English National Opera set to move – but not to Manchester

English National Opera started out of the last chance saloon. Arts Council of England patience has expired, and they told the company that something had to change drastically. ENO can’t say it wasn’t warned – over the past 20 years or more it has weathered a series of financial and managerial crises as it tried to maintain a flawed occupation-based business model from the white elephant which is totally impractical London Coliseum. Meanwhile, as bailouts have been handed out, grants have been cut and budgets have been slashed, audiences have dwindled. Despite some artistic successes, it couldn’t last any longer.

But what next? No one wants to see soloists, choir, orchestra and staff lose their jobs. There is still a core audience loyal to opera “at popular prices” and a need for outreach work. ACE are offering £17m to create a new structure, and there has been vague talk of moving the base to Manchester.

Such a relocation would be utter madness, and the fact that it was even mentioned suggests that no one has begun to think seriously about the issue. Opera North already presents regular seasons in Manchester (the Lowry in Salford, to be precise) and despite excellent production and marketing, it struggles to fill the house. The city’s new arts center at The Factory, not yet open, is totally unsuitable for opera, and the old Palace Theater is hampered by all the shortcomings of the Coliseum (notably the lack of rehearsal space, office and storage). Manchester, in short, neither want nor need ENO.

A much more practical possibility is a return to Sadler’s Wells in Islington, where the company was based until 1968. The theater (rebuilt since 1968) has good acoustics, an orchestra pit, a smaller space for opera chambers and rehearsal studios. Opera has been presented there successfully in the past, but it is now identified as a dance mecca.

That can continue to be that, while giving way to regular short seasons by a reduced ENO who can spend the rest of the time visiting university and cathedral cities such as Oxford, Cambridge, York and Bath, where there are a strong appetite for opera and who are not served by Opera North or Welsh National Opera. It is possible, but ENO must first grasp the reality and moderate its ambitions.

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