Earlier today, when Arts Council England announced their funding allocations for 2023-26, there was no doubt as to which was to be the most eye-catching decision for the opera world: English National Opera is no longer to be part of the National Portfolio. They have transitional funding for three years at under half their previous level, with a strong push for them to move away from London, perhaps to Manchester, no doubt under the influence of the clear directive from former Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries that money should be transferred from London to the regions.

London Coliseum, home of English National Opera
© Wikimedia Commons | User:Colin

There were other significant shifts: big cuts for Welsh National Opera and Glyndebourne, a smaller percentage (but bigger absolute) cut for The Royal Opera, increases for English Touring Opera, Birmingham Opera Company.

So let’s take a look at the numbers.

First, lets look at the overall amount of funding: the total annual funding for the entire portfolio will be £446 million, a 15% increase on what those organisations received in the previous year. (Some of this comes from organisations like ENO who have been deleted from the portfolio – ACE haven’t summarised these, suggesting that journalists “do their own research”.) Here are some observations:

Firstly, there is a substantial transfer of funding away from opera (11% down), most of which has gone to dance (12% up). In addition, The Royal Opera, which does both and isn’t included in those, is 13% down.

Secondly, the profile of the opera funding represents levelling down rather than levelling up. Two companies who tour the regions, Glyndebourne and Welsh National Opera have lost 52% and 36% of their funding respectively. English Touring Opera’s funding is increased, but that’s from a smaller base; Opera North’s is flat. Birmingham get a small increase.

A couple of opera companies join the portfolio with grants that are small but welcome: OperaUpClose, who tour with small scale productions with reduced orchestration and Pegasus Opera Company, whose raison d’être is their diversity agenda.

The public response from The Royal Opera has been statesmanlike – it can be paraphrased as “we are grateful for the funding we will receive; we are dismayed at its reduction; we will do our best”. It’s only fair on ACE to point out that in spite of the cuts, The Royal Opera’s £22m of funding remains at a quarter of the total for opera and dance together. Whether or not that’s fair is highly debatable: should we be unstintingly supporting one of the country’s flagship institutions, or are we concentrating power more than we should? I’ll leave that to you and your opinions.

Welsh National Opera haven’t commented yet, but they must be apoplectic: £2.2m of cuts in spite of maintaining high artistic standards, a geographical profile that is clearly regional (oddly, the ACE data describes them as “Midlands”) and an exemplary record of community engagement.

The orchestra pit at the London Coliseum
© Wikimedia Commons | User:Colin

But let’s look at the single most obvious opera headline, the demise of ENO in its present form. In all honesty, London operagoers have seen this one coming for a long time. There’s been a great deal of regret because of some of ENO’s illustrious past: I remember the days not all that long ago of being utterly blown away by Parsifal with Stuart Skelton and Sir John Tomlinson. But it’s now been a long time since an ENO main stage production could have been classed as unmissable (with the possible exception of The Handmaid’s Tale this April). Too many productions have pleased neither the press (which one can argue doesn’t matter all that much) or the ticket-buying public (which does). That’s forced them into producing less opera and relying more on the summer musical, leaving one wondering what their mission statement should really be.

As far back as 2017, Stuart Skelton was warning that ENO’s audience was bleeding away, finding it mind-boggling that there was a whole heap of repertoire in English that ENO wouldn’t use. In my opinion, ENO cannot succeed if it’s highest ambition is to be a “we try harder” copy of The Royal Opera with the quirk of doing operas in translation. And it’s hard to find anyone with a good word to say about the London Coliseum as an opera venue.

With a combined population of over a million for Manchester and Liverpool, it seems completely reasonable to suggest that there should be an opera company there – although one notes that two of the companies who tour there are Glyndebourne and WNO, who have suffered the worst cuts. (Opera North have received a modest funding uplift, of 1%.) Whether ENO are willing and able to fill that gap remains to be seen. There’s even a possible venue being talked about, the already heavily over-budget The Factory, which is presumably going to need shows to fill it.

Sir Nicholas Serota and Darren Henley, respectively Chairman of Chief Executive of Arts Council England, have an exceptionally difficult job and it’s clear that they’re not going to please everyone. 

I can’t honestly fault the decision on ENO. I hope that the description of this as “an opportunity for change” is sincere and that ENO are able to be successful in the transformation that’s being demanded of them. But I do think the cuts to touring opera are shocking and hard to understand.

Naturally, as an opera fan, I’m disappointed by the fact that a substantial chunk of funding is being transferred from the genre I love to sectors elsewhere. I’m not going to assert that this obviously wrong, but it would be good to understand the thinking: is this is a deliberate policy that’s just the start of a continuing decline, or is it a one-off, an accident of the perceived quality of the applications received on this occasion? I very much hope that Serota and Henley will be able to provide some reassurance.