English National Opera's financial results for 2011/12 (year ending 31 March 2012) have been published on the charity commission website. The result does not make entirely comfortable reading, and ENO's management must be planning their 2013/14 season with some care. The year covered by the report was a challenging one, it included 11 new productions (The Return of Ulysses, The Damnation of Faust, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Simon Boccanegra, Two Boys, The Passenger, The Marriage of Figaro, Castor and Pollux, Eugene Onegin, The Tales of Hoffmann and The Death of Klinghoffer) plus 3 revivals (Elixir of love, Tosca and Der Rosenkavalier), all presented in an extremely difficult climate. The result, as might be expected, is a significant loss.
Perhaps the most worrying figures are not so much the loss made over the year, as the fact that audience attendance was 188,000, just 71% of capacity with a total of 115 performances. (For the previous year the attendance was 214,000, 80% of capacity with a total of 134 performances). 30,0000 attended contemporary opera (up on a 1000 from the previous year). With box office income down £1.2 million on the previous year, it is clear that whilst there has been a 19% growth in the affordable ticket scheme, this has not been paralleled by a growth in the punters who pay full price for tickets. But it must be pointed out that the total income from the operation of ENO is up, thanks to 'production exploitation and sundry income', a reflection on the way many of the new productions are having a dynamic life after first being seen at the London Coliseum.
The present season seems to be trying to balance things by mixing the more challenging work with long runs of popular stand bys such as The Mikado and The Barber of Seville. But when we attended Julius Caesar the auditorium was by no means full, rather worrying in a production of a popular Handel opera. You can't help wonder whether an alternative ticket pricing model could be considered, to try to attract all the middle aged and elderly couples who now seem to be sitting in cheaper seats and going to fewer productions. What is more challenging, to attract young audiences to productions which are new and hip, or to persuade hide-bound and settled subscribers to take a risk and really enjoy something alarming and new?
The report is written in a pretty up beat manner. One hopes that this is based on real data and knowledge and that future seasons will not see further extreme cost cutting. The most serious issue is that if they have another similar year in 2012/13, then when a financial review happens people will start asking, again, what is English National Opera for? Though John Berry and his team have laid down an interesting challenge, I don't think that they have quite yet answered the question.