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Jun 10 / Simon

The Big Interview – John Berry

The Stage, 8/6/2014
The English National Opera artistic director’s bold, contemporary programming has divided audiences, but he seems to have steered the ENO through the 2011 financial crisis. He tells Simon Tait about th company’s plans for commercial partnerships and a new relationship with the public, and why surviving cancer has made him unafraid of risk

For John Berry, English National Opera’s artistic director, the microcosm of the surreal switchback ride ENO has been on for the last couple of decades and more came on a balmy spring evening in 2012 at the Royal Opera House when the company picked up three Olivier Awards for the previous season.

“What you didn’t know then was that we’d had a real blip,” he says. “The arts council grant was down, the economy was tricky, box office was tough, a whole series of issues came together in 2011, and it was the very season when we won the Olivier for ‘outstanding achievement in opera for breadth and diversity of work’”.

It was very the season for which the company recorded a season deficit of £2.2m. “It’s an opera, really, isn’t it?” he says.

That switchback ride seems to have been up on artistic highs like that season’s Castor and Pollux to financial crises when the arts council – whose grant, though reduced, is still worth half the ENO annual turnover – has had to bale it out.

There will be no more bale-outs, Berry says unequivocally, the fairground ride has stopped. The loss of 2011 was cancelled not by ACE but by using reserves the company had decided to build up, and for last season will show a surplus of £200,000-plus. In April he announced a season as risky as any, but also a development programme that will change its business plan and the public’s relationship with the company.

Next year John Berry will celebrate 20 years at ENO and he is credited with the contemporary programming that has delighted and sometimes horrified audiences, which has brought new people to the Coliseum, ENO’s home, and kept traditional opera lovers away. He has been called both reckless and inspired, and he is presiding over the company’s biggest changes since Lilian Baylis created it 83 years ago.

At 24 John Berry was a promising clarinet player who had won one of just two scholarships to study the instrument at the Royal Northern College of Music (he was born in Lancashire and grew up in Cheshire) who had gone on to New York to study with Gervase de Peyer. He had been feeling unwell for some time and went for a check up. “The doctor said, ‘I hope it’s TB’”.

He returned to Manchester, went from the airport straight to Christie’s Hospital and found that it wasn’t TB but Hodgkin’s Disease, usually fatal then, and that the cancer had spread to his chest. Through 1985 and 1986, under the care of the pioneering oncologist Derek Crowther, he underwent operations, chemo and radiotherapy which failed, he had two treatments that failed he was given an experimental combination therapy not then used in this country. The tumour began to respond and by 1986 was gone. It has never returned.

His lungs damaged, however, his playing career was over and he launched into a different career, setting up a series of music schools in Cheshire, called Sounds Alive, with 500 pupils. “The cancer changed me, changed everything,” he says.

At the RNCM he had been captivated by the voice, with some of his classmates being a generation of great singers including Jane Eaglen, Clive Bayley and Barry Banks. In 1990 he founded the Brereton International Symposium masterclasses in Cheshire, sponsored by Jerwood, to which he brought stars such as Birgit Nilsson, Thomas Hampson, Renata Scotto and Brigitte Fassbaender. “When you’re as naïve as I was you don’t think about writing to someone like Nilsson, but she rang back and said she’d love to come – because it was private. Tom Hampson has become a life-long friend”.

He became a singers’ agent, an advisor to the Royal College of Music and the Hallé Orchestra and a consultant on BBC and Channel 4 opera film projects, but was still running his summer school when he joined ENO as casting director in 1995. He arrived on the cusp of the change between Dennis Marks, who hired him, and Nicholas Payne –still a friend and mentor – as ENO directors and rode the controversial three year reign of Sean Doran before the arrival of Loretta Tomasi as chief executive, a new title. By then Berry, now 52, had risen through director of opera planning to become, in 2005, artistic director.

“Under Loretta and me there has been no bale out. There were good years and not so good years when those reserves have been a fantastic foundation for us to make important decisions,” he says now.

Last December Tomasi stood down to return to her native Australia and with an interim management team and a new chairman, Martyn Rose, replacing Peter Bazalgette who had been appointed chairman of the Arts Council, Berry devised ENO’s future.

He had laid the foundations not only by creating a safety net with reserves saved from the good times, but by building a network of co-production partnerships across the world. There are 40, the first having been with the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. The recent Thebans, Julian Anderson’s first opera, which Berry knew he wanted to do four years ago, could not have been possible if Bonn Opera hadn’t paid for and built the set in exchange for David Alden’s ENO production of Lucia di Lammermore. “It saved us half a million,” Berry says. “Our international connections are so extensive now that if I say I want to do something, I know we can raise the money for it”.

Terry Gilliam’s production of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini that opens on June 17 is one of the most ambitious projects of recent years, Berry says: “It has to be good”.

The 2014-15 programme has all the chutzpah that has been associated with Berry, with 11 new productions. Richard Jones, always controversial but particularly recently for his Glyndebourne production of Rigoletto, will direct The Mastersingers of Nuremburg; the enfant terrible of opera directors, Peter Sellars, returns with the world staged premiers of John Adams’s “The Gospel According to the Other Mary, and the first fully staged production of Purcell’s 1695 opera The Indian Queen; two young British composers get world premiers; the film director Mike Leigh will do Pirates of Penzance, his first ever opera; there will be a new partnership with the Bristol Old Vic for a production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo.

Underneath the headline riskiness, though, is sound support in the programme, he says. Pirates of Penzance by Leigh will be extremely popular and there will be plenty of performances; there will be revivals of bankers like Carmen, La Traviata, The Marriage of Figaro, Jonathan Miller’s La Bohème. “There were probably two seasons where I programmed too much contemporary rep, too much rep that was edgy,” Berry admits. “This season and the next season it feels more balanced in an economy that’s still a bit jumpy in an art form that’s still finding it’s feet, so I think I’m actually being sensible”. His target is to raise £3m next year and he has identified 75% of it.

But the strike for independence is in the planning for the further future rather than the next season. The big announcement was the plan for a new production centre, site as yet unknown, which will cost a modest £10m and for which Berry believes he has enough of a promise from supporters to ensure it will be open by the end of 2016, while the company is using five or six different venues around London to rehearse. It will save ENO £1m a year.

He has made a deal with the West End producers Michael Grade and Michael Linnit to create musical theatre that they will fund with the ENO singers and orchestra, taking back some of the 17 weeks a year when the Coliseum is hired out, and which will transfer to other theatres after the initial Coliseum run. A potential profit of millions beckoning. New audiences will continue to be probed for through keeping ticket prices affordable and schemes like Undress Nights when first tickets are available at £25, and by an expanding database.

The Coliseum itself, which ENO now owns, is to open out. Until now closed to the public except when a production is under way, Berry is going into partnership with a restaurateur (as yet unnamed) to provide a restaurant, a foyer café and bars that will be open all day and, as a by-product, contribute to the wider database.

Because of arts council policy ENO cannot tour in England, so that productions like Anthony Minghella’s famous Madame Butterfly is still being enjoyed by audiences around the world but has never been seen in an English theatre other than the Coliseum. So Berry has made another partnership AltiveMedia to take filmed productions to 400 cinemas, as well as making pro-productions with the Barbican, the Young Vic and now the Bristol Old Vic.

Berry has a new partner in Henriette Götz who has arrived from Belgium as executive director, with a reputation for fundraising and commercial acumen in a creative environment.

And although the “transformation”, as Berry calls it, is towards a new independence as the expectation is for a further substantial reduction in the arts council grant when it is announced in July, ACE will still be important. Berry says ACE has available for the whole of England less than there is for the city of Berlin. “They’re under huge pressure, but money from the arts council has to be seen as a springboard for us to really be ambitious and excel with bringing money in from outside of the public funded circle. We are showing we can do that,” Berry says.

“I think what we’re showing is that we can increase what we want to do by getting commercial partners to take some of the risk. Opening the Colly won’t make us a lot of money, but it will change our relationship with the public completely.

“We’re going to be more efficient, have more work, give better public value and we’re going to try and create here a model that is an opera house for the future.”

John Berry box outs

1. Born in Bolton, Lancashire, 1961
2. Trained as a clarinet player, Royal Northern College of Music
3. Landmark production would be Anthony Minghella’s Madame Butterfly of 2005, the highest grossing production in ENO history
4. I’ve never received an award apart from on behalf of ENO
5. First job: Probably working for Harrison Parrott – I was self employed before that
6. Next job: I wouldn’t want to run another opera house unless it was a really exceptional offer, I want to get on with the exciting future there is here
7. Biggest influence: There have been three – Nicholas Payne, former director of ENO now director of Europa Opera; Gerard Mortier, the Belgian opera director; Matthew Epstein, a doyen in artists’ management for singers.
8. What would you have been? Nothing. I began playing the clarinet at 12 and have never had to think about what I do since.
9. Do you have any superstitions? No, when you’ve had a near death experience superstition is the last thing you need. I’m just glad I can stand up every morning which for a long time I couldn’t.