Opera + Classical Music Features

Preview: English National Opera 2010-11

The 2010-2011 English National Opera season opens on 18th September, and it’s set to be a spectacular one.

Coliseum, London

Coliseum, London (Photo: ENO)

We caught up with the company’s Artistic Director John Berry for a chat about the forthcoming productions and the new ventures planned.

“It’s by far our most ambitious season to date,” he says, obviously excited about it all. “The work we’ve been doing in previous seasons, with the mix of directors, styles and productions has really been leading up to this one, which has a fantastic balance of the new and old, the expected and the surprising.”

He refers to the ENO’s audiences as “loyal and adventurous,” a phrase which certainly resonates with 30-year adherents like me, and it’s that adventurous spirit which informs the coming year. Alongside operas such as The Makropulos Case, Radamisto, La Bohme and Parsifal, all in the hands of directors well established with the audience (Christopher Alden, David Alden, Jonathan Miller and Nikolaus Lehnhoff, respectively) there are challenging new experiences to look forward to.

There’s a new Don Giovanni with which Rufus Norris makes his operatic directing debut (opening on November 6th), Complicit’s Simon McBurney will direct the UK premiere of Alexander Rastakov’s A Dog’s Heart, (20th November) and in January there will be a new addition to the ENO’s growing roster of outstanding Donizetti in the shape of a Lucrezia Borgia which will introduce the visionary artist Mike Figgis to the Coliseum stage.

It’s heartening to hear his insistence on the paramount importance of the operatic voice – “Over centuries, the major celebrations in life have included singing, and for younger people especially to hear the human voice in opera, in a world where they are bombarded with noise, is something I’m passionate about.” It’s that “loyal and adventurous” again – he’s keen to keep our loyalty but he also wants us to look beyond our comfort zones both in terms of repertoire and style.

Engagement with theatre is something he feels younger audience members can draw upon in the new season, with crossovers from the theatrical world such as Des McAnuff, whose first season as Director of the Stratford, Ontario Shakespeare Festival received huge praise – he will direct the first work of the ENO season, Gounod’s Faust (18th September) which will continue the partnership with the Met which began in 2005. That partnership also closes the season, with a world premiere by Nico Muhly, based on a true story in which a teenager attempts to arrange his own murder via the internet – as Berry remarks, “Doing new work which has something to say about the world we live in has a genuine appeal to younger audiences.”

Collaboration and inter-disciplinary inspiration are key in his vision of how the ENO is developing as a company – “Opera is not a museum piece, it’s a constantly evolving art, and it’s up to us not only to keep alive the great works of the past but also to engage with the future, not just in terms of new works but new media, and I think that for anyone who has never been to an opera, it’s helpful to be able to see a production which brings in more familiar elements such as film.”

One of the company’s recent big hits was Partenope, perhaps unexpectedly as it’s a classical tale with music by Handel, but as Berry says, “The emotions are universal, and the music is much more modern in feel than some might think: it was also a spectacular production (it won the Olivier Award) and I think that our new Radamisto which opens on 7th October, could well have the same effect.” This is eagerly anticipated, featuring as it does two of the greatest Handelians of today, Laurence Cummings and Lawrence Zazzo.

Radamisto is also a showpiece for the ENO in that it unites internationally known artists such as Zazzo with emergent talents such as Sophie Bevan – the company has always showcased young British singers, and this season seems particularly well cast – the new Don Giovanni, for example, will be Iain Paterson, rapidly emerging as one of the most sought-after bass-baritones around.

John Berry speaks enthusiastically about the ethos at ENO – “We have a real identity, building on the excellent work that’s gone before; people really know what we’re about. When we set out our vision we didn”t sit here like New Labour, saying “What are the critics going to like?” – we thought more about what’s going to be good for opera, for the company. He says that ENO is not here to “give an easy ride,” and that programming is designed to challenge and promote debate.

“People expect radical work from us, this season especially, and we hope they’re going to experience the real buzz about the place” – a feeling for which he credits “the whole team” led by Ed Gardner, the company’s dynamic young musical director. Anyone lucky enough to be between 16 and 30 can get that buzz for 10 a seat in the Balcony, or 20 in the Dress Circle, under the free “Access All Arias” scheme – small wonder that ENO is increasing its audiences for what Berry calls “an event – something they wouldn”t see every day.” Not a bad definition of opera itself.

ENO’s 2010-11 season opens on 18 September 2010 with a new production of Gounod’s Faust. Further details can be found at eno.org

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Preview: English National Opera 2010-11