London MPs, led by Enfield Southgate’s Labour representative Bambos Charalambous, have again joined battle against Arts Council England’s much-criticised decision last November to axe funding for the English National Opera (ENO) and exile it from the capital.
Charalambous was backed by Bromley & Chislehurst Conservative Sir Bob Neill in a Commons adjournment debate urging the government to reverse the ENO cut and the threatened cuts to BBC orchestras, and to review the Arts Council itself, which Neill said had failed in its role as “guardian of the arts”.
The debate came as a survey by performing arts union Equity suggested most ENO chorus members would be forced to leave their jobs if the company relocated outside London, with some 300 other musicians, staff and freelancers also affected.
The ENO also confirmed today that an end of March target set with the Arts Council to agree a new two-year funding package to support the beleaguered institution with relocation would not be met.
“Both organisations are currently considering the level of funding that ENO could apply for to help them achieve their ambitions,” an ENO spokesperson told On London. “To ensure the best possible outcomes can be reached, a figure is unlikely to be announced until after Easter.”
Continuing uncertainty has already seen productions at ENO’s Coliseum base cancelled and members of its chorus made redundant, Charalambous told the House. The UK’s classical music “ecosystem” was not only “part of our cultural backbone and national identity”, but musicians were “at the forefront of one of the sectors that is currently driving economic growth”, adding £4 billion in 2021, he said.
Neill said the company, which was founded almost a century ago, had been left “in the most precarious situation because they simply do not know whether they will have sufficient work to keep their families in necessities after the end of this season.” He added that the Arts Council was “actually reducing the spread of excellence in art to people outside London” and limiting access to less well-off audiences. “It is exactly the reverse of what was intended, and an organisation that does that has to answer serious questions about both its competence and its processes.”
In his toughly-worded speech, Charalambous suggested the government was hiding behind claims that the Arts Council was operationally independent while forcing through cuts which would save “a fraction of what the government have wasted on PPE contracts”. He also attacked the council’s January decision, following the outcry over what amounted to a 30 per cent overall cut in opera funding, to launch an independent review of its support for opera and music theatre.
The review will be carried out under the Arts Council’s overall 10-year strategy, entitled “Let’s Create”, and report towards the end of this year. “Some may think it would be better named ‘Let’s Destroy’,” said Charalambous. “What sort of chaotic organisation makes the decision to cut first and carry out a review later?”
Replying to the debate, culture minister Julia Lopez, herself a London MP, representing Hornchurch & Upminster, said she was herself “always anxious to ensure that levelling up does not necessarily mean removing a resource from London, a city of eight million people consisting of a huge range of communities with different needs and different levels of wealth”.
But members should not forget “that a lot of people want opportunity to be spread across the country rather than concentrated in a single place—notwithstanding the fact that I am also a London MP and I totally understand the importance of our capital thriving, as it should,” she added.
The ENO’s annual £12.6 million grant was axed by the Arts Council pursuant to a direction from the now former culture secretary Nadine Dorries to redirect cash away from the capital. Initially just £5.6 million a year was offered from April 2023 to support relocation, but that deal was rapidly replaced with £11.46 million to keep the stricken ENO alive through 2023/24.
With talks about future funding continuing “in good faith on both sides”, ENO chief executive Stuart Murphy has told the Stage he is pitching a new vision of productions in theatres outside London and in “found spaces” along with continuing “really big opera” in the Coliseum.
After the debate, Charalambous told On London that for “sentimental reasons” his favourite opera is La Boheme. “It was the first one I saw when I was a student in Liverpool for cut price tickets, which got me interested in classical music and opera,” he said.
Photograph of Coliseum interior from English National Opera website.