Music

Why English National Opera relocating to Manchester will be more complicated than it looks

There's a lot to consider when moving the English National Opera to the north of the country. Just ask the CEO at Dartington Hall

ENO Ally Pally

A performance of English National Opera's outdoor staging of La Bohème at Alexandra Palace, North London. Image: © Lloyd Winters. Courtesy of English National Opera

A year after it was told to almost immediately move out of London or forego its Arts Council England (ACE) funding – only to be given the more reasonable deadline of 2029 – English National Opera has announced that it is to partially relocate to Greater Manchester.

In a ‘were you silent or were you silenced’-type press release, ENO expressed excitement for “the potential opportunities to collaborate with the region’s vibrant arts ecology, and the chance to inspire and create work with and for new audiences and communities in Greater Manchester”.

Having endured an arduous period – featuring union-supported protests, the ACE back-pedalling on timescales, and in which music director Martyn Brabbins resigned in protest at the proposal to abolish multiple posts within ENO’s orchestra and chorus – the opera house has returned to its earlier position: it will take the subsidy and follow in the footsteps of BBC Radio 3, which will soon be based in Salford.

For, although Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool and Nottingham were also in the running, Manchester always seemed to be uppermost in this back-of-a-vape-packet policy. At least  consultation appears to have now taken place, with some issues identified. (When Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet – now Birmingham Royal Ballet – moved to the Midlands in 1990, the process took several years.)

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Among these are job losses and staffing changes. And then there are the practicalities: where will these performances take place, and in what capacity? ENO currently plans to maintain a short season at the London Coliseum, adding further complexity.

Has anyone tried to get a train from Manchester to London (and vice versa) at short notice? It’s fine for a salaried employee with allowance for expenses; it’s an economic disaster for self-employed musicians. I have forgone several interesting assignments – most recently attending Manchester Collective’s community performance of Noah’s Flood (Britten) at Manchester International Festival – as the train fare was three times the writing fee. 

Similarly, there are plenty of Manchester-based opera fans who have been excluded from travelling to London and welcome the opportunity of a new ENO base. There’s a lively arts scene in the city and the surrounding area, with orchestras including the Hallé and BBC Philharmonic in the vicinity. As mentioned here before, there’s also Opera North, the Leeds-based company that regularly tours to Manchester.

Success depends on understanding this eco-system – not wishful over-simplification. The ACE is behaving like an unfriendly giant, plucking a building from a miniature village and plonking it in a new location, assuming it will behave exactly as it did in its former home. ENO is at heart, a core group of musicians. 

Dartington International Summer School and Festival is currently learning this painful lesson. Having celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2023, the Dartington Trust – overseers of the Dartington Estate, the event’s former south-Devon base – indicated that a 2024 instalment was highly unlikely. Artistic director Sara Mohr-Pietsch and team resigned, and an online petition to save the school gained over 5,000 signatures.

The Dartington International Summer School Foundation, a charity that supports the event, found alternative accommodation at Gresham’s School in Holt, Norfolk. There was a sigh of relief as it was announced the programme would be announced imminently. Then came a curious addendum: Dartington Estate’s interim acting CEO Robert Fedder circulated an open letter claiming the Dartington International Summer School and Festival “have both been core activities for us over many years. We are presently reviewing our entire operations, putting existing ones on a sounder footing and exploring new ones. However, moving these proprietary Dartington events to another side of the country is not one of our plans. Anything claiming to be relocated Dartington events is absolutely not an official, Dartington-branded activity.”

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