A fight at the opera: could forcing ENO up north work out?

<span>Photograph: Tolga Akmen/EPA</span>
Photograph: Tolga Akmen/EPA

When the Arts Council halved English National Opera’s funding earlier this month and made its new £17m grant contingent on the company leaving London – possibly for Manchester – the diktat was greeted as “madness” by the Evening Standard, “cultural vandalism” by Melvyn Bragg and an order that would kill off the institution by April by the company’s chair, Harry Brünjes.

The battle over ENO’s future soon became the latest frontline in the culture wars as debate raged over what it meant to level up culture.

Moving to Manchester would never work, said the naysayers. Some argued the city and wider region of 2.9 million was too small, too poor – and too uncultured, ran the subtext – to attract year-round audiences (and donors) for one of the least popular art forms in the country. Only 6% of people in England claim to be “very interested” in opera, according to the Audience Agency, rising to 10% in London.

Fine then, Andy Burnham told the ENO, in a fit of pique: “If you can’t come willingly, don’t come at all.” Mancunians weren’t “heathens”, the Greater Manchester mayor added.

The night of the announcement, the shadow culture secretary, Lucy Powell, was watching the local TV news in her central Manchester constituency. “I was really struck by how positively the ENO’s potential move was being reported,” she said. “They had interviews from people in Lancashire saying: ‘Ooh, I love a bit of 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 affect 300 ENO staff and hundreds more freelancers, including Harriet Harman’s daughter, a bassoonist. “I told them there was a very, very different take on the situation in the north as opposed to the chattering classes of London,” she said.

Across the Pennines in Leeds, Richard Mantle, the general director of Opera North – created 45 years ago as ENO North – was less enamoured.

For Arts Council England (ACE) to tell ENO to move up “with no notice” was “nonsense and an ill-thought-through idea”, he said: “There’s a gun to their heads … It is not a conducive way to think about a future strategy.”

ACE says it does not expect ENO to move next April, when its existing funding agreement of £1m a month runs out. The £17m three-year “transition” offer is “to support them to move outside London and to develop a new creative and business model that would add something distinctive to the national opera offer”. The move, pushed hard by the former culture secretary Nadine Dorries as part of the government’s levelling up agenda, does not have to take place until March 2026.

Mantle insisted Opera North’s opposition was not motivated by concerns about the ENO taking away its audience, saying: “There’s not enough opera in my view.” But with regular shows at the Lowry in Salford, he does see Opera North as being “Manchester’s company … and we’ve been Manchester’s company for 40 years, one way or another.”

Julia Fawcett, the chief executive of the Lowry, said she was “staggered” by how ill-conceived the ACE’s decree was. “Initially I welcomed the idea of the move, assuming – wrongly – that it was based on long conversations with ENO, backed up by a lot of research. Then I discovered it was a forced scenario with no consultation and only half of the funding, which beggars belief when you think about how fragile the arts ecology of the country is, when we are still in recovery.”

ACE does not seem 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 centre due to open next year, which is touted as a logical destination for ENO.

Like everyone interviewed for this piece, David Butcher, the chief executive of Manchester’s Hallé orchestra, sympathised with ENO’s predicament. But he thought there would be appetite in the north to sustain another opera company. “We play to 120,000 people a year in Manchester,” he said.

Recruiting world-class musicians had not been a problem, he said, citing the recent decision of one of the world’s best violinists, Roberto Ruisi, to accept a job leading the orchestra. “Many players are attracted by the quality of life, the fact that you don’t have to go far out of the city to be in the Pennines.”

But Equity, the trade union for performing artists, is firmly opposed to what its general secretary, Paul Fleming, calls the “half-baked” proposal to relocate “a pale imitation” of ENO, which he fears will signal the end of high-quality, permanent union jobs.

He called the idea “offensive to artists and audiences in Manchester and the north” and said it “undermines the incredible work done by Opera North and other organisations to build audiences by parachuting in the ENO without consultation, and worst of all, the parachute has had its strings cut”.

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Others question the logic of forcing ENO to Manchester while other artistic institutions in and around the city have had their ACE funding cut. Oldham’s Coliseum theatre was one casualty, along with Psappha, a contemporary classical ensemble.

After thumbing his nose at ENO this week, Burnham received a call from its chief executive. The mayor told the Guardian he now understood better why the company was fighting its enforced relocation. Expecting ENO to operate in Manchester for half of its previous funding was an insult, he said. “We’ve already got a second-class railway. Do we have to have a second-class opera as well?”

But he still thinks much of the opposition to Manchester was motivated by “residual, out-of-date attitudes” by some parts of the cultural sector in London.

Meanwhile, there is absolutely no sign of ACE backing down. “The status quo is not an option,” said ACE’s chair, Sir Nicholas Serota. “We have great confidence in opera in this country but it is about evolution, it is not about standing still.”