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Arts Council England's plans to cut English National Opera funding and move organisation out of London have been described as 'an absolute travesty' by its chief executive, as petition to reverse the decision launches.


Colin/Wikimedia Commons

The English National Opera (ENO) has hit out at plans to slash its funding amid suggestions by Arts Council England that it may relocate to Manchester, claiming it has never had any intention of moving there.

Speaking on BBC's Front Row programme yesterday Stuart Murphy, Chief Excutive of ENO, said ACE's decision to remove it from the National Portfolio, through which it was provided £12.5m a year, had left the organisation "baffled and shocked".

He added that the first he had heard of potential move to Manchester, funded with up to £17m of ACE money over three years, was on Friday (4 November), the day of the press conference outlining the details of the National Portfolio for 2023-26.


In response, ACE Chair Sir Nicholas Serota said on the same programme that "the arts don't stand still", and ACE "decided that we should not spread the misery across every company in the country".

Through ACE's Investment Programme for 2023-26 a total of 990 arts and culture organisations will make up the National Portfolio for the next three years receiving a combined £446m a year between them.

As part of the government's levelling up agenda the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport instructed ACE to ensure that more of the money it invests goes outside of the capital, with funding for London being cut by 15%.

The English National Opera was one of the most high-profile casualties of the move.

A statement published on the ENO website on the day of the announcement said that ACE's offer of £17m over the next three years "will allow us to increase our national presence by creating a new base out of London, potentially in Manchester".

"The ENO has vision and purpose and we aim to support the levelling up agenda by reimagining opera for future generations across England," it added.

Performing brilliantly

But yesterday its Chief Exective Stuart Murphy hit out at the decision, pointing to the fact that an ACE report on how ENO performed over the last four years was "glowing". 

"It said we performed brilliantly in terms of diversity, which we did. 20% of our principal performers are people who are from an ethnic diversity. One in seven of our audience were under 35," he said.

"There's definitely a small cabal of opera critics who speak to one and other and generate a confection of outrage or a policy decision amongst themselves but that's not reflective of the 500,000 people a year who come to the Coliseum.

"So we expected we would do well. We were told we were absolutely on track. We were delighted with where the ENO is going, and with the 300 permanent staff in the orchestra, chorus, technical, we were under some sense there would be cuts from London but on average 15% across London, which for us would be about £1.5m.

"To have £12.5m removed in 20 weeks time, uprooting one of the world's great art companies that has actually led the way in the opera world, modernising and raising diversity, being on broadcast, on Tik Tok, successfully attracting new audiences is an absolute travesty and we are completely shocked to have to be honest."

The £17m in the Arts Council press release was up to £17m over three years so we are effectively moving from £12.5m a year to £5.3m a year. Again, sounds a lot of money, but actually when you compare whats happened to us versus other opera companies or other arts companies of scale we are completely bemused and baffled and shocked.

When asked why Manchester had been named as a possible new home for the ENO, Murphy said: "Ask the Arts Council.

"We heard on the Thursday [3 November] we were going to get our budget removed. At the meeting on Friday they said we were thinking of Manchester. We haven't seen any audience need for opera in Manchester.

"Opera North, who perform opera in Manchester were unaware. The Factory, that's in Manchester, a great space, were unaware that we were thinking about it. And Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Manchester, hadn't been contacted. 

"So we just don't know, and the reality we face at the moment is turning around to the 300 incredibly skilled world's best musicians and costumes and makeup and technical and saying actually, come 1 April you either shift to Manchester, or half of you do, or you're out of a job." 

ENO has launched a petition against the move, calling for its funding to be reinstated.

Difficult choices

In response on the programme Sir Nicholas Serota, Chair of Arts Council England, said that "Manchester was regarded by the Arts Council as just one option". 

"We looked at the application that had been made by English National Opera, which is an innovative company that was putting forward thoughts about the way it could work, not just in London, but also elsewhere across the country.

"We had great faith in Stuart Murphy and his team in terms of thinking about the new ways in which opera can play a part in people's lives, not just in London but elsewhere in the country.

"The arts don't stand still. the arts develop and there are new ways of reaching audiences across the country as English National Opera itself has shown and as the Royal Opera House has shown through its programmes in cinemas.

"I think the Arts Council was faced with some very difficult choices. We decided that we should not spread the misery across every company in the country. 

"We should actually identify those companies that we thought could survive a withdrawal of their funding and on which we had faith that they had the ability to respond and I think that's the position that English National Opera is in. We want to work with them to see what we can build out of the work that they have been doing over many years."

Where is the money coming from?

According to Arts Council Chief Executive Darren Henley, the £17m offered to ENO over a three-year period is not coming from the overall £446m being provided to National Portfolio organisations, nor the £8m-a year Transfer Programme to relocate London-based organisations elsewhere in the country, or the Transition Programme to provide short-term support for organisations no longer in the National Portfolio.

"There are other organisations we are working to transform their business as well, and English National Opera I think will be one of those," Henley told Arts Professional. 

"Opera is an artform we really care about, and I think it's an opportunity we've got here to work with English National Opera. 

"We respect their leadership and we want to be able to work with them to think is there a different way, a better way, a more exciting and interesting way in which we can take opera forward in this country. So we will be talking to them about how that might happen and we have that £17m figure for us to be able to do that.

"We have ringfenced an amount of money for that. It's not a guarantee but we know that money is there for them to apply into and we will be talking to them about that in more detail over the coming days and weeks."