English National Opera fights funding cuts as petition hits major milestone

English National Opera boss Stuart Murphy said Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan was in “listening mode” as a petition to reverse funding cuts surpassed its target of 25,000 signatures.

In plans announced last Friday, Arts Council England (ACE) said it was removing the company from its grant portfolio, resulting in a funding cut of £12.6 million each year from 2023.

The ACE grant equates to more than a third of the ENO’s annual income, the company confirmed.

Cabinet meeting
Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan (Aaron Chown/PA)

Instead, proposed plans suggested the ENO was set to receive a £17 million grant over three years – but only if it relocates outside of London, with a move to Manchester being suggested.

Mr Murphy secured a meeting with Ms Donelan and Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay on Thursday, asking for the company’s funding to be reinstated and its London base to be retained.

After the meeting, he told the PA news agency: “It was good, they were in listening mode. She inherited this decision from the previous secretary of state, Nadine Dorries. I thought it was a good meeting, we left saying that we hope we can meet again in a fortnight.

“She’s got a massive brief, she’s only a couple of weeks into the job so I was really aware of that and I thought it was a productive meeting.

“We made clear our ask that our funding is returned and the decision makes no sense.”

As part of the campaign to reverse the ACE’s funding decision, the national opera company is supporting a petition set up by opera singer Sir Bryn Terfel – which hit more than 25,000 signatures on Thursday.

Mr Murphy, who recently announced he will depart as the ENO chief executive in September 2023, said he spoke to Ms Donelan and Lord Parkinson about the petition.

“We didn’t start the petition, it began two days ago. I explained I can’t stop the petition. There’s a huge strength of feeling which is broader than opera,” he told PA.

“It’s about access to the arts, and saying if you’ve got money, you absolutely have access to the arts already. If you’ve got the right connections, you have access to jobs in the arts already. But there’s big recognition that ENO recruits from non-traditional areas.

“Those people we put on stage or in the orchestral pit are completely different to what you see in any other orchestra in Britain.

English National Opera’s Messiah
Members of the English National Opera Ian West/PA)

“She (Ms Donelan) absolutely acknowledged and appreciated it.

“It is big decisions we’ve asked her to make and I think she has a lot to consider and I think it would be an amazing thing if she managed to change the course and keep open one of the great British institutions that has been here for more than 100 years.”

Mr Murphy said it is a “much broader issue” than just opera.

He told PA: “The Arts Council have said they really love what we do. In the scorecard they gave us, we have over-served on every single thing they asked us to do, yet they’re halving our budget and telling us to find another base.

“If someone works for me and has hit all their targets, and I was delighted with them, I wouldn’t tell them to move 200 miles away and cut their salary in half.

“So for me, this is about more than opera. It’s about clarity and honesty and good governance in public bodies, I think it’s also about being respectful of 100 years of tradition of pioneering work.”

The CEO confirmed that he had asked the ACE six months before the announcement whether it was going to ask the ENO to move out of London and it “specifically and emphatically said no”.

Speaking about the ACE’s proposed plans to offer a £17 million grant over three years on the acceptance that the ENO moves out of London, Mr Murphy added: “Why on earth people outside London deserve half the budget of a London organisation is beyond me. We’ve never had an explanation of that.

“Don’t under-serve the under-served. This opera house is the opera house that gets a broad audience and to remove something from that is deeply discriminatory and appalling, it absolutely flies in the face of the Arts Council’s claimed agenda.

“If I was one of the 15,000 young people who came to the ENO, or any of the people in our orchestra who are diverse, I would be absolutely outraged as they are and that’s why the petition is rocketing up every day.”

The ENO, which was founded in 1931, is based at the London Coliseum in the West End and is one of two principle opera companies in the London, along with the Royal Opera.

Standing in solidarity with ENO’s campaigning, Richard Mantle, general director of Opera North, said: “As a company established from English National Opera more than 40 years ago in order to deliver opera across the North of England, we offer our support to our friends and colleagues there facing difficult funding news this week, potentially denying tens of thousands of people in London and beyond the chance to experience opera.

“We believe audiences everywhere deserve this opportunity, right across the country.”