Many more school trips to the ENO followed in the years that followed. Xerxes, Love for Three Oranges with its scratch cards and other now legendary productions. We have always been made welcome, never intimidated, never talked down and always made to feel at home. I remember the anticipation in the minibus on the way from Cambridge to London and the over-excited discussion on the way back to school about the wonders we had just seen and heard. It planted in me a love of opera and theater that has grown in the more than 30 years since.
As a teenager and as a music student in London I returned to the Colosseum many times and in fact I never saw an opera in any other theater until I was in my 20s. It felt like home then and it feels like home now. The people who work there are warm, fun, welcoming and familiar in the best possible way. My experience has of course changed from being a regular visitor to the balcony seats to a more infrequent visitor to the conductor’s podium in the orchestra pit, but the sense of family and welcome has remained exactly the same. It’s burned into the bricks of the Colosseum and the shared traditions and ancestral wisdom of the wonderful people who work there. (Pictured below by Alastair Muir: Christopher Alden’s radical and breathtaking 2011 production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, conducted by Leo Hussain). They’ve been through a lot of trauma over the last 20 years and the people who stand on stage, sit underneath or work alongside the stage have become experts at handling crises and are still producing art of the highest quality. They are the ones who kept the company alive by compensating for all the mistakes either of their own management teams or beyond. And yes, they are the ones who continue to fly the flag for accessible opera in London.
I was sadly not there to see the performance they gave last Friday night after learning that their core funding had been withdrawn by Arts Council England but I can say with confidence that it will have been so engaging and world class like any other performance they give. Getting on stage and singing or playing to your heart’s content for a few hours after your whole life might have (and without warning) been turned upside down? That’s exactly what they do.
Yes, in the 80’s we were privileged choirboys at a boarding school in Cambridge. Mine was the only non-white face and the only non-British name and the school had a minibus which they could afford to go to London. But I have seen this first contact with opera repeated over and over again in performances over the last few months, with far less “privileged” groups than we were. Introducing, accessing and welcoming children into high culture is invaluable to society. In fact, one of the choirboys who sat next to me on some of my first visits to the Colosseum, the last time I was there, sat on my left as the orchestra’s concertmaster. Without exposure to music and opera at a young age we would not be doing what we are doing now, and the same goes for countless other British musicians, singers, directors, stage managers, technicians and so on. (Pictured below by Bill Knight: Christof Loy’s recent ENO production of Tosca, conducted by Leo Hussain, with Sinéad Campbell-Wallace as Tosca, Noel Bouley as Scarpia and Adam Smith as Cavaradossi). The arts is one of the few sectors in which the UK can still legitimately claim to be a world leader, and economic value goes hand in hand with societal value. But as extraordinarily dedicated arts educators are forced to do more with less, much of the responsibility for providing access to culture has fallen to the arts organizations themselves. And no one has done it as well and with as much commitment as ENO. That’s one of the reasons I don’t believe ACE’s smokescreen about ‘London-centric’ funding or ‘rising up’ (not to mention the £17million figure which, as far as I can tell, I only the withdrawal of essential funds is intended as a distraction). In the case of opera in particular, regional organizations will struggle without strong national organizations. Not only does culture in the UK need to be better distributed, it needs to be better and more distributed. But removing one link in the chain harms the entire chain.
The Royal Opera House is (rightly) focused on being an international organisation, and it needs to remain so if London is to be taken seriously as a global city (even more important in the brave new ‘global Britain’). With the removal of the ‘national’ company, the link between regional and international will be broken and the system will stratify itself out of existence.
Of course, all this is not easy – there are undoubtedly problems with the Colosseum being home to a major national opera company – the lack of backstage space is just one of them – and some structural changes are clearly needed. But in my personal opinion too many times in the past have people tried to solve these problems by trying to focus on “non-opera” things, and sometimes giving the impression (hopefully wrongly) that opera is a Enjoyment for ENO is to be subsidized through musicals and other “commercial activities”. It is by no means a criticism of the people who have tried to ensure ENO’s survival by finding other sources of income, and without whom the company might have long since ceased to exist. But ENO is an opera company and should be proud of it. It doesn’t exist to manage the London Coliseum as a commercial venue, it exists (for now) as a group of people with learned and lived experience of creating fantastic musical theater night after night, to bring accessible culture to the people of the UK, and this is something that has made it excellent for decades. (Pictured below by Pia Clodi: Leo Hussain in rehearsal). It’s difficult to see ACE’s recent attack on it as anything other than an attempt to destroy the ecosystem of serious culture in Britain. If they were serious about “leveling up,” they wouldn’t have slapped touring regional companies (save the worthy but small English Touring Opera) with massive cuts — and let’s not forget that historically, the Arts Council itself banned ENO to tour outside of London and recently told them not to suggest moving outside of London. And if they were serious about having a viable and sustainable arts scene in the country as a whole, there would have been appropriate and meaningful consultation with the entire industry on how that could be accomplished. And I firmly believe that this can be done efficiently and without sacrificing quality or jobs. But it takes proper, knowledgeable and experienced oversight, a quality of leadership to match the quality of the art itself, and a shared plan to ensure regions don’t fall short. And most importantly, knowledgeable and professional directors of companies dedicated to providing serious, meaningful, and life-enhancing musical theater—for all.
I’m fortunate to retain my memories of ENO while working elsewhere, but many of my friends and colleagues who have dedicated decades of their lives (in many cases their entire professional lives) to creating an accessible, world-class culture have won this privilege not. I doubt there are even enough cyber jobs to retrain them all. And, more importantly in the longer term, future generations of British children and young people (or at least those who either cannot afford to go to the Royal Opera or feel they do not belong there) will lose access to something , which can – and does – enrich their lives enormously and enable them to enrich the lives of those around them. “The People’s Opera” may sound like a superficial label, but it also has real meaning, and ENO has worked tirelessly to live up to it. If they and we strive to continue this work, the struggle begins now.