Voices: Don’t send the English National Opera to Manchester – London needs it

Imagine travelling to Paris and being told that the Louvre had been relocated to Marseille, or the Bastille Opera to Lyon. Tourists would be furious, Parisians and the French nation humiliated.

Yet over here, cultural policy for some years has been to deprive the capital of more and more funds. This anti-London bias reached its peak in recent days with the decision by the funding body, Arts Council England (ACE), to order the English National Opera (ENO) out of London and its home the London Coliseum, suggesting it set up shop in Manchester.

It was a loaded suggestion. Basically, if the ENO moves to Manchester within three years, it will receive £17m to help it do so. If it refuses, it will lose its entire Arts Council grant of £12.8m a year. Which means it would have to shut down.

The outcry in the arts world about this and other staggering cuts (great homes of new writing such as the Donmar Warehouse, Gate and Hampstead theatres lose their entire grants) has been deafening. Our most distinguished opera singers and directors have taken to Twitter and the letters pages of national newspapers to denounce the Arts Council and even demand the resignation of its chairman, Sir Nicholas Serota.

A petition against the ENO decision has been started by opera singer Sir Bryn Terfel, and the composer Sir Thomas Ades has been urging people to join a protest march in London today. These are not your normal rabble-rousing militants. I covered the arts for over 25 years for The Independent and rarely did I find such anger as there is now.

But the decision to expel this national flagship from the capital (at 24 hours’ notice!) is wrong on so many levels. First, it has done more than most companies to encourage a new and younger audience, mounting innovative productions with affordable ticket prices and, of course, singing in English.

Its demise will mean that while European capitals like Paris, Berlin and Vienna have three opera houses, London will now only have one, the Royal Opera House, a venue with obscenely expensive prices. I sometimes now buy standing tickets rather than pay the £150-plus that has long been the norm there.

Unfashionable as it has become in the arts, I would argue for London. It needs to be a centre of culture, a place that proclaims to the world as well as Britons that the arts are an integral part of our capital city. And let’s not forget that the arts in London do have an audience catchment area of many millions. The Arts Council and government should stop being ashamed of lauding the capital’s arts.

Of course, culture outside of London is vitally important and has long needed better funding. That is not in doubt. But the answer is not to rob Peter to pay Paul, nor to give a key London arts organisation its marching orders.

And what an absurdity to send the ENO to Manchester. That city is already well served by the excellent Opera North. And the new building being suggested as a home for the ENO is The Factory in Manchester. The great opera and theatre director Deborah Warner has noted drily that the acoustics there will be all wrong for opera, and singers will have to use microphones.

Come to that, all sides have been strangely quiet about the future of the London Coliseum, a glorious jewel in the crown of London’s West End. What is to become of it?

But there is more to all this. Sir Nicholas Serota has made it clear that the government has had a say in this, not least the former culture secretary Nadine Dorries. They don’t like grand opera. As well as the mortal blow to the ENO, the current funding round has seen major cuts to the Royal Opera and Welsh National Opera. Opera is apparently “elitist”.

The Arts Council’s own music director, Claire Mera-Nelson, says there has been “almost no growth in audience for traditionally staged ‘grand’ or large-scale opera” and ACE is switching money to smaller-scale stuff. I’m as unconvinced by that statistic as I am by the supercilious quotation mark around the word “grand”.

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How depressing that one has to spell out to culture secretaries and an Arts Council music director that grand opera, just like theatre, can be life-enhancing, can not only make you laugh and cry, enable you to lose yourself in sublime music and singing, but open your eyes to new worlds, allow you to experience passion, pain and exhilaration, ponder on the human condition, and touch your heart and soul.

We need affordable, innovative opera in the capital. It is not elitist to say so. It has, sadly, become almost counterintuitive and downright radical to voice this. But once departed for a distinctly uncertain future, this company, which is undeniably part of Britain’s cultural history, will not come back and will probably not survive in anything like its current form.

I don’t think Sir Nicholas Serota should resign. As former director of the Tate, he has long been a champion of the arts. But he should reconsider the dangerous decision on the English National Opera. And he, Arts Council England and the culture secretary should stand up for London.