The resignation of Mark Wigglesworth as music director of the English National Opera has sent ripples through the classical music industry. The UK conductor, whom Australian audiences got to see most recently last year when he conducted James MacMillan’s Viola Concerto, recently left ENO after declaring that the company was “evolving into something I do not recognise”.
The problems ENO is experiencing appear to centre on funding cuts, which in turn have brought about resignations from senior management and threats of strike action by its chorus. The Guardian’s Mark Brown and Imogen Tilden report: “At the heart of its present troubles is the need to spend less money after Arts Council England cut its annual grant by 29%, or £5m a year”.
John Nickson, ENO’s director of development from 1989-96, writes in a letter to the same paper that he believes a cash-strapped Arts Council (the UK’s primary government arts funding agency) only wants to support one full-time opera company in London, The Royal Opera, and he warns that the proposed cuts will cease ENO’s company status and turn it into “a part-time producer of opera and musicals”.
How such a famous company – whose conductors over the years included Australia’s own Charles Mackerras – could find itself in such trouble has left opera commentators astonished. The Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins says ENO must partly blame itself from having resisted change and leaving itself with “No sense of purpose, and no sense of identity”. Nevertheless, she thinks the company can still turn itself around by adopting “strong artistic leadership and much better governance”.
At the least it serves as a lesson to opera companies elsewhere that things can suddenly go sour if internal vigour is lacking. Hopefully, our companies in Australia can avoid predicaments like this by keeping on their toes.