Entertainment & Arts

ENO's incoming music director aiming to be 'bolder'

Image copyright Sim Canetty-Clarke
Image caption Mark Wigglesworth will become music director at English National Opera in 2015

Mark Wigglesworth's conducting career has seen him work with a host of world class ensembles around the globe, and next year he takes the helm at English National Opera.

But foremost in his mind is his return to the Proms - with a concert featuring a composer he feels deserves more credit.

"The main piece is Elgar's first symphony which is a fantastic piece to do," says Wigglesworth.

"We tend to take Elgar's achievements for granted, but when you consider that there was basically no British orchestral music before him, his achievements seem all the greater.

"And the sort of barriers that he broke down culturally were quite considerable", he explains.

"It's a piece that I think reflects amazingly the time, 1907-08, when Britain was losing its confidence.

"There's a wonderful, almost ambiguous triumph at the end, which suggests it might not all be plain sailing.

"And I think how he achieved that is miraculous."

Image caption Composer Edward Elgar "broke down cultural barriers", says the conductor

Wigglesworth has been a regular at the Proms since 1991, conducting works by composers ranging from Olivier Messiaen to Richard Wagner.

In that time he has worked with orchestras in Tokyo, New York and Stockholm, to name just a few stops on his itinerary.

There have also been a number of well-received outings at English National Opera (ENO), where Wigglesworth takes over from Edward Gardner as music director next year.

Laughing boisterously, he agrees that taking the helm at ENO is a big undertaking, all the more so because of the standard set by the outgoing Gardner.

"He's done a fantastic job," says Wigglesworth.

"Musical standards at English National Opera have always been very high," he continues, explaining that his task will be to maintain them, "and that's easier than creating them in the first place".

"I've known ENO for 30 years," he continues. "I've worked there quite a lot and always had a wonderful time.

"So to be able to be there all the time... it's a huge privilege."

So how might a Marriage of Figaro, or a La Boheme, sound different under Wigglesworth's baton?

Image caption English National Opera music director Edward Gardner will hand over to Wigglesworth next year

He won't be drawn on how his style might differ from Gardner, saying only that the two are "similar in our approach".

Wigglesworth arrives at ENO at a time when it is having to reshape itself in order to survive.

The company's Arts Council funding has been cut by 29% and it announced earlier this year that it will stage musicals as well operas.

It's a big financial blow that will see its annual grant drop from £17.2m in 2014/15 to £12.4m in the subsequent financial year.

Explaining the cut, the Arts Council said that despite the "indisputably ambitious quality of work", the ENO had "struggled to reach box office targets and achieve long-term stability".

But Wigglesworth insists it remains "a very exciting time for the company".

"Of course it is depressing to lose money, to lose funding - that is obvious," he says.

"But that is what it is, and I believe that the vision of the company can sustain itself into the future.

"I think the musicals is a headline-attracting branch, but ENO's always done musicals.

"We're just trying to do them now a little bit better. And we're not doing any less opera."

ENO's last season included 10 new productions and one entirely new commission.

Image copyright Tristram Kenton
Image caption A revival of Verdi's La Traviata is part of the ENO's 2014/15 season

But with the recent closure of some big name musicals, and an ongoing industrial dispute at one of the company's production partners, New York's Metropolitan Opera, it might not come as a surprise if ENO chose to play things safe.

However, that's a suggestion that Wigglesworth bats away. "No, because we can't afford not to take risks," he says.

"Nobody wants ENO just to survive. They want it to survive so that it can continue to do adventurous work. And when you are adventurous, inevitably some risks aren't going to come off.

"It's our job to balance that risk, and make sure that there are enough sure-fire successes surrounding the risks, to make sure that the company stays buoyant financially and artistically if they don't all come off."

Wigglesworth says that while ENO must stay afloat financially, that's not the sole aim.

"It's perfectly healthy to engage 100% of the time in the finances of the company, but you also have to engage in the artistic ambitions of the company," he adds.

He also sees the post as an opportunity to stretch himself artistically.

"The mutual trust that comes from being part of an organisation allows you to be bolder as a performer, and I'm really looking forward to the opportunity of taking some risks myself, frankly.

"More risks, in terms of what I do - perhaps even how I do it. It's an opportunity to really explore."

Mark Wigglesworth conducts the BBC National Orchestra of Wales at the Royal Albert Hall on 6 August.

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