English National Opera, based in central London since 1968, has announced that from 2029 it will have a new home in Greater Manchester.
The decision follows a threat by Arts Council Engand to remove its grant-funding entirely, unless it took itself out of London – later modified to result in a grant cut over 2024-2026 on condition that it sought a base away from the Coliseum, the huge West End theatre that has been both its primary performance venue and operating base.
In recent weeks the company has announced substantial forthcoming cuts to its musician payroll and has lost its music director, Martyn Brabbins, who resigned in protest. In October Sir Mark Elder, music director of the Hallé and formerly of ENO itself, along with Edward Gardner (another former ENO music director) and Sir Antonio Pappano of the Royal Opera House, wrote a letter to The Times saying that the cuts will lead to the company’s “demise” and “killing off of the art form”.
The announcement that Greater Manchester has come out over other bidders Liverpool, Bristol, Nottingham and Birmingham has been made with all the usual panegyrics to a glorious artistic future from ENO’s interim CEO, Jenny Mollica, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, Manchester City Council leader Bev Craig, City Mayor of Salford Paul Dennett, ACE chief executive Darren Henley – and purring noises from the bosses of Factory International (which runs the new Aviva Studios in Manchester) and The Lowry in Salford – but it leaves questions unanswered about how the plan will develop.
What will become of what’s left of the ENO orchestra and chorus? No other opera company in England employs an orchestra purely for its own stage productions – the Royal Opera shares the Royal Opera House orchestra with the Royal Ballet, Glyndebourne uses London-based bands, and Opera North’s orchestra has a second role as a concert orchestra around Yorkshire and beyond. In Manchester, of course, there are the Hallé, the BBC Philharmonic, the freelance-based Manchester Camerata and other bodies already in existence. Indeed, Hallé conductors from Sir Charles Hallé himself and including Sir John Barbirolli and Sir Mark Elder, have all expressed a hope at one time or another that their orchestra might find a role in Manchester-based opera productions.
ENO is said to expect to continue to own and manage the Coliseum in London, and is clear that it will continue to have a “substantial” annual opera season there, while in Greater Manchester it will deliver “performances, wellbeing and learning activity with multiple partners and venues across the city-region”. Though unclear what that will mean in practice, it is being taken to indicate that the company won't have a single theatre as its performing centre, but nonetheless leaves open the possibility of a purpose-built administrative and rehearsal home at some stage, or perhaps a base in one or other of Aviva Studios or The Lowry – temporary or long-term.
Jenny Mollica says: “We look forward to embarking on new adventures with partners, artists and audiences across Greater Manchester as we create a range of operatic repertoire at a local, national and international scale,” and Andy Burnham talks of “groundbreaking opera… new collaborations… and… award-winning learning and wellbeing programmes” being in prospect. The emphasis on innovation and taking work across Greater Manchester has been taken by some to indicate that performance venues will be found outside central Manchester and Salford, where the 1,600-seat Aviva Studios auditorium known as “The Hall”, and The Lowry’s Lyric Theatre, with 1,700 seats, are the only ACE-supported theatres capable of housing the sort of shows that ENO has offered in the past. But where are the other stages? Does it mean there will be different strands of work for different places? Dave Moutrey, director and chief executive of HOME and director of culture for Manchester City Council, is talking about “the dual tracks planned by ENO for the next stage of its development”.
Opera companies of any size need not only facilities to rehearse (which can be borrowed or hired) but also somewhere to store sets, props and costumes so productions can be revived from to time and possibly offered to others to use. Will the Greater Manchester-based ENO have those, or will there be effectively two branches of the company, one serving London audiences and one in the North? Julia Fawcett, boss of The Lowry, said on TV yesterday there was a possibility of “co-productions” with ENO, so maybe there is a hint of something there; and John McGrath, chief exec of Factory International, said he was looking forward to developing a “number of exciting new co-productions together” and to ENO involvement in Factory Academy, the venue’s ambitious training and skills programme.
Have they done the sums in terms of ticket income? It’s not the first time Manchester politicians or entrepreneurs have sought to establish opera in the city. Hallé himself tried it in 1854-55, before he even founded his own orchestra (using the Theatre Royal in Peter Street, now unoccupied), and failed; and attempts to bring the Royal Opera to Manchester’s Palace Theatre as a “second home” have been made twice before. In 1981 and 1983, Sir John Tooley, boss of the Royal Opera House, sent complete productions to Manchester, but was said to have commented at the time that it would have been cheaper to take the audience to London and put them up in hotels. And from 2008-2010 the city council had a plan for a Royal Opera “home” at the Palace, quoting a feasibility study which assumed substantial numbers of people would commute regularly from Cumbria and other distant places to see performances. It was quietly abandoned.
How will Opera North – a large independent company with its own venue, rehearsal and storage facilities in Leeds – be affected? It began as “English National Opera North” and has until now had generous treatment from Arts Council England to bring high-quality productions on tour in the North of England with virtually no competition. New boss Laura Canning is expressing optimism and talking of “working closely” – but will Opera North find itself constrained to join in ENO’s plans, or indeed to be taken over?