Sunday, 1 February 2015

Where next for ENO?

The possibility of a new era dawning in Nikolaus Lehnhoff's excellent production of Parsifal for ENO
Image: Richard Hubert Smith
I thought several times – maybe I should have thought a few more – before starting to write something on the ‘ENO debate’. I know little about the internal politics, which is not to say that they are unimportant, but shall leave them to those, whoever they might be, who know more. I do, however, have some thoughts concerning what one might consider the more fundamental issues surrounding English National Opera, some of them sharpened – I hope – by discussion on Twitter this afternoon. They are not intended to dismiss opposing viewpoints – unlike, for instance, one newspaper critic whom I noted haughtily dismiss those questioning him on such issues as ‘a snooty, elitist & reactionary generation of younger critics’.  (Some might take such dismissive language to be more than a little ‘snooty, elitist & reactionary’ in itself; but then, some newspaper critics take far more kindly than others to other audience members, be they musicians, academics, enthusiasts, first-timers, whoever, daring to voice their own opinions.) However, I shall naturally argue my own points rather than those of others, who are well able to speak for themselves.

First comes the ‘language issue’. This is, I fear, a serious problem. No serious research seems to have been done on this, so all arguments, mine included, tend towards the anecdotal. (And that includes asking actual audiences: of course they are less likely than others to mind opera in translation, since they have actually paid to attend such performances, whereas those who do not like the idea will more often than not have stayed at home.) I certainly tend very much to preferring the original language, although some translations are admittedly preferable to some others, and some languages are much more accommodating to translation than others. However, I do not stay away on account of translation.

Many people to whom I have spoken do, though, and they are not necessarily ‘snooty, elitist & reactionary’. Indeed, some of the friends I have in mind are people who will listen to quite a bit of music, probably to Radio 3 more often than I do, but who attend far fewer performances. For them, hearing opera in translation will generally ‘sound wrong’, so they shun ENO, save for occasional performances of English opera. That is not to say that their judgement is right or wrong, but let us not presume that translation somehow attracts new audiences, or that it does not have some stay away. I can certainly say that I have never met anyone who stayed away from a performance at, say, Covent Garden, on account of its being in the original language, but I have met many who have been dissatisfied by translation there and many more who avoid ENO on account of its English-language policy.

No one, so far as I am aware, is insisting that any company should never perform works in translation. The dogmatism seems to be entirely on the other foot. Moreover, it seems a peculiarly misplaced dogmatism, redolent, doubtless intentionally, of the wilder reaches of UKIP, to insist on English in a city and, increasingly, a country in which large swathes of the audience have other languages as their mother tongues. A more democratic approach would arguably be to stage works (often, not necessarily always) in the original, and to provide back-of-seat translations for those who wish to see them in languages from English to French to Bengali, catering for tourists and migrants alike. Expensive? Doubtless, but given the amount of time, energy, and money spent on questionable ‘access’ schemes, I suspect it would actually save money, as well as affording a more genuinely – as opposed to ‘box-tickingly’ – welcoming experience.    

To those who claim that funding is and will always be contingent on linguistic ‘distinctiveness’, it is difficult to respond otherwise than: ‘pull the other one’. The Arts Council, or ‘Arts Council England’ as I suppose we must now call it, does not fund a single symphony orchestra, even in London. There are plenty of other, more relevant ways to offer operatic pluralism than to insist that it must be through the medium of translation. (The Royal Opera, after all, does not always perform works in the original.) There are plenty of works desperately deserving of staging which are unlikely to be performed in the foreseeable future at Covent Garden. Be they Baroque, contemporary, or even nineteenth-century (Die Feen, anyone?), there is plenty of room for distinctiveness in that respect. There is likewise plenty of room with respect to staging. Despite welcome changes under Kasper Holten’s directorship of the Royal Opera, one would still hesitate to think of the company as offering much in the way of what is more experimental; many of the great directors of our time, for instance Calixto Bieito, Peter Konwitschny, or Hans Neuenfels, have still to present work for the ROH. Two out of those three have at ENO, to widespread acclaim; why not build upon such achievement? Christopher Alden's A Midsummer Night's Dream and David Alden's Peter Grimes showed the company at its superlative best, reassessing English works and ensuring that we should never think of them in the same way again.

Moreover, there would be nothing wrong with having a certain emphasis, so long as it did not tend to the parochial, upon English (or British) opera: a Blow to Birtwistle season, interspersed with interesting new work would again appeal far beyond present audiences. But let us not get hung up on the ‘English’ or ‘National’ part of the organisation. What matters is great art, wherever it may come from. That goes for works and performers alike. The last thing we want, surely, is to aid any UKIP tendency in our cultural midst. ‘Fish and chips are served at this holiday resort’ should be reserved for a Farage Hall offering ‘revivals’ of antediluvian stagings with ‘pretty frocks’ and the like. The rest of us might then be able to concentrate upon something more artistically worthwhile.

Ultimately, and as with all generalisations there will be many exceptions to this, it seems to me that part of the problem is generational. Many older audience members think fondly of a time without surtitles, in which they savoured the apparently perfect diction of Valerie Masterson, et al. Quite apart from the usually-implied criticism of today’s artists – do we really think that contemporary singers do not care about the words? – and even apart from the tendency perhaps to remember the best of what they heard and not the worst, or even the indifferent, that is not necessarily going to help us today. The Coliseum remains an albatross for the company. Selling out such a house is most likely an entirely unrealistic expectation for much interesting work. Moreover, seats too far away from the stage offer distinct visual and aural challenges. Were it possible to achieve, a move away from its West End ‘home’ might liberate ENO from the tyranny of a (too?) fondly remembered past, from the building’s associations with ‘all must be in English’, and from the questionable practice of placing two of the country’s – and let us remember that we are not just dealing with London – opera companies so close to each other. Might not a more flexible approach to venues in London, or indeed a more suitable London home, combine with a greater willingness and ability to tour? (Few readers will need reminding of the heroic efforts of English Touring Opera, often met with very great success indeed in performance.)

And if, as has sometimes been alleged, prevent that, the policies of funding bodies then they need to be put right too. Relying upon outmoded dogmas of whatever stripe, let alone upon mere sentimentality, will not secure a bright future for ENO. Thinking of its future, not as inextricably linked to ‘nights with Reggie’ at ‘the Coli’, but as a properly adventurous, cosmopolitan, internationalist future might yet help. Much good work has been done in that connection; I certainly do not need to imply any great novelty to what I am suggesting. By all means honour the past, just as we do with old recordings, but it and they should never prevent new Masters - we shall soon have an ENO Meistersinger/Mastersinger - from coming forward. May the best be built upon, and that from which we have moved on – which may well have worked wonderfully in a monoglot era before surtitles – at the very least be called into question.

(With particular thanks to Hugo Shirley and Anna Picard, since what I have said draws heavily on earlier conversation with them.)


Jonathan said...

Sound. A few, fairly random points.
I haven't been to ENO in ages - Coli doesn't help, and it's actually more expensive in absolute terms than ROH for a decent seat. Why they decided to take it on I do not know.

Language - As you said, technology has moved on. The 'opera in English' was in place before Surtitles. Performing traditions change. German houses and record companies used to do Mozart / Da Ponte in German. I can cope with mainstream European languages in original with subtitles to help along. Russian could go either way - there is something about it that works in the original. I think Slavonic could 'go well' in English but I'm no expert.

Perhaps it's now also elitist to expect an audience to do some preparation rather than turn up with 'I've paid, now entertain me' type attitudes. I despair.

Keep up the good work.

DESR said...

Why the swipe at Reginald Goodall, if swipe it was? I know 'My Night with Reg' is on in the West End but is that the sole reason for the connection?

I completely agree with the thrust of what you say but the idea that the laudable origins of ENO's English language policy are now akin to the 'UKIP-isation' of opera provision is really not justified. It is what is now called outreach, or getting new bums on old seats. Without that meaning a shoddy or second rate product!

Mark Berry said...

It certainly wasn't intended as a swipe at Goodall, just an acknowledgement that that is what one often hears from those who have long supported ENO.(For what it is worth, I have never quite understood what the fuss was about in RG's case, but I suspect that may be a matter of only knowing his work through recordings, and even then, not very well.)

I quite agree concerning the laudable origins of the vernacular policy, but times have changed. My point, or rather one of them, was that we should not blithely assume that new audiences will now be attracted, or best catered for, by it.

DESR said...

A Night with Reggie was itself quite something, as the recordings alone aver. The Tristan he conducted at Welsh National Opera in 1979 with Linda Esther Gray, the Parsifal Act III Prom in 1987...In preparation for Saturday's ENO Meistersinger I am listening to the '68 Mastersingers from Sadler's Wells, first because it is wonderful on all levels (klang, diction et al); and second, because this recording uses the translation of Frederic James which in modified and modernised form they will be using on Saturday.

It would be great to have Met-style back-of-seat multi-lingual titles, but in the absence of this, a crisply articulated performance in English is no bad thing. And English is a force for (a degree of) unity given the pluralism of London now.

Andrew Shore is singing Beckmesser in the new production. He famously asked for the subtitles to be turned of when he was singing. Will this happen again, or just amusing moments?

Mark Berry said...

I'd be interested to hear back from you re Andrew Shore (such a fine artist, in the very best ENO tradition!) I won't be going until a couple of weeks later, a friend's wedding having altered my original plans!

I need to give Goodall a proper try. I still haven't yet listened to the ROH Parsifal I bought (at a very eminent Wagnerian's suggestion) quite some time ago. Sadly, I find it more and more difficult to make the time properly to listen to recordings, although I think that is partly a consequence of living in London and therefore attending many more performances than once I did.

Interestingly, the Komische Oper in Berlin is now relaxing its German-only policy, though maintaining it as a general principle. I mention it, since it has a variety of language choices on the backs of seats - including, laudably, Turkish.

DESR said...

I heard and saw Shore singing Alberich in the rather uninteresting Bayreuth Ring of 2007-11. He is indeed a great artist. I hope and pray that his Beckmesser will be one for the ages.

The ROH Parsifal is well worth a hearing. Even better is a recording of the dress rehearsal (though interrupted at times) with Frick as Gurnemanz, coming out of retirement to sing the role.

The Wagnerian said...

I have little to add - indeed unsure why I am attempting to apart from being somewhat delirious from a nasty bout of flu.

However, these things are strangely very personal. I for example, can only listen to Wagner, Strauss and Mozart in English (the fact that list includes Cosi, etc must mean that is not due to the original language. I wonder if it is something to do with the quality of the original text?) But much else simply sounds terrible. Verdi, in english, for example often seems to sound like G&S to me.

I do think there is a place for opera in translation however, although I am unsure that any house - including ENO - should concentrate only on such performances.

The one thing that i am certain of is that I speak - and make suggestions - to many people who are new to opera. In general, they are completely uninterested as to whether it is in English translation. It is simply a subject that never arises.

However, all of this debate is, I would suspect, pointless. ENOs management reminds me of an old maiden aunt of lore (male or female - you know these archetypes) completely stuck in its ways, although, just occasionally trying to be "hip with the kids".

Sadly, however, this is reflective of opera in London in general. It all seems so stuck in the late 70/80s.

It is also one of the reasons I attend to little opera in the capital

Horace Cope said...

ENO been in serious problems for many years - long as I can remember - many, many years ago (early 80s) we lived next door to the finance director of a large construction company, who was sent in to sort out ENO from its financial shambles at the time !

I think this time, the problems are much greater - it seems that the arts Council is no longer willing to pay for a second producing house in London for opera. I think it is safe to argue that ENO has done at least as well if not better than ROH in terms of productions. The problem comes because basically they are always the bridesmaid's never the bride and great productions such as provided by Terry Gilliam never reach the same heights as they would have done if they had been at the Royal Opera. The arts Council probably reckon they could fill the hole left by ENO going under by bunging a few extra quid to the touring companies to do some London performances. Regular performances by Glyndebourne Touring, English touring Opera and Welsh National Opera and possibly Opera North would probably more than fill the gap left by ENO. And cost less than the current subsidies.

To quote one recent reviewer the Royal Opera has served up a diet of pretentious or ugly productions (in some instances, both), but still managed to sell out the house based on star casting – an option not open ENO.

Opera in the vernacular was all the rage in the 50s and early 60s, the Royal Opera gave it up because they could no longer get people to sing in English. For this production of Meistersinger, you have to get something as can commit to learn 5000 words in a new translation (or least newish) which are of no further use the moment the run is over.

At present, all I can see continual insistence on singing absolutely everything in English does is restrict your casting options. I do not think one can have any particular objections on musical grounds to singing in other languages. After all, I think Wagner's operas were routinely sung in Italian during his own lifetime. Post the First World War Wagner was routinely sung in English at Covent Garden and in the 1950s.

I think if they want to survive in their present form, i.e. in a permanent home in London, then basically they will have to adopt the model of an American regional city opera company. Reliance on family friendly brought-in productions - core repertory, Boehme, Tosca, Madame Butterfly etc etc in original languages to attract passing trade. The odd coproduction with another house in a receiving capacity. Dispense with a permanent orchestra and chorus and use bought in resources. If any of this sounds unmanageable a lot of this is much of what Welsh National Opera (and others) do and they seem to cope quite well.