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'It's like driving a Ferrari'

Young conductor Olivia Clarke describes the experience of working with English National Opera and how it has crafted its sound for the Coliseum

I’m in the final year of my conducting fellowship with ENO, which is designed to support early career conductors. As part of the fellowship I have been mentored by Martyn Brabbins and the whole of ENO have been really welcoming to me. They have been very generous in giving me a lot of podium time, which you don’t often get in this kind of programme.

The fellowship has introduced me to every part of conducting, not just opera. I’ve been involved in the ENO Engage scheme, which included my first recording session as a conductor, I’ve conducted in the new concert series at St Martin in the Fields, and been part of the ENO Breathe and Finish This! outreach and education programmes. They’ve also given me an insight into the inner workings of an opera house. During the pandemic they even invited me to their board meetings on Zoom so I could see how those worked.

As well as giving me a huge platform, ENO have encouraged me to make connections with other organisations. I’ve recently been with Glyndebourne conducting La Bohème – they wouldn’t have heard of me if I hadn’t been with ENO. It’s given me a huge network and opened up career opportunities that I simply wouldn’t have otherwise.

At a time of crisis during the Covid lockdown I could see how innovative ENO were in their response. I assisted on the production of La Bohème in Alexandra Palace car park and worked on the Tosca in Crystal Palace’s outdoor venue, which were both new initiatives developed during the pandemic. The Alexandra Palace performance was on a big festival stage. We had the orchestra up on a rigging and Martyn conducted them from a cherry picker. One concert had to be cancelled as it was too windy and the cherry picker was swaying too much!

We’ve only just come back together and started making music again; to threaten to take that away again is heart breaking. Everyone is just getting back on their feet but, despite the restrictions, ENO have gone outside of the box to show how opera can help to heal people.

When people say opera is elitist, or not accessible for a 2022 world, it’s simply not the case. The power of the human voice is always going to be relevant. Combined with the thrilling force of a live orchestra, opera takes you through the most intense emotions and helps you process your own feelings. There’s no substitute for the joy, beauty and emotional release you experience in opera. Every human needs to be taken out of the everyday – that escapism is crucial – whether it’s through Netflix or ENO.

'The acoustic of the Coliseum is part of ENO – you can’t just pick it up and move it elsewhere'

I’m biased of course, but I really think ENO is the best opera orchestra I’ve ever come across, and not just in the UK. They are so responsive and in tune with each other – literally and metaphorically, they really breathe together. Coming in as a conductor it’s like driving a Ferrari, you can do absolutely anything very subtly with them.

The acoustic of the Coliseum is part of ENO – you can’t just pick it up and move it elsewhere. No other opera house has the same acoustic and the orchestra’s sound has been developed perfectly for it. They know what every dynamic means in that building. If you sit in the upper circle you get hit by the sound from the woodwind, straight into your forehead. Even if you’re sitting up in the gods, you can feel the sound from the double basses coming through the floor. It’s a visceral, full-body experience.

Then there are aspects people might not be so aware of, such as ENO’s fantastic sound team, who do incredible work with the acoustics and sound effects of an opera, or the large ENO music library, which has its own librarian who’s worked there for years and knows where everything is. Even three years wouldn’t really be enough to move it all.

ENO also has international partnerships with companies including the Metropolitan Opera in New York and Canadian Opera Company. It’s not London-centric or even UK-centric, it’s an international company.

London itself needs two opera houses. The Royal Opera House are amazing but they are completely different – they focus on the luxury experience, whereas ENO has the full mix. If you want the next generation to be involved in and excited by opera then you need ENO.

My conducting fellowship officially ends in July 2023, but if ENO closes next April I will lose the opportunity for a lot of work as well as all the people who have given me backing. It’s like having the rug pulled from under me. I’ve had no choice but to focus on finding international work.

Opera and classical music have been intrinsic to the UK’s cultural heritage and I’d love to stay here, but there are so few opportunities now. Germany has 83 publicly funded opera houses, but the UK has only six. If we lose ENO there will be only five, and with the heavy cuts at Glyndebourne, Welsh National Opera and others too, there just isn’t the platform for young conductors to build from. All the small companies are wonderful, but you can’t earn a living from them. You really do need the whole opera ecosystem to be able to grow your career.

The ENO conducting fellowship is supported by the Philip Loubser Foundation.

Interview by Naomi McCarthy.

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