A double pain to suffer, first in act and then in telling

In just over four weeks from today, English National Opera stages the world premiere production of The Thebans, with music by Julian Anderson and a libretto by Frank McGuinness. It’s based on the primordial trilogy by Sophocles, retelling the events not just of the familiar Oedipus Rex, but also of the other two subsequent plays, Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus. Theater Bonn is the co-producer, and the opera is an ENO commission. The cast are all ENO stalwarts with international careers, there is a major role for the excellent ENO chorus, ENO’s music director Edward Gardner is conducting – and the occasion also marks the ENO debut as director for Pierre Audi.

In 1982 Audi founded the Almeida Theatre in Islington, turning a previously derelict building into a highly regarded Fringe venue with as much focus on contemporary music and opera as theatre. The list of works performed there during his eight-year tenure is as enormous as the range of ensembles and individuals from around the world who gave those performances. Starting from Audi’s vision, the theatre’s artistic integrity has remained intact through its subsequent four directors, and London audiences and the business (both operatic and theatrical) owe Audi a substantial debt of gratitude. Audi moved in 1990 to the Artistic Directorship of De Nationale Opera of the Netherlands, running the company and continuing to direct a broad range of operas in Amsterdam and around the continent.

Anderson is a highly respected British composer, a key figure both in the teaching of composition (at the Royal College of Music, Harvard University, and currently Professor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama) and in the Composer Residences established by a number of ensembles/venues (the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, The Cleveland Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Wigmore Hall), with some 50 works performed, and several released on CD.

McGuinness is a distinguished Irish playwright and poet, his twenty-two plays staged variously by the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre, the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and others. If anything he is more famous for his modern language adaptations of ‘classic’ plays by Brecht, Chekhov, Euripides, Ibsen, Lorca, Seneca, and Sophocles – his spoken version of Oedipus Rex was staged at London’s National Theatre in 2008, with Ralph Fiennes and Clare Higgins in the lead roles.

Bringing together this pedigree of creative artistry for what will, in all likelihood, be a very fine production of Anderson’s first opera, is exactly what a national opera company should be doing; the work has a strong chance of becoming part of the repertory.

It’s going to be a disaster, though, for ENO itself.

The first night at the Coliseum will struggle to manage a fifty percent audience capacity, and a considerable number of those present will doubtless fall into the category of “friends, family, academic and professional colleagues” some of whom may, and nothing wrong with this, be entering on complementary tickets. Looking at the quantity of unsold tickets in each of the seating areas, for each of the subsequent six performances, a basic estimate is that achieving fifteen percent capacity for the run as a whole is barely feasible. Some of the seats marked as “taken” are in conspicuous formations and locations, which suggests they are merely reserved for potential discount sales through agencies – which may not sell them at all.

I’m not as familiar with the detailed costs of producing an opera at this scale as I would like, but a large financial loss from the venture seems a reasonable outcome to assume. A positive critical reaction to the work itself or the production is never guaranteed. Worse is the reputational damage and the effect on staff morale, as the large auditorium yawns vacant night after night.

It’s not just during the run that ENO will suffer, but again later during official and unofficial reviews of the year: the pressure for much greater transparency about the company accounts to lay bare the scale of the loss, the questions about the commercial wisdom of staging the premiere opera from a composer who, despite his many achievements, is not that familiar even to a general concert-going public, the demands to re-justify every aspect of the decision making behind the work’s commission and scheduling – there are some potentially dire consequences.

The title of this post is an un-famous quote, widely attributed to Oedipus Rex but in fact from Oedipus at Colonus; the intent more clearly understood as: “I don’t want to suffer that pain a second time, … [the] first time when I went through it and then now when I’m telling you about it.”

You can see the relevance to this discussion, though you might be wondering what concern all this to me. Quite simply, the need for frequent world premieres of contemporary music is one strongly held belief of mine, and another is that the provision of opera in London and Britain needs to be reinforced not pulled apart. Although I have no personal connection with any of this, I sincerely want this premiere to be a success in every way.

So, I have three tactical suggestions for English National Opera, which may not seem appealing or practical – but sometimes the best way to manage a crisis is to celebrate it.

First, go on the attack.

John Berry (ENO’s Artistic Director), Gardner, and Audi should tell everyone they can find in the media how worried they are about the low sales figures, what the potential impact these small audiences will have on the future provision of opera in London is, and show the full confidence they have that the production will be an artistic success.

They should draw attention to the climate of fear they (and other opera companies) have to work in, where lazy journalism (BBC HardTalk, Daily Telegraph, Huffington Post, BBCRadio 4, for example) repeats cliches long out of date about opera tickets being expensive, the music elite not wanting people to hear or see opera, modern music being difficult to understand, opera being socially exclusive, and so on. Explain how hard it is to get the message across to the public that ticket prices for The Thebans start at £5 and anyone of any sort is welcome to buy one, no need to dress up as one of the orchestra or singers etc, because there is so much uninformed prejudice.

Second, ask the marketing department to work overtime.

The impression is that The Thebans is being marketed just as “another opera in the season”, and nothing feels special about it or the premiere. Many theatre-goers will be familiar with McGuinness and his plays or adaptations, but my guess is they simply don’t know he has written the libretto for this opera – surely some of them would be curious to see what it is about.

Years ago, ENO released CDs as introductions to new operas before their premieres; I have those for The Silver Tassie and From Morning to Midnight on my desk right now. They contain extracts from the music and commentary from the creative teams. Not completely exciting, but at least there was an effort to help willing listeners familiarise themselves with a brand new opera. Can the marketing team at ENO not use modern media to release short extracts from the opera to raise interest? A plot summary in conjunction with an audio musical guide to the whole work, or a simple trailer? Or are they happy to wait until the critics, hopefully, do their work for them and audiences feel confident to go based on a very short newspaper review of the first night?

Third, make the tickets free.

Yes, free. This suggestion was already being drafted when news from the Royal Opera’s 2014-15 season, with an opening night given over to students paying from £1 to £25 for tickets, scooped the idea. But why not copy that, or go a step further if contractually permissible. The production is going to make a loss anyway, so turn it into a popular success instead by getting a much larger audience. Sure, making some arrangements for those who have already bought tickets might be slightly complex, though a simple credit voucher usable for other ENO productions would suffice, with a replacement ticket for those booked for The Thebans in the Balcony or Upper Circle to move to the Stalls or Dress Circle. But if Berry, Gardner, Audi and the whole of ENO finish their interviews and comment articles by saying that, because they are so concerned to overcome the widespread prejudice about the cost and social exclusivity of opera, and to ensure that as many people as possible have a chance to see this exciting new production, they are throwing the doors open to anyone who wants to walk in and try it, that would certainly take people by surprise.

Celebrate the crisis, make the opera premiere an event that people talk about because they were actually present, and show up the mainstream media for their ignorance and laziness.

But do something, don’t just continue as always until it is too late to do anything at all.

One thought on “A double pain to suffer, first in act and then in telling

  1. Many thanks for this interesting post, I hope the management of ENO take some of this on board though I sadly doubt it. A minor loss from free tickets for the initial run will almost certainly be made up later on if word of mouth is favourable and the work any good.
    Welcome to the world of blogging as well!

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