ENO regrets? No, just plans

by Richard Morrison

Andrew Litton was jilted by the ENO. Their loss, says Richard Morrison

Oh, the irony of it all! In the very week that English National Opera is plunged into more turmoil by the resignation of its director, Seán Doran, guess who is conducting the next show at the Coliseum? Why it's Andrew Litton — the 46-year-old New Yorker whom Doran and the ENO board turned down as the company's next music director.

Litton is an immensely capable musician, hugely experienced for his age, likeable, witty, painstaking, canny with money-men, a dedicated Anglophile (he likes his Vauxhall flat, he says, because it's "handy for the Oval"), and with an impeccable record of running big organisations. He is just completing a 12-year stint as music director of the Dallas Symphony, during which he so endeared himself to the public that the orchestra's endowment fund (supported entirely by donations from the community) shot up from $19 million to over $100 million.

In short, he seems just the sort of lively but reassuringly solid musician who would bring a steady hand to ENO's quivering tiller. So this increasingly Kafkaesque company naturally passed him over in favour of a little-known Italian, Oleg Caetani, who will be in Australia for three months each year.

Litton doesn't hide his disappointment. "I was very sad that the decision didn't go my way," he says. "I would have loved the job. I was even preparing to move my family lock, stock and barrel over to the UK. Don't forget that my wife's English anyway, and the kids half-and-half. It was a no-brainer really: we were ready to phone the movers. But perhaps it wasn't meant to be."

And perhaps Litton is also better off out of it. "Well, I won't comment on that! But you're not the first person to say it."

What makes the decision seem doubly unjust is that Litton was the conductor who staunchly had to keep the music going through one of ENO's most reviled productions. It was him in the pit for Calixto Bieito's staging of A Masked Ball. "Yes, I had to conduct those 14 occupied toilets," he says, with a grimace.

Did he ever feel like walking out in disgust? "Well, I wasn't going to quit because I'm not a quitter, and I loved the cast. But the difficulty with that production was that Bieito was never there. His assistant put it on. Bieito was dealing with his father's health issues back in Spain. In 37 days of rehearsal he was there for nine hours.

"So I had nobody to dialogue with. All I could do was say things like 'Do we have to have this fascist salute?' — and I got nowhere. I would at least have liked to have heard his reasoning. Still, what's nice is that Billy Budd is eradicating all memory of that."

In fact, the Britten opera, which opens at the Coliseum tomorrow, should bring back very happy memories. Litton conducted this Neil Armfield production when it was new at Welsh National Opera in 1998, and he garnered the sort of reviews that scream to be plastered across billboards. "The chief architect of this triumph is the young American conductor," Rodney Milnes wrote in The Times. "Budd will never sound the same again."

Oddly enough, Litton hasn't conducted a note of Britten since — though he is quick to assure me that his love for the composer's music is eternal. "Every time I come back to Budd I'm fascinated by the genius orchestration. And the original production was one of my favourite experiences. Neil's staging is totally musical. And he's the kind of director who will rethink a production afresh for a new cast. I know that, for example, working with someone as experienced as John Tomlinson (who sings the evil Claggart) has changed his thinking."

Litton, who won a lot of British fans in his twenties as conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, says he has had a "fantastic run" with the Dallas Symphony. "But I've pushed that envelope as far as it will go. Being music director of an American orchestra brings so many non-musical obligations. So many dinners with potential donors — as you see from my stomach. This whole concept of fundraising is one that the British cultural scene is attempting to embrace with alacrity now, because you are trying to make up for lost time. But it's a continual battle to persuade people to give, year after year."

Instead, he has unexpectedly transferred his allegiance to a very different band: the venerable Bergen Philharmonic. "I have a penchant for orchestras that are geographically challenged," he quips. "First Bournemouth — great orchestra in the most unlikely place. Then Dallas. And now Bergen, stuck out on the west coast of Norway. Yet it has an amazing 240-year history. Did you know it gave the premiere of Beethoven's Second Symphony?

"Of course the Oslo Philharmonic has this huge reputation, thanks to the way Mariss Jansons built it up. But I hope we can achieve the same thing. Anyway, in 2007 we have been given a concert date in a certain round building in London, as part of a famous summer series that I'm not allowed to speak about. So you can judge us then."

Litton's plans in Bergen also include developing a high-quality opera season. So ENO's loss would seem to be Norway's gain. What's more, he isn't expected to wine and dine potential donors. "The orchestra is 95 per cent state-funded!" he exclaims. "The word 'sponsor' doesn't even exist in Norwegian."

Originally printed The Times Online (London) on December 3, 2005
Copyright © 2005 Times Newspapers Ltd.