ENO needs a home in London, says the opera star amid rumors of a new assessment of funding cuts | English National Opera (ENO)

There can be no real “leveling up” of culture across Britain unless we stick to the places where top performers work together, veteran opera star Sir John Tomlinson has argued. The international singer’s plea to Arts Council England to rethink moving the English National Opera (ENO) from its London home comes as rumors build that it will backtrack on its shock decision to withdraw its annual funding from the company.

“Every singer needs a thriving musical world around them,” said Lancashire-born Tomlinson, who is president of the Royal Northern College of Music. “You can’t develop your talent in a vacuum.”

Talking to Observer, a source close to the arts council claims a new plan for the survival of ENO may be drawn up early in the new year. So far, no mayor of a major northern city is believed to have welcomed the prospect of becoming the home of the London company.

“I was in total disbelief,” Tomlinson said the moment he learned the foundations of the ENO, based at the London Coliseum since 1968, were to be torn up. “The company has ticked all the boxes for many years now. I just hope the Cultural Council will think again.”

Tomlinson, 76, is one of opera’s most respected bass-baritones. He has, he revealed, written to Sir Nicholas Serota, chairman of Arts Council England (ACE), to make the case for keeping the ENO. Forty years ago, he was part of a 30-strong group who sang together in what is considered a “golden age” for the opera company, when it toured the country from its base at the Coliseum. Since then, the number of performances in the capital and across the UK has been reduced dramatically as levels of public funding have declined.

Sir John Tomlinson as Tiresias, in the centre, and Johan Reuter as Oedipe in the Royal Opera’s production of Oedipe. Photo: Robbie Jack/Corbis/Getty Images

An ENO spokesperson did not comment on the suggestion that the enforced move is under review, but confirmed that talks are continuing: “We cannot provide any details at this time about our ongoing negotiations with ACE, but we continue to encourage them to develop a strategy for that opera should inform sustainable and consistent investment in the sector,” they said.

Last month, when news of the loss of £12.6m of annual funding was announced, the company received a one-off investment of £17m over three years while it moved. The best use of this allocated money is now at the center of the discussions.

The ENO spokesperson added that the company has welcomed the debate in the Lords and Commons this month. The withdrawal of grants was also recently criticized on ITVs This morning by presenters Holly Willoughby and Phillip Schofield.

Earlier this month, Darren Henley, chief executive of ACE, confirmed during a select committee appearance in Parliament that the organization recognized the importance of retaining its London base.

The ENO spokesperson said: “This is something we continue to campaign for, along with reinstating our funding. A strong London base is essential to allow us to help ACE deliver the Government’s equalization agenda and serve venues across the country in a meaningful way , and it is crucial that this is delivered with full funding and with extensive consultation, and in a realistic timeframe.

Entertainment industry workers protested arts funding cuts in London in November.
Entertainment industry workers protested arts funding cuts in London in November. Photo: Tolga Akmen/EPA

“MPs and gentlemen criticized the lack of transparency in the decision-making process around the allocation of arts funding. The ENO has been excellent and has consistently met the targets set by ACE, which they themselves admitted, so we continue to seek clarity on their decision to remove us from the national portfolio The work we are doing to welcome new and diverse audiences to opera is important, as evidenced by the support of over 78,000 people who have now signed a petition in support of us,” said the ENO spokesperson.

Debate in the Lords focused on the term “grand opera”, which fans of lyric theater believe was deliberately used by ACE to suggest that the art form is excessive and irrelevant. Sir Peter Bottomley MP claimed that ACE has ignored the growth in the number of people attending opera. “It has flawed numbers, no strategy and a flawed consultation – a flawed approach from day one,” Mr Bottomley said.

Tomlinson agreed that while opera can be performed on any scale, with or without a “huge” proscenium arch, the singers must still be of the highest caliber. “Of course you can put on an opera in a car park anywhere in the UK if you want, and I’ve sung to audiences in a lot of unusual places, but you still have to have good singers to make it work, and they have to have had years of experience singing in larger productions to learn those skills. And I needed all my skills to do these shows.”

Born in Oswaldtwistle, Tomlinson sang with the Accrington Male Voice Choir as a teenager and recalled that a trip to London to see a full-scale professional Italian opera was seen as “the real stuff”. His career has since taken him all over the world, but he has continued to appear regularly at the Colosseum and Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House.

The singer, who will take part in a new, small-scale opera based on Shakespeare’s King Lear next month, remains convinced that classical singers need to develop together near a “critical mass” of other talent: “You need experience around you to get experience.”

The new opera, The Chained King, tells the story of the original play in flashback as Lear and his youngest daughter Cordelia are held in prison. Tomlinson will appear in the London premiere at the Wigmore Hall opposite mezzo-soprano Rozanna Madylus as Cordelia, in the work, written for him by composer John Casken.

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