In the world of opera, it’s famously not over till the fat lady sings; and ENO, regularly threatened with artistic as well as financial oblivion over the last few years, isn’t allowing her near the stage at the moment. No, they’re not being size-ist and this isn’t another Deborah Voigt story; rather, the company has lately been revealing some serious artistic weight as it has simultaneously stream-lined its operation. As Norman Lebrecht reported in a feature in the Evening Standard last week that was headlined “ENO gets its groove back”, the company seems to have “finally turned the corner”.
And yesterday it proved it by announcing a slate of 10 new productions for the 2008/9 season that show the company both growing and expanding its repertoire, reach and creative input (with theatre artists Fiona Shaw and Katie Mitchell returning to ENO, and filmmakers Abbas Kiarostami and Penny Woolcock both making their opera stage directing debuts), while also consolidating on the core classics that includes the return of Jonathan Miller to the company for the first time in 12 years to stage a new La Boheme.
But most significant, perhaps, is the fact that co-productions are now regularly the order of the day and play.
Lebrecht points out in his piece that there are now plans for “no fewer than 10 joint shows with New York’s Metropolitan Opera, which, since Anthony Minghella’s Madam Butterfly, has used ENO as a cheap development house for future blockbusters.” (Butterfly is one of the five revivals being staged in the next season, “as a tribute to the late Anthony Minghella”, according to the press release). In the words of John Berry, ENO’s artistic director, “ENO leads the way with international collaborations” - performances begin this very weekend at the Met for ENO’s co-production of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, while ENO are also developing projects with opera companies including Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona; La Monnaie, Brussels; Festival d’Aix-en-Provence; Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich; New York City Opera; De Vlaamse Opera; Opera Australia; Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris; Teatro alla Scala, Milan; The Santa Fe Opera; Opera de Oviedo and Teatro dell Opera di Roma.
According to Lebrecht, this is profitable, too, for the Coli, “since the foreign partner pays from one-third to one-half of the costs” and “this allows ENO to afford directors and designers from the worlds of film and fashion who, while sometimes offending regular opera-goers, have drawn in under-thirties to see Sally Potter’s Carmen and Zandra Rhodes’s turquoise Aida frocks.”
But if all of this and the 10 new productions announced is, according to Lebrecht, “a bold manifesto from a company which, only months ago, committed one of the worst howlers ever seen on a London stage in the ineradicably awful Kismet”, it is also proof of how perceptions and artistic fortunes can change fairly rapidly. In the theatre, you’re only ever as good as your last show or maybe two; faithful audiences will allow the occasional clanger, but deliver too many in succession, and they will desert you, too. And winning them back, of course, is much harder than holding onto them in the first place (as any number of other businesses, from British Airways to AOL, can readily testify, both of whom I long ago deserted, except in direst need such as where the only alternative is EasyJet).
That brutal lesson, of course, was one that the RSC learnt to its considerable cost in the years of crisis that followed Adrian Noble’s suicidal mission to change the shape and structure of the RSC, and even the buildings it operated out of in both London (as it infamously abandoned the Barbican, without making provision for an alternative home to go to) and Stratford-upon-Avon. Some of the thoughts behind those changes may, however, yet prove to have a beneficial effect, with Stratford currently in the midst of a large redevelopment project to entirely reconfigure the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the temporary installation of the wonderful Courtyard Theatre now providing the template for the rebuilt main house.
Last night London got its first taster of that shape in its recreation of the Courtyard configuration with the press opening of Richard II at the Roundhouse (with three more Histories to follow in an all-day marathon today), which could in turn provide a template for the type of permanent home the RSC needs in London. But though physical space is a big part of the regeneration, the RSC has also lately been reclaiming its place at the centre of a larger space, namely the life of the theatrical nation, and what better way to do it than with Shakespeare’s cycle of history plays about our national life?
“When you take on a job like the RSC you need to work out why it’s worth doing”, Michael Boyd told Claire Allfree in an interview in yesterday’s Metro. He’s proving his case right now; but it’s also revealing that he did not invoke other classical companies in what he was trying to achieve, but spoke about “making muscular Shakespeare theatre that has the same immediacy and intimacy as a Punchdrunk show or a Shunt show.” Those fringe companies have come a long way, it seems, to now be dictating the direction and style of one of our two major national companies; while at the other one, Nick Hytner long ago let down the drawbridges to allow both of those companies to be presented under the National’s auspices (or at least with the endorsement of both its published and website programmes).