tight, unpredictable, impassioned.

Onstage, everyone rose to the challenge. My stand-out would be Peter Hoare, one of my favourite performers ever since I got back into opera a few years ago, as superb here as ever. His sharp, almost anti-heroic tenor made him unforgettable as Creon in 'Thebans' and Herman in 'Queen of Spades' - all at ENO, where I've been able to follow his career like any self-respecting fan. He's absolutely unafraid to inject his fine voice with psychosis and vitriol as the occasion demands, making him an utterly compelling singing actor - and a brilliantly tormented, yet ultimately loving Laca here. Laura Wilde was a sensitive, low-key Jenůfa, buffeted on all sides, not only by the attentions of Laca, but also the swaggeringly boorish Števa (Nicky Spence showing what a fine actor-singer he is, somehow giving the horrendous man-child moments of 3D sympathy) and the fearsome Kostelnička, brought to austere, lethal life by Michaela Martens.

(Photo credit: Donald Cooper, from the ENO website. Laura Wilde as Jenůfa, Peter Hoare as Laca.)

But the other stars of the evening were the chorus. In their joint portrayal, every worker/local was an individual, each chorus member acting and re-acting constantly. Their movement was utter precision - one riotous outbreak in an early scene coalescing into a massed advance towards the front of the stage... and later on, an incongruous but utterly natural maypole dance. Janáček's feverish repetitions and climaxes allowed all the players - soloists and chorus - to give the audience maximum impact and scale increasingly impressive emotional heights.

One among many of the ENO chorus's assets is its members' ability to step out and make their own mark from time to time. In my relatively short time as an ENO regular, I well remember David Newman's inimitable turn at the piano in 'The Mikado' and a brilliant 'stand-in' performance as the Marquis in 'The Force of Destiny' by Robert Winslade Anderson. In 'Jenůfa', it was the turn of Morag Boyle, who sang and acted with great comic timing as the granny-restraining neighbour, and Claire Mitcher as Barena - another very physical, fully-thought-through characterisation - chain-smoking, body language radiating 'attitude' until shaken into wracked panic as she witnesses Laca's accidental wounding of Jenůfa, singing her testimony while careering or being manhandled across the stage. Both cameos quite unforgettable, and as much a part of my memory of how great the evening was, as the excellence of the soloists.

And so we come full circle, to some extent, with deserved praise for the chorus. ENO are now on their summer break until the 2016/17 season begins. It's an enticing enough range of operas, especially for we relative rookies, but (as has already been pointed out), it's scaled down in scope and size (only to be expected), and hugely under-uses the chorus (madness).

A few months back, we had an intriguing glimpse of an independently roving ENO chorus, when Mark Wigglesworth led them in a trio of performances (across three London churches) of Brahms's 'German Requiem', but in its English version, sung with piano duet rather than orchestra. A magnificent evening, it seemed to say so much about the kinds of events and repertoire the chorus could give us with the appropriate support behind them.

It also got me wondering seriously about why we didn't have such a great treatment of a painfully rare piece (or version of a piece) preserved for posterity. The perfect length for a CD, recordable in ready-made glorious holy acoustics. Absolute no-brainer. And I started to wonder if the ENO board, who can surely be criticised for allowing 'business thinking' to over-ride any artistic concerns, were actually being a bit rubbish at business as well.

Why is there no real 'commerciality' at ENO? A record label would surely be a start. I realise it's possible to look with envy at Opus Arte - the Royal Opera House's long-running label - and accept that the ROH has access to more resources, both financial and technical. But that's not a comparable example. Wigmore Hall Live, the chamber venue's superb performance archive, is - and I read only this week that the Globe are also starting a label to record its musical events in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Even if the operas were beyond recording, or the Coliseum not fit for purpose, the chorus (and possibly orchestra too) could build a body of other works for sale to eager listeners.

But - by the way - the operas can be recorded and filmed in the Coliseum. ENO Screen - the cinema relays - seem to have quietly disappeared (even though 'The Pirates of Penzance' broke the box-office record for opera in UK cinemas), but obviously could be resurrected and used for DVD. And productions are still broadcast on BBC Radio 3 - so audio recordings exist. It pains me to think that by now, we could've had a commercial release on CD of Julian Anderson's 'Thebans', or 'Akhnaten' (the Philip Glass masterpiece, apparently deleted), restored to the catalogue, brought thrillingly to life by this wonderful company.

Maybe there are thorny rights issues involved somewhere (I believe this is partly what scuppers that other potential classical goldmine, the Proms, from releasing more performances), but what are they? ENO have made recordings before, for the 'Opera in English' series of releases on Chandos, so it can be done. Why isn't it now? I would genuinely like to know.

Leaving aside recordings and labels, I'm also curious about the 'ENO brand'. Understandably, the first things many people think of when they hear the word 'brand' are visuals/advertising, and ENO's current 'look and feel' has resulted in some beautiful and arresting poster and programme imagery - but, ironically, the ENO logo itself and the names of the operas being advertised are harder to read. There is no shop at ENO, no merchandise... and as a result, hardly any company presence. Each opera is at risk of becoming an individual, discrete evening - when repeat business depends on people recognising that every time, ENO will give them that electrifying, slightly freer, even more dangerous operatic experience.

I find it more helpful to think of a 'brand' as more like a company or organisation's image. Again, think of the Royal Opera House. They get the seemingly small things right - every document is in the same font, but the posters - with the opera name writ large, bottom centre - vary its colour, size, weight and so on. Those familiar red programmes all feel part of an ongoing, timeless series. But what this all says is luxury, high quality, attention to detail. There is a shop (usually it's outstanding, stacked out with hard to find opera recordings, but its wings are currently clipped during the 'Open Up' refurbishment) - most of what's in it is rather luxurious souvenir fare, and while opera 'merch' is thin on the ground, there's a plethora of Royal Ballet motif fashion items for the young dance enthusiast. Or the Wigmore Hall, again, which is building a younger and wider audience through social media but following through with occasional Twitter 'meet-ups' and cheap ticket offers - emphasising friendliness, inclusivity, accessibility, at a venue that could easily project a more insular atmosphere. Again, it not only has a distinctive, recognisable logo, but it isn't above putting it on a tote bag, or fridge magnet. Its CDs are firmly mid-price, beautifully and consistently designed - and therefore very collectible.

From my years of following rock, jazz and folk artists, I think the classical sphere so often misses one trick after another when it comes to marketing itself. God knows the world has changed since I was in my teens, but I still see evidence of the next generation getting wholly behind 'fandom' - whether it's One Direction or Beyoncé, Doctor Who or the Marvel Universe, or... er... computer game type stuff (*mumbles incoherently*) - all the old hobby-tribes are still out there. I would wear an ENO t-shirt now, with an ENO badge on it. Or sling an ENO bag over my shoulder, covered in doodles made with my ENO pen. Classical music is not 'above' this sort of stuff, nor should it be. I want to be in the ENO gang. I want to buy 'merch', to show my support, and carry free advertising for the company around with me. Others would, too.

In ENO's case, of course, one thing that might trip any idea along these lines at the first hurdle is: you have to spend now to make the gain later. I realise you can't start a record label or produce a range of merchandise with no money. But then: the board are in this for the long game, I trust? This is the kind of thing I would expect to see in a forward-looking business model/strategy, which - presumably - the Arts Council are keen to get their hands on, so they can feel comfortable supporting ENO like they would do any other similar organisation and take them out of 'special measures'..? ENO's financial problems are, of course, not easy to solve and in some respects, a bit mysterious - while they also have great offers, there is an issue with seat pricing overall, and it's not clear to me what part fundraising has paid (if any) to mitigate the cuts.

I've said on several occasions that I write more as a punter than a critic, and I realise that an impartial, paid reviewer would view an individual performance at ENO (and anywhere else) as its own beast: there will be good nights, there will be bad. But there is another angle: supporting the ENO chorus and orchestra - the whole company - through the triumphs and misfires, cheering on every bold, brilliant move - is a lot like following one of the best bands in the UK. It's just that, at the moment, I'm having to wear my t-shirt on the inside.

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