Crisis at English National Opera, but could musicals save the day?
New York used to have two main opera companies, on adjoining sides of the same Lincoln Center plaza: the revered (and still operating) Met, and the leaner, more adventurous New York City Opera, which shut shop in 2013 (and is now being revived under new management). In London, we've also got two international opera houses — the Royal Opera at Covent Garden's Royal Opera House, and English National Opera (ENO) at the London Coliseum.
But while the Royal Opera has its operations ring-fenced by massively generous public subsidy and vast amounts of benefactor wealth, ENO has been subjected to a series of massive funding cuts (losing almost a third of its funding in 2014) and last year saw it put into “special measures” in its relationship with Arts Council England, the statutory body who distribute government funds to the arts. It was removed from the list of national portfolio organizations whose grant levels are guaranteed, and were told by its then acting chief executive Althea Efunshile, “We have serious concerns about their governance and business model and we expect them to improve or they could face the removal of our funding.”
Things have gone from bad to worse since: John Berry, the company's then artistic director, stepped down from running the company in the wake of this damning indictment in July last year, and is yet to be replaced. Last week, Mark Wigglesworth, the company’s much-admired music director, announced he is going, too, after only a year in the post, following a bitter dispute that the company had with its equally admired chorus who threatened a strike after their contracts were renegotiated to part-time work. He had fought against this cut, writing in a piece for The Guardian in February, “I believe a fresh approach will fail if it compromises the company’s experience and expertise. Without the commitment, sense of ownership, love, and pride of the people who are the essence of ENO artistically, we have no right to ask for any curiosity, loyalty, or passion from our audience. ENO’s identity as a team defines its past and will be its greatest asset in protecting its future. Cutting the core of the company – musicians and technicians alike - would damage it irreparably.”
In a letter announcing his resignation to his musicians that he sent on Tuesday (March 22) and has since been made public in the press, he wrote, “The company is evolving now into something I do not recognise, and as hard as I have tried to argue to maintain what I believe to be the fundamental pillars of our identity, I have failed to persuade others of this necessity.”
The irony of this is that it comes at a time when ENO is flying high artistically. Its recent production of Philip Glass' Akhnaten, directed by Phelim McDermott, was a rare sell-out for the 2,550-seat house, with standing-room tickets being sold; and work done on its stage has seen it earn three out of four nominations for the Outstanding Achievement in Opera category for the Olivier Awards that are being presented April 3.
Meanwhile, in another sign of the difficult economic climate the company is operating in, it has (in a move initiated by Berry) thrown its doors open to co-producers Michael Grade and Michael Linnit to collaborations that bring musical theatre back to the theatre (it was once a regular musical theatre in the 40s and 50s, staging the London premieres of Annie Get Your Gun; Kiss Me, Kate; Guys and Dolls; The Pajama Game; and Damn Yankees). Last year Sweeney Todd, with Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson reprising the roles they’ve played at New York’s Lincoln Center, initiated the season, and next week Glenn Close returns to the role of Norma Desmond that she first played on Broadway 22 years ago when Sunset Boulevard begins performances April 1.
Should ENO require further streamlining — or even be forced to find a different, smaller home — could the London Coliseum that it owns re-establish itself as a major musicals house? ENO could earn valuable income from renting it out as a landlord to fund their other work, and London is crying out for large venues capable of housing the biggest blockbusters. Only the London Palladium, Drury Lane and the unloved Dominion come anywhere near in terms of seating capacity.
People, Places and Things has critics up on their feet — literally; could Broadway be next?
The National transferred its production of Duncan Macmillan's play People, Places and Things to the West End's Wyndham’s Theatre this week, where it opened officially March 23. Denise Gough reprised her performance as an alcoholic, drug addict actress seeking recovery through rehab and the 12-step program, and earned a standing ovation — even from the critics. As Fiona Mountford, reviewing it for the Evening Standard, wrote in a five-star notice, “It’s rare to see a group of critics, cynical devils that we are, rise to their feet for a sweeping standing ovation on a press night. But this wasn’t any old opening, or any old leading actress. For my money, Denise Gough gives the greatest stage performance since Mark Rylance in Jerusalem.”
There is, inevitably, talk now of it following the National's Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (which has just announced its Broadway closure in September) to a Broadway run. Speaking to the Evening Standard after the opening-night performance, Gough commented, “It’s not often an actress gets a job like this and I’m not involved in any other conversations at the moment but yes it would be amazing to go to Broadway. You can’t buy into the hype but it is really lovely and I’m so proud that we have done this play and that it has touched people the way that it has.”
Ivo van Hove: from Broadway to the Barbican
Belgian director of the moment Ivo van Hove — who last year saw his production of A View from the Bridge transfer from London's Young Vic to Broadway and also direct the new David Bowie musical Lazarus at New York Theatre Workshop — is currently in previews with another Miller revival, The Crucible on Broadway, opening March 31.
And no sooner will that be open than he'll be back in London to put his 4.5-hour Dutch production of Kings of War — adapting Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III into a single play in which each monarch is represented as a modern-day political leader — into the Barbican Theatre, running April 22-May 1. Performed in Dutch with English surtitles, it is produced by Toneelgroeop Amsterdam, the company van Hove runs who previously brought Roman Tragedies, Antonioni Project and Scenes from a Marriage to the Barbican.
In an interview with the Evening Standard, van Hove spoke of the contemporary resonances between Shakespeare and the current Republican nominations race. “The Republican presidential debate is like a Shakespeare drama, the way they call each other a liar in public. Shakespeare shows how power for power’s sake is useless.”
Olivier announces star roll call of presenters
The Olivier Awards - the London theatre industry equivalent to the Tonys, presented by the industry to the industry - this year celebrate their 40th anniversary, and the ceremony April 3 at London's Royal Opera House will feature a line-up of past Olivier winners as guests and award presenters, including choreographer Matthew Bourne, actor-director Daniel Evans (soon to be represented in London by the transfer of his Sheffield production of Show Boat), Lesley Manville (opening next week on March 29 in Long Day's Journey into Night at Bristol Old Vic, co-starring with Jeremy Irons), Vanessa Redgrave, Zoë Wanamaker and former Broadway dancer Leigh Zimmerman, who is now resident in London.
Also appearing at the Oliviers will be Glee’s Amber Riley — who’s coming to the West End later this year to play Effie White in the London premiere of Dreamgirls at the Savoy Theatre — and Game of Thrones star Kit Harington, about to star in Dr. Faustus in the West End.
For further news….
Stay tuned to Playbill.com — and follow me on Twitter here, @shentonstage, for rolling news updates as they happen!