Magazine article The Spectator

A Colossal Achievement

Magazine article The Spectator

A Colossal Achievement

Article excerpt


by Susie Gilbert

Faber, £25, pp. 703, ISBN 9780571224937

£20 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

There is a slightly odd but pleasingly old-fashioned feel to the design for the dustjacket of this book, with its early London Underground style of lettering and a painting of the Coliseum at night, as viewed from Trafalgar Square, in 1905 - some decades before the building became home to English National Opera.

This is a substantial volume and it deals with its subject matter in considerable detail. The history of English National Opera is a long and complex one and Susie Gilbert has been assiduous in her research, helped by generous access to the company's archives and, clearly invaluable, the long memory and informed opinions of Rodney Milnes, opera critic of this magazine from 1970-1990. She has conducted numerous interviews and ploughed her way through correspondence, press cuttings and minutes of board meetings. Every source is scrupulously noted, there is a comprehensive index and a useful list of all operas staged from 1931 to the present day.

It is undeniable that the early days of the company make for the most interesting reading, with my great heroine Lilian Baylis firmly at the centre of the story.

Lilian Baylis was a phenomenon, with her obstinacy, her strongly held religious beliefs, her fierce devotion to the artists who worked for her, her rather unlikely passion for opera and theatre and her conviction that both pleasures should be available to everyone. Anyone working for ENO should be given a copy of her speech for radio with its clarion call conclusion:

All art is a bond between rich and poor; it allows of no class distinctions . . . . It is a crying need of working men and women who need to see beyond the four walls of their offices, workshops and homes into a world of awe and wonder.

Following the fortunes of the company that was to become English National Opera, from its first stirrings at the Old Vic, its life on the road during the war, the years at Sadler's Wells, its flirtations with setting up next to the National Theatre on the South Bank and finally to its current base at the London Coliseum, it is fascinating to see how certain themes crop up over and again: the search for a suitable home for the opera company; the constant attempt to strike a balance between artistic excellence and making the operatic experience as accessible and reasonably priced as possible; the efforts to nurture homegrown talent; the determination, above all, to communicate with the audience in its own language. …

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