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.)