The Forced Exile of the English National Opera

Benedict Pignatelli for Distilled Post

Last month it was Bedlam for the English National Opera. It was revealed that the Arts Council of England had slashed ENO’s annual funding, and had created some bizarre demands for them if they wanted any funding at all. The plan has not gone down well - Melvyn Bragg (former editor of ITV) described it as ‘cultural vandalism’, which is one of the more positive responses.

The English National Opera is one of two opera houses in London. It sits in the Coliseum, a stone’s throw from the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Unlike its more famous sibling, ENO is affordable (relatively), often offering free tickets for younger attendees; it also celebrates a reputation for more avant-garde productions. This is in contrast to the Royal Opera House which favours a conventional approach to opera - vast ,impressive, traditional, expensive.

ACE has now decided, seemingly without anyone’s approval or opinion, it is time to move. Rather than its usual £1 million a month in funding, ENO was offered a pitiful £17 million over three years - on the condition they relocate somewhere outside London, specifically up North. Manchester was suggested.

Before you assume this was a carefully thought out, methodical step in the ever delicate attempts at ‘levelling up’, think again. Several senior members of ENO did not find out about this plan until it was published in the news. The funding, now not arriving, was a stipend desperately needed by the opera house who has, like all creative industries, been struggling heavily over the last few years. Dr  Harry Brünjes, the current chair of ENO argued it would cause the death of the company by April.

Levelling up, is there a method to the madness?

The many, many flaws in this last minute plan will be discussed in due course. However, the theory behind the plan does hold some water. The north/south divide is not imaginary, it is very present economically as well as socially - many Londoners have barely travelled outside the capital, and see no reason to: the cities of the North are smaller, colder and poorer. This then creates not only a wealth gap in the country, but also resentment between the North and South.

Boosting industries in the rest of the country, which includes cutting funding for London projects and diverting that money elsewhere, does make sense. Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared it the ‘defining mission’ of his cabinet. Up until now the only city in England to grow economically since Johnson was elected has been London, so the idea of a drastic boost to northern culture could have some validity. The Royal OperaHouse, as stated, is a cherished and traditional cornerstone of the West End, and would face harsh resistance to a plan to move it - the commute of its patrons from Fulham to Manchester just isn’t sustainable. ENO was a softer target. Sir Raymond Gubbay (a key champion of British opera) even wrote negatively about certain aspects of ENO, arguing they consistently under perform, which is largely due to mismanagement. So a change to the company is far from ridiculous.

David Butcher, the chief executive of Manchester’s Hallé orchestra batted away concerns there would be no interest in ENO in Manchester. He believed there would indeed be an appetite for an opera house, regardless of the opera house in Leeds, and his own company as potential competition.

So, the idea of boosting a major northern city with an already developed and successful industry seems like a good idea.So where did it all go wrong?

Too much too soon: all the reasons this won’t work

It seems Manchester MP for culture Lucy Powell found out about the plan while watching the news at home. One would have assumed she would be in on the plan, being a key MP in Manchester arts and culture. Seemingly keen to get on the wheelless, exploding bandwagon, she advocated in favour of the move. Her main argument for people in the North welcoming another Opera house is watching the news and hearing people say ‘I love a bit of opera’. Hopefully some more research and planning went into it, but to be honest it is possible that was the extent of it.

John McGrath, the artistic director ofFactory International (the supposed new home of ENO), said he had heard nothing about the move, which certainly makes it seem like the planning was minimal.

The reaction of Richard Mantle, the general director of Opera North or ENO North as it is known, does not seem to love the plan. He argued moving up North with no notice was “nonsense and an ill-thought-through idea”. He went on to argue that trying to think of a future for ENO with a gun to its head was not conducive.

The plan has had the opposite effect than was intended. Londoners argued the move wouldn’t work, because Manchester is too small, too poor, too uncultured, etc. essentially all the stereotypes ‘levelling up’ was supposed to move away from. This then has had a negative reaction from the Northerners (surprise surprise); Andy Burnham (Mayor ofManchester), issued a Parthian shot, telling ENO ‘If you can’t come willingly, don’t come at all’.

He quite rightly was unimpressed with the attitude of the southerners and their ‘residual, out-of-date attitudes’ towards the North of England. If this move was supposed to unite the fronts, it has done quite the opposite. The research director for the Centre for London,Claire Harding, was pro ‘levelling up’, but only ‘if it is done properly. It must not be seen as an opportunity to create divisions.’advice not heeded, clearly.

It seems Mantle is not opposed in theory with the idea of another Opera house in the Manchester area, it is more the total disorganisation and lack of communication surrounding the project he has qualms with. Similarly the mayor of Manchester could not see the benefit of severely depleting the funding and workforce (most of whom are London based freelancers), of the company and casting them out of the capital: ‘We’ve already got a second-class railway. Do we have to have a second-class opera as well?’


So bizarre has the lack of organisation been, one would almost wonder if ACE even knew ENO North existed in the first place - a company that has been thriving for forty years and is a stone throw away from Manchester, situated in neighbouring city Leeds. Julia Fawcett, the chief executive of the Lowry, was ‘staggered’ by how ill-conceived the decree was. Originally assuming it was the result of long dialogue with ENO, she was astounded that it was a forced scenario that had not been discussed with either party.


Considering the arts industries are still limping through the hangover of the pandemic and the broken leg that is Brexit, the notion of severely cutting funding to an organisation as well respected as ENO is baffling.


What next for British opera?

The influence of ENO on UK Opera cannot be understated - it does outreach to local communities, it welcomes a diverse and inclusive cast and crew, it offers discounted or free tickets regularly. Not to mention the massive amount of revenue London tourism brings in - according toTim Donovan of the BBC, London tourism supports one in seven of all jobs in the capital - 700,000 jobs. ENO is a part of that.


The UK interest in Opera may be small, but causing ENO to close will cause the growing interest in the art form to die with it. Having ENO and the Royal Opera House in tandem, in the same city, works well to give a good mix of opera to those who know and relish traditional opera, and those who are interested in exploring a new art form.


Cutting public funding for ENO would make them less accessible, not more, particularly to low income families. Although the concept of diverting funds and boosting the North is a welcome one, this plan, if you can call it that, was an own goal from the start. An own goal that was not a football but actually a grenade, and it won’t stop exploding. It remains to be seen how Arts Council of England are going to fix their mess.