The government’s most maligned rail line may never reach Manchester, but one of the country’s leading opera companies is expecting to get there in six years’ time.
Readers will member the ruckus last year when, at the malign insistence of Nadine Dorries, Arts Council England cut all of its funding to the English National Opera, blackmailing the company into moving to the north of England. At the time, the response was universally damning. Those at the company made it clear that the decision was unfair and illogical and would cost jobs.
At the same time, Manchester’s Mayor Andy Burnham was far from enthusiastic about receiving the company. Opera North, who are based in Leeds but regularly tour to Manchester, were also able to recognise many downsides but few advantages.
A year on, having already cut staff and programming, ENO is now embracing its northern future with at least limited enthusiasm. Perhaps they are grateful that the government / Arts Council England did not send them to Rwanda?
It is hard to imagine something like this happening in any other civilised country that claims to value its culture. In footballing terms, this might be the equivalent to the government telling Arsenal or Chelsea to shut up shop and move to (say) Leeds, while continuing to own and manage its London stadium. Such action could literally lead to riots in both the North and South.
The decision is a classic example of a government that, rather than not caring about culture, appears to regard it as the enemy. This week’s Minister for Culture, Media and Sport Lucy Frazer, who is clearly awaiting a post more suited to her skills, qualifications and interests, has belatedly noticed her brief includes the arts. Her first big step involves callously proclaiming that the government is to renege on its funding agreement with the BBC, preventing the corporation from increasing the licence fee in line with the rate of inflation.
The government will clearly see the ENO move as a big win and may well attempt to repeat the trick in future. Who will be next? Could the National Theatre find itself in Newcastle, Sadler’s Wells in Aberdeen or the Proms departing the Albert Hall in favour of Cornwall’s lovely, outdoor Minack Theatre?
ENO’s move to Manchester is not even going to leave the company mirroring its work in London, since, rather than producing operas throughout the year, according to media reports it will be limited to doing so for only five months.
One imagines that everyone working at the company will have moved on long before the trip north, which could make it difficult to recruit a full-scale orchestra and chorus, especially on a part-time basis. In any event, financial constraints will presumably militate against generous relocation packages.
It is also unclear which of the city’s venues will host opera in future, although neighbouring Oldham has a Coliseum available. Many existing theatres are already heavily booked up and may be far from keen to welcome expensive, niche productions that could be significantly less profitable than the touring versions of Hamilton or Mamma Mia. For others, classical opera will not fit into their artistic vision or the idea of charging £160 (adjusted for inflation) tickets could prove undesirable, impossible or merely laughable.
There also has to be a question about what this does to the London Coliseum, which somewhat incongruously ENO will continue to own and manage, although it will still get an annual visit from the company. The Palladium has been struggling to find tenants for years and, beyond the odd short-term touring musical, one has to wonder whether anyone will be willing to pay top dollar for a large, gorgeous but sprawling opera house that may be difficult to fill at sufficient capacity to turn a profit.
There is no question that ENO will be diminished by this destructive move. Manchester may derive little benefit but could be landed with additional expenditure, and Opera North will lose a competitive advantage.
Who will be the winners? Some ministers of state may be happy to have won a mythic battle in the culture war, and one or two cultural institutions that have received money which should have been siphoned to a major artistic force will not be wholly sorry. Otherwise, we are all losers.