Wait, There is Something Really Wrong With This…..


Picture by Geoff Pugh

This one comes way from left field.  On the day that I read that Maestro Mark Wigglesworth has resigned as Music Director of ENO, I also read this:

ENO head Cressida Pollock’s exclusive manifesto to save her company: ‘I can’t allow it to fail’

Umm, I’ve actually read this thrice.  The first time, I thought I must be in need of more coffee and be mis-reading the context of the piece; the second time made me realise that this is a volatile and questionably dubious position for Cressida Pollock to take – let alone publicly address – and after reading it a third time, I was shaking my head in wonder over its poor timing and the grasping nature of the ideas expressed.

Before I dissect this article, just let me say, that based on what I have read over the last year about the shenanigans at ENO, I actually like Ms. Pollock’s insights and interpretation of the challenges being faced by London’s alternate choice Opera organisation.  But there are a few alarm bells here worthy of interrogation.  Maybe Ms. Pollock wants to raise them?  If so, she has, at the very least, gained my attention.  My analysis here is unquestionably critical.  I think the piece, no doubt for all its best intentions, is severely misjudged.

Firstly, nothing is too big to fail and ENO adopting an imperious position as to its unassailability is contentious at the very least.  Because you don’t want something to happen, doesn’t make it an assured outcome.  Secondly, it’s not a question as to whether it is easy to read headlines and be dismayed for the future of Opera – Opera is in very serious trouble!  It’s in serious trouble globally (and certainly here in the USA) for the very reason that ENO is in the precarious state it finds itself.  It’s not relevant!  It could be – if the imperative for the staging of opera was turned on its head – but it’s not, so it is increasingly sidelined by a disinterested and uneducated public.

If you can’t face that truth, it doesn’t matter what “open conversations” are had about persuading audiences to turn off Netflix or, God forbid, attempt a persuasive argument about the “necessity of experiencing opera”.  It’s merely rhetoric.  No-one actually believes it, and if you adopt such a strategy for overcoming the immense and real imposts as a literal means in safeguarding Opera as an art form, you are unquestionably doomed.

Have you caught onto what I see as very concerning yet?

Ms. Pollock is selling ‘Hope’.  This is a bad position to attempt to argue or reconcile at this point for ENO.  You can only sell hope when there is over-demand.  When demand for product exceeds opportunity to acquire it, then ‘hope’ is a powerful catalyst to drive new business.  But Opera is not sought after.  Yet, for all that, and irrespective of the travails opera-going is currently experiencing, the problem is not the art form.  Similarly, the problem is not the repertoire (well…some of it is, actually).

The problem is fairly and squarely the problem of artistic leadership and executive management at many, many Opera companies who, so far removed from the reality of the immense upheaval and changes occurring in business and revenue modeling in Arts & Entertainment, continue to promulgate operational and financial strategies of a bygone era (that didn’t work very well then either).

But what is their answer? Well, administrators and executive management have a drawer full of ‘catch’ words. Personally, I prefer the term, ‘weasel’ words (as coined by Theodore Roosevelt as it transpires). Increasingly, tripping off the tongue with apparent preparedness, we hear words and phrases such as addressing the need for, ‘audience engagement’ and ‘adapting to change’ being two which, if not ubiquitous and at saturation point in their overuse, have become simply hyperbole.

And now, even Ms. Pollock is using them.  Why is this so disappointing?  Very simply put, hardly anyone who contrives to fall back onto this type of rhetoric and hyperbole ever offers tangible examples about how such vague (and frankly airy-fairy) strategies will be practically implemented – let alone what these strategies will accomplish in practical terms?  But, and this is the important point, if you are going to make these statements, you must provide concrete examples to empower people to support you – because ‘hoping’ that they will believe in you without substance to your promises will inevitably end in tears.

Ms. Pollock, surely you are better than this?  Don’t descend to empty words that sound more like a politician than a very smart executive.

Ms. Pollock states, “ENO is at the centre of the debate because it was founded to be the people’s opera.”  I’m sorry but leaving aside the non sequitur, ENO is not at the centre of its own debate [crisis of identity] because it is promoted as the ‘people’s opera’.  If that is the argument being posited, then it’s time to close up shop based on its stated mission.  ENO is at the centre of the debate because, previously, it has made very bad decisions both artistically and managerially and is consequently facing the fallout of those action-based decisions.

Moreover, don’t blame Lilian Baylis’s vision – albeit, made in a time that no-one could predict the agencies of technological and social change that have fundamentally altered the way we live, interact and communicate with each other.  If the people want a ‘people’s opera’, they will have it; it may just not at all resemble the form or structure that everyone seems so adamant to retain. Conversely, if the people don’t want it, then it will become obsolete.

Next financial year, ENO will receive a third less in public funding (£5m less) than it did three years ago – a cut of approximately 15 per cent in their total operating budget. Ms. Pollock makes it plain that, “The scale of this financial challenge means that we have had to re-examine everything that we do and everything that we want to be.”  Bravo.  The wheels have settled back on the track I think?  No, actually, you haven’t told me what you’re going to re-examine and, as importantly, when you find things that are untenable; as you surely must, you further neglect to provide even a hint as to what type of actions you might consider taking to improve the situation.

My concern is mounting.  This smells increasingly of just another ill-timed ‘Op-ed.’ piece that continues the age-old rhetoric and language used primarily for just this type of situation.

For example, this statement: “Our audience members have so many choices in what to do with an evening – to watch a series on Netflix, to meet friends for dinner, to go to a late night at a museum, or to one of the hundreds of live performances on each night in this city. We should not take their time, or money, for granted. It is our task to persuade them of three things – that opera is the most exciting art form of all, that seeing it live is an incomparable experience and that ENO is where they should see it.”

You will forgive me if I contest this, churlish as it may appear.  What is the most exciting art form of all is irrelevant – and stating it simply pushes people away even further by such assertions.  Moreover, seeing opera live is not an incomparable experience, it is just another experience to the smart-device generation, who do not see the difference between streaming (or broadcast) and live as three different modes of experiential delivery.  They are perceived as one and the same – therefore, they are the same.  It is more important to have strategies to dissuade the smart-device generation that the ‘hoped’ for visceral thrill in luring them to live opera, will actually be achievable and repeatable.

Ms. Pollock is not, or least not yet, an ‘opera buff’ but hopes to be in time.  Really, does it matter in terms of the viability of the business of ENO?  What matters is that their is a finely honed,  3-5 year strategic plan that addresses the myriad issues to be addressed sequentially and vertically.  No company can solve all its problems in one strategic cycle. Ms. Pollock assuredly knows this.  And I bet her strategic plan is plausible.  But when I hear things like “Opera is not expensive.  Opera is not posh. Opera can speak to people in a way no other art form can”, then I become disconcerted and disheartened.

If nothing else, several other art forms I’m sorry to say, are just as effective at speaking to audiences.  This is not threatening, this is the evidence of the ‘hope’ factor upon which your position seems to be predicated.  To prove that any one art form can drive the type of engagement you are espousing proves it can be done.

Do I hear the elephant banging in the closet?  Ah yes, I do.  Opera IS EXPENSIVE and more often than not it IS POSH.  Actually when done really well it is, generally speaking, highly elitist.  And bravo that it is.  God knows, we don’t need any more mediocrity in the Arts masquerading as something greater than self-professing to be.  Celebrate the fact you can do the things that within your organisational capacity and be aspirational!

Ms. Pollock, I can only assume that you have closely examined and interrogated the evolving business models of companies ranging from the National Theatre, to Opera Australia, to commercial producing practices the best of which is epitomised on Broadway and its associated touring practice business models, citing just these few as worthy of study and investigation? There is a great deal to appreciate about the many innovation business practices in these organisations.  None of them has anything to do with targeting cost-savings from indispensible and primary services of musicians and chorus.  In fact, they’re the ones who are irreplaceable.

Once more the problem never seems to reside in the actions and decisions of the administration or management of an organisation.  Equally remarkable is that hardly any company ever admits that it screwed up, and its shortcomings were not a result of the actions of its indispensible employees.  It’s time this was acknowledged not just by ENO but many major-funded Arts organisations.

And finally – and this is my gravest concern – your admission to not knowing what the solution is for ENO.  Personally, my very sincere advice: figure it out fast.


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