Martyn Brabbins, Musical Director of the English National Opera, on soothing the nation in the time of Covid-19

Susan Bradley

7 January 2021

The British conductor on his return to composing, the future of theatre and the unifying power of culture during the pandemic

“I think just about everybody realises how music, and culture in general – including great writing and great art – is something that binds us all together”

7 January 2021 | Susan Bradley

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here was a time when taking a break was a rare occurrence for Martyn Brabbins, the energetic and avuncular musical director of the English National Opera. Then, one day in March 2020, Brabbins took time away from the London Coliseum to listen to a rehearsal of Dvorak’s lyric fairy tale Rusalka.

Back then, life was pretty hectic, with a working schedule that saw him conducting both in London and around the world. On that March day, Brabbins and his baton had already conducted a critically-acclaimed production of Madame Butterfly at the Coliseum. The recent first night of the much-anticipated performance of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro had been a huge success. Rusalka, the rehearsal of which Brabbins was now listening to, was due to play to eager audiences in the coming weeks.

Little did Brabbins know that within a few hours the music would stop: the doors of the world-famous theatre would close; hundreds of singers, orchestra members, stagehands, costume designers and other members of the English National Opera family would be adrift in a sea of uncertainty; and nobody would have the opportunity to immerse themselves in live performances for months.

“We had a full spring season lined up and things were looking so good,” Brabbins, who joined the ENO four years ago, recalls. “Artistically these shows were sure-fire winners. They were great for the box office and reputation of the company, but they all went by the wayside.”

ENO Drive & Live La Boheme, Red Company, ENO Orchestra © Pablo Strong 

The set of Rusalka was on stage at the Coliseum, and at the rehearsal in Blackheath Brabbins had heard “fantastic music and a wonderful cast and orchestra”, which never got the chance to be heard by a wider audience.

Butterfly had to be abandoned partway through the run; we put on five of the scheduled 10 performances. It was cut off mid-flow, which was really upsetting because it was going so well. It was a wonderful cast, a beautiful production and people were flocking to see it. It was a personal loss because I was conducting.

“We want to get Rusalka and the Marriage of Figaro back on, but the challenge is that we have already planned 2021 and you cannot just cancel these plans. We’re looking at slots in the future when we can do it: we owe it to the original people in the productions that were cancelled.”

March 2020 marked the start of a period of uncertainty for the English National Opera. While all contracts for the full spring season were honoured, Martyn is worried about the loss of income suffered by many musicians, singers and others involved in putting on productions – especially those newly out of college without the sufficient tax returns needed to claim government grants.

“The ENO takes its responsibility to staff and freelancers very seriously," says the 61-year-old. "Even when shows were cancelled we paid everybody from our reserves. It’s been incredibly challenging for staff and singers. Everybody had to stop what they loved doing. For everybody involved in opera it’s a job, but it’s so difficult for singers and musicians not to be able to perform. I feel for those cut off in their prime.”

© Ben Ealovega

Once the initial shock of the implications of coronavirus had worn off, the ENO started thinking of ways it could help maintain the nation’s spirits, ranging from singers joining forces with comedian Matt Lucas for the Baked Potato Song to a drive-in opera, which for many was one of the highlights of summer 2020. Thousands of opera lovers flocked to Alexandra Palace to watch performances of Puccini’s La Boheme from their cars, with the music relayed through an FM radio band.

“It all stemmed from a crazy idea that came up in passing conversation with the artistic team, then everybody got very excited and got behind it, and we made it happen,” says Brabbins. “We were doing something that nobody had ever tried. It was a challenge from beginning to end: for a start we had to build a stage. We needed to ensure the sound quality was good, which was one of my main concerns, and protect the quality of life of our neighbours. There was also the English weather in September to consider.”

Despite the challenges, the ENO set about making it happen, organising red and blue teams containing scaled down orchestras, casts, choruses and teams of stage hands and crews and putting on two performances a day.

“Each bubble had its own guidelines and parameters,” explains Brabbins, who conducted his red company from a gantry. “We socially distanced everything, including the production, with none of the singers getting close to each other. La Boheme is one of the top 10 operas of all time and it’s very beautiful, but the poignant part of the story is when Mimi the heroine dies from respiratory disease. We didn’t make a big deal of the Covid 19 connection but it was obvious to most people. We could have done something with lots of happiness in it, but we felt La Boheme reflected the mood of the country.”

ENO Drive & Live La Bohème 2020 © Lloyd Winters

Looking to the year ahead, Martyn and fellow top team members Stuart Murphy, the ENO’s chief executive, and artistic director Annilese Miskimmon are keen to ensure a sound future for the organisation, along with the upkeep of the 116-year-old Coliseum.

Over the next few months, they’re hopeful that repayable finance from the Culture Recovery Fund, announced by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport in December, will enable the ENO to take forward plans to restructure and make the theatre Covid secure.

The pandemic has caused Martyn, a man used to crisscrossing the world with his baton, working in places like Japan, Australia and China, conducting operas at The Kirov, La Scala and the Bayerische Staatsoper, to reflect on his 50-plus years as a musician.  

His career began shortly after his family moved from Leicester to Towcester when he was eight. It was in the Northamptonshire market town that he made friends with some lads who were members of the local brass band, leading him to take up the euphonium. “My love of music, and my career, flowed from joining that brass band and I’m incredibly grateful for that experience,” he says.

Listening to the radio was a rare occurrence for Martyn before March 2020, but a programme about musical education and the way it was suffering due to Covid prompted him to contact his local music service and offer to be its patron. “I was comprehensive educated and benefited from free lessons at school, and I had a wonderful conducting teacher in Russia,” Brabbins explains. “I felt I wanted to give something back. Over the past few months, I’ve been taking part in Zoom sessions with staff, question-and-answer sessions with a youth orchestra and I’ve been talking to a couple of young musicians looking towards a career in music.”

ENO Orchestra 2019, conducted by Martyn Brabbins © Alastair Muir

The various lockdowns have also given Martyn time and space to return to composing, resulting in the haunting piece Matchless Space for the viola, a recording of which can be watched online on The Violin Channel. “I was inspired to write this piece by the truly matchless viola playing of Lawrence Power, with whom I have enjoyed a long and fruitful musical friendship,” Brabbins explains. “The title Matchless Space also refers to the London Coliseum, the architect for which was Frank Matchum, so it’s a play on words of his name, too.”

Away from music, Brabbins has made the most of the unexpected opportunity to spend more time at home, going for long walks with his poodle, pottering in his garden and reading a few books.

“Life as a musical director means constantly toing-and-froing and I spent a month to six weeks away at a time; I never experienced that incredible sense of being in one place with my wife, Karen.” Brabbins met Karen, a violinist, in 1977. They have "kind of grown up together” and have three children.

ENO The Marriage of Figaro 2020, Ensemble © Marc Brenner

“I have spent a lot of time doing normal things people take for granted that I have never had time to do, and it’s just been great. I had a guilty sense of enjoying the fact I was not having to rush around, but it was an enforced quiet time. The thing that enforced it was shocking, but nevertheless on a personal level, having the chance to quieten down was really refreshing.”

As the UK begins to look to life beyond Covid-19, a revitalised Martyn is looking forward to seeing the buzz and bustle return to the ENO and implementing bold plans for its future. “It’s been tough, but we hope we’re going to come out of this strong,” he says. “The lesson for me from the last few months is that the arts are generally so fundamentally important to everybody in this country, probably more than people realise.

“I think just about everybody realises how music, and culture in general – including great writing and great art – is something that binds us all together.”

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