Photograph: Tolga Akmen/EPA
When the Arts Council halved English National Opera’s funding earlier this month and made its new £17m grant conditional on the company leaving London – perhaps for Manchester – the diktat was hailed as ‘madness from the Evening Standard, “cultural vandalism” from Melvyn Bragg and an order that would have killed the institute by April from the company’s president, Harry Brünjes.
The battle for ENO’s future soon became the last front line in the culture wars as the debate raged on what it meant to level up culture.
Moving to Manchester would never work, naysayers said. Some argued that the city and wider region of 2.9 million inhabitants were too small, too poor – and too uncultured, the subtext went – to attract the year-round public (and donors) for any of the forms of less popular art in the country. Just 6% of people in England say they are “very interested” in opera, according to the Audience Agency, rising to 10% in London.
Well then, Andy Burnham told the ENO, in a fit of pique: “If you can’t come willingly, don’t come at all.” The Mancunians were not “heathens,” added the mayor of Greater Manchester.
On the night of the announcement, the shadow culture secretary, Lucy Powell, was watching the local news in her constituency in central Manchester. “I was really impressed with how positively ENO’s potential move has been reported,” she said. “They had interviews from people from Lancashire who were like, ‘Ooh, I like some opera, it would be great if they came to Manchester.'”
Powell told the same story to London colleagues who lobbied her to oppose the move, which would have affected 300 ENO employees and hundreds more freelancers, including the daughter of Harriet Harman, a bassoonist. “I told them there was a very, very different view of the situation in the north compared to the chattering classes of London,” she said.
Across the Pennines in Leeds, Richard Mantle, the general manager of Opera North – created 45 years ago as ENO North – was less enamored.
For the Arts Council England (ACE) telling ENO to go up ‘without warning’ was ‘nonsense and an ill-considered idea’, it said: ‘There’s a gun to the head… That’s no way favorable to think about a future strategy.”
ACE says it does not expect ENO to move next April when its existing £1million-a-month funding deal expires. The three-year £17m “transitional” offer is “to help them relocate out of London and develop a new creative and business model which would add something distinctive to the national opera offering”. The move, strongly pushed by former culture secretary Nadine Dorries as part of the government’s leveling agenda, is not due until March 2026.
Mantle insisted that Opera North’s opposition was not motivated by concerns about ENO taking away its audience, saying, “There’s not enough opera in my opinion.” But with regular performances at Salford’s Lowry, he sees Opera North as ‘the Manchester company … and we’ve been the Manchester company for 40 years, one way or another’.
Julia Fawcett, the Lowry’s chief executive, said she was “stunned” by how ill-conceived the ACE decree was. “I initially welcomed the idea of the transfer, assuming – incorrectly – that it was based on long conversations with ENO, supported by a lot of research. Then I discovered that it was a forced scenario without consultation and with only half the funding, which is crazy when you think about how fragile the artistic ecology of the country is, when we are still recovering”.
ACE does not appear to have consulted anyone in Manchester. “We didn’t know anything about it,” said John McGrath, the artistic director of Factory International, a £200m cultural center due to open next year, touted as a logical destination for ENO.
Like everyone interviewed for this piece, David Butcher, the managing director of Manchester’s Hallé orchestra, sympathized with ENO’s plight. But he thought there would be an appetite in the north to support another opera company. “We play for 120,000 people a year in Manchester,” he said.
Recruiting world-class musicians hasn’t been a problem, he said, citing the recent decision by one of the world’s top violinists, Roberto Ruisi, to take a job leading the orchestra. “A lot of players are attracted by the quality of life, by the fact that you don’t have to go far from the city to be in the Pennines.”
But Equity, the performing artists’ union, is staunchly opposed to what its general secretary, Paul Fleming, calls the “half-baked” proposal to relocate “a pale imitation” of ENO, which he fears will spell the end of high society . quality, permanent union jobs.
He called the idea “offensive to performers and audiences in Manchester and the north” and said it “undermines the incredible work Opera North and other organizations have been doing to raise audiences by parachuting into the ENO without consultation and, worse still, the parachute has cut its strings”.
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Others question the logic of forcing ENO into Manchester while other arts institutions in and around the city suffered cuts in ACE funding. Oldham’s Coliseum theater was a casualty, along with Psappha, a contemporary classical ensemble.
After teasing ENO this week, Burnham got a call from its CEO. The mayor told the Guardian he now understands better why the firm was fighting his forced relocation. To expect ENO to operate in Manchester for half of its previous funding was an insult, he said. “We already have a second-class railway. Must we also have second-class work?
But he still thinks much of the opposition in Manchester has been motivated by “residual and old-fashioned attitudes” from parts of London’s cultural sector.
Meanwhile, there’s absolutely no sign of letting up from ACE. “The status quo is not an option,” said ACE chairman Sir Nicholas Serota. “We have great faith in opera in this country, but it’s about evolution, it’s not about standing still.”