Sunday 6 October 2019

The right Response: giving ENO's new writers' scheme a chance

Do you sometimes find yourself reading a feature or article that has you spluttering a little in disbelief, leaving you desperate to return a comment or find some way of putting the opposite view across, as soon as you can? (Actually, in the current political climate, that might happen to some of us every five minutes, but never mind.) This, as usual, is about music and, as you might expect with me if you visit Specs regularly, concerns English National Opera ('ENO').

Full disclosure for anyone unfamiliar: to me, 'ENO' is its performing company - the ensemble of Chorus and Orchestra. Of course it is. I am a paying customer who enjoys writing about music; not a critic, nor a commentator on the music industry. I also know that I'm artist-led, and if I have a 'favourite band' in the classical world, it's the ENO Chorus and Orchestra: I feel that whatever type of opera or production I might see at ENO, they have never actually let me down. In particular, the Chorus have gifted me some of the most adventurous, glorious, affecting, overwhelming and - importantly - skilfully-acted experiences I've had at the opera.

However, ENO is of course business as well as pleasure. Behind the scenes, things have rarely been rosy in recent memory. Financial mismanagement, Arts Council 'special measures', high-level but short-lived appointments ... all of which seem to have resulted in two key outcomes. First (particularly under the previous regime), terrible uncertainty and stress for the ensemble, who were and are the least deserving of such angst. Second, an ongoing rift between the opera media establishment - primarily critics - and the ENO administration that seems to show no sign of healing.

I know some people online see me as just an ENO 'cheerleader'. When it comes to the singers and players, I accept that label proudly. When it comes to behind the scenes, not necessarily (for example, I openly bemoaned the shocking treatment of the Chorus in the wake of the special measures). The point is, I don't confuse the two. When others willingly do this, I see the harm, and my hackles rise.

I've written before, for example, about a critic using up word count for a review, by attacking the ENO top brass of the time and openly advocating the company be shut down and re-formed. Personally, I don't think criticism exists in a moral bubble: if you reach the point where you hate the way a company is run so much, you are explicitly calling for job losses and damage to livelihoods, you should probably start focusing more on what's happening onstage than off.

The friction continues, partly I believe because the current CEO, Stuart Murphy, is an enthusiastic mouthpiece for the company on social media - so makes himself a target. Murphy's background is not in opera, meaning that some have been dismissive of his appointment from the start. The impression one gets as an observer is of an insoluble disconnect: a certain group who deride anything the incomer/upstart says or does; and a hands-on new broom who publicly bristles at the constant brickbats.

Obviously, there are misfires (ENO's own 'water-gate', where outraged attendees were made by apparently rather unsubtle security staff to pour away water from any unsealed bottles - the horror!). And some initiatives simply come up against pure cynicism - for example, the recent scheme to offer free balcony tickets to under-18s on Saturday nights drew a volley of snark about unsold seats in the Coliseum.

Ah - seats in the Coliseum. This brings us bang up to date. The most recent ENO scheme comes in two linked parts:
  • Critics will no longer receive the offer of a 'plus-one' ticket when they attend to review a show. (For context, taking a guest for free is clearly a 'perk', and recognised by critics as such. However, these extra tickets are so common among arts institutions that ENO is singling itself out with this decision.)
  • Instead, ENO is offering regular tickets to new or budding writers - chosen from a group of applicants - to try and hone their reviewing skills and have their pieces published on the company's website. This part of the scheme is called 'ENO Response'.
You can imagine how many critics have reacted to point one.

Like the scheme itself, my own reaction has two distinct parts. I'm pretty neutral on the 'plus-one' issue: there is an argument that, as ENO has been singled out for bad finances in the past, it could make a solo stand on cutting down on freebies. However, this doesn't wash, as one of Murphy's marketing initiatives has been to invite celebrities to ENO who then talk online about their lovely evening at the opera - hopefully reaching legions of potentially interested followers.

The thing is, the Coliseum really is very, very hard to sell out. There's room for everyone - critics, guests, celebs, the paying audience (lest we forget) and now the ENO Response review team. In itself, I think ENO Response is a fantastic move. You might say - "well, you're an amateur music writer, you would think that". Precisely. It is an unconventional, slightly outside-the-box idea. More of this sort of thing. (And more a little later.) Detractors pounced on it immediately - isn't this taking the expertise out of opera writing? How could these rookie reviewers be impartial? To which the reply is surely: we don't know. It's a new idea. Let's wait and see.

Sadly, I think that Murphy was mistaken in linking these two actions - which could easily have been presented as quite distinct. There was no need to frame it as ENO Response (along with the slebs) 'taking the tickets away' from the critics. It could only maintain any ongoing bad feeling. If a point was being made, I feel it has backfired - and now the genie is out of the bottle.

This season, ENO are running an unusual series of operas all based around the Orpheus myth. One critic, who seems to have grudgingly liked quite a lot about the opening performance of 'Orpheus and Eurydice', instead decided to tweet about how much he hated the refurbished foyer and champagne reception. I read a review today of 'Orpheus in the Underworld' which claimed that ENO routinely murdered operetta - citing poorly-received productions of 'The Merry Widow' and 'The Bat', but somehow neglecting to mention its extremely popular 'Iolanthe' from last season. So, I worry that in the eyes of the critics, ENO are facing another phase of doing nothing right.

But what moved me to anger - and ultimately to write this post - was an opinion piece in the latest issue of BBC Music Magazine. I won't name the writer or quote at too great a length (I feel that if you want to read chapter and verse after this, it's only fair you buy the magazine). But I believe it crosses a line, and should be called out for it.

Understandably, the feature goes through some of the objections I've mentioned above. It uses words like 'vindictive' and 'hostile', and suggests that ENO is opposed to a 'free press'. (For balance, I think we need to remember that it's the guests who can't come for free anymore, not the critics.)

Then the writer goes into out-and-out pettiness. The ENO Response writers are due to receive feedback from Lucy Basaba, who runs a website called Theatre Full Stop. Choosing sitting ducks for targets, our correspondent selects some examples of what they feel is bad writing from the website, and harumphs them onto the page, as though that somehow debunks Basaba's entire editorial or mentoring abilities. They also overlook the fact that ENO has chosen someone independent to do this - an important point, I'd have thought.

Then there's the false 'it is me?' reverse arrogance. For example: "am I just an old fuddy-duddy, imagining there should be a link between opera criticism and a working knowledge of opera?" They follow this with a conveniently ill-judged bit of promotion from Murphy about wanting people to "review opera more emotionally" - which they then dismiss as "superficial twaddle". They say that ENO's management reckon they can bypass critics in favour of "sycophantic bloggers and self-generated hype". I will also quote this sentence in full: "Don't pretend to be training new opera critics, just because you are giving away free tickets to amateurs, then putting their grateful effusions on your own website."

Let's leave aside the fact that, for someone who scorns emotion in music writing, this person is getting considerably exercised. But are they really so disdainful towards ENO that they feel the need to slag off anyone associated with it, in particular up and coming scribes who are hopefully nurturing twin passions for writing and opera?

The piece has acute tunnel vision, but with no light at the end of it. Where to start?
  • ENO does have an outreach mission, remember. It might suit critics to believe ENO are just 'pretending', but if ENO Response runs as described, they are actually arranging coaching for new writers. It's not a cruel hoax. Let's not forget that all organisations ideally carry out this sort of thing in such a way that will also reflect well on them. Opera Holland Park were rightly praised for the film where they introduced a group of football fans to opera - cannily taking them to a Royal Opera House performance rather than their own back yard - and of course it was both a genuine and sincere barrier-busting exercise AND spectacular PR for Opera Holland Park.
  • Encouraging new writers is not a bad thing. I thought we were supposed to be concerned that audiences for classical music weren't young and vibrant enough. I thought we were supposed to be worried about music and arts education - let alone critical thinking - being squeezed out of the school curriculum? So, if our education system won't do anything ... ENO: "Let's bring on some new, exciting writers." Establishment: "I hardly think that's appropriate."
  • Tarring a wide group of people with the same brush is a bad thing. "Sycophantic blogger"? Enchant√©.
  • Did this critic in particular never start out? Or did they spring into action fully-formed, with all their opera knowledge? Is it really so awful that this lucky group of people will get to work on their music writing on the job, with what amounts to some financial help? It will be worth it if it only aids them in finding their voices. After all, there are lots of ways to write about music, not just criticism. When I've been asked about my blog, I never use words like 'review' or 'criticism', because I'm not trying to do what critics do. For me, it is about a head and heart response, or examining my own thoughts and opinions about what I've seen or heard - I usually call Specs a 'cultural diary', and once referred to it in a talk as 'learning in public'. It's a way of communicating recommendations, enthusiasms and - yes - emotions to people. If some of the Response writers decide they want to do that, that would also be fine. Much like the Coliseum - there is room for everyone.
Deadlines no doubt playing a part, the Music Magazine piece must have been handed in a while ago now, while the first ENO Response reviews have only just appeared on the website. They are thoughtful, considered - and by no means sycophantic - reactions to the show: light years away from the "grateful effusions" predicted by our sneering columnist.

If ENO Response continues in the same vein, it could achieve something really good - which makes it worth trying. I like to think that the trainee writers could feel they can approach the professionals for advice, too, without fear of being rugby-tackled into the orchestra pit. I hope the critics remember that some of these rookies will have been following their work and look up to them as writers to emulate. Assuming that absolutely everyone involved - the professionals, the amateurs, the ENO board - cares about the future of opera and music writing, that's the real way forward.

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