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Helping the English National Opera regain its voice
September 05, 2017
When Cressida Pollock, a long-time opera fan, took over as CEO at the English National Opera a little over two years ago, the outlook was grim: funding had been cut, and its very existence was in jeopardy. Now, with the Opera reinstated for state funding until 2022, Cressida has helped to ensure that the show will go on.

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Cressida Pollock (LON 13-15), CEO of the English National Opera, had a problem on her hands the day we spoke to her. There was a leak in the roof of the London Coliseum, the Opera’s home; it was raining; and there was a performance that evening. She was in the process of figuring out if a quick fix could be found so that the performance could take place.

It was a good problem to have, considering that two years ago, when Cressida took over as CEO, there was no guarantee that there would be any more performances at all. The Opera was widely viewed as being in crisis, and the organization had lost both 30% of its government support (15% of its total budget) permanently as well as any assurance of support in the future because of concerns about the state of its financial affairs.

But at the end of June, English National Opera (ENO) announced that it was rejoining the Arts Council England's list of funded organizations – an important step in ensuring its survival. The announcement was confirmation that ENO’s turnaround – led by Cressida – was complete.  

Alums in Opera-tions

In April of 2015, Cressida was a consultant in McKinsey’s London Office, where she had been for a little more than two years. A passionate fan of the performing arts, she was attending up to ten operas a year – “which is quite a lot compared to most of my friends and peers,” she cheerfully admits, and adds that when she was younger, attending opera and dance performances were the biggest expenditures in her budget.

So when the opportunity to serve as Interim CEO of the ENO came along, her answer was an enthusiastic ‘yes.’ 

“Nonprofit had always fascinated me,” Cressida says. “A chance to work with an arts organization was just too hard to miss.”

Heading up an opera company may seem an unlikely role for a former McKinsey consultant, but it’s not as unusual as you might expect; until recently, Cressida was one of four alums in such a position. Keith Cerny (LON, ATL 90-98) is CEO of the Dallas Opera, Stephan Pauly (MUN 00-02) is Managing Director at Alte Oper Frankfurt, and Nils Are Karstad Lysø (OSL, FIR 92-05) was CEO of the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet until the end of July. Cressida has been in touch with all of them to share experiences – and, in the case of Nils, to work on a co-production with their two companies.

In addition to a surprisingly strong network of similarly trained peers, Cressida says that learning to adapt to any situation was also something she took away from her time at McKinsey. “You often walk on to a project in a sector you’re unfamiliar with, and you're dealing with people who are absolute experts. I remember in an oil and gas project I worked on, someone said to me, ‘Why on earth are you telling me how I should run an oil rig?’ I responded, ‘I'm not telling you how to run an oil rig. I'm here so you can tell me what you need to make sure that we protect your ability to run an oil rig.’ You need to realize and respect that you’re working with experts who may have done their job for years, and then find a way to persuade them that there might be a different way to look at how they're doing something.”

Courage of convictions

Cressida faced this challenge – and skepticism from the public – when she took over the ENO. Many wondered why a consultant had been brought in to fix a beloved arts institution, even one that was in dire straits. The backlash she faced was swift and vituperative, and while she had expected some criticism, she admits that the level of bitterness took her by surprise. “I don't think it had ever occurred to me that I'd get trolled on Twitter,” she laughs, adding ruefully that “it made a tough job harder.”

Cressida knew that difficult, unpopular decisions would be inevitable in securing ENO’s future, and – taking a cue from her work in various industries at the Firm – that she would need to listen carefully to the people who’d worked there for years, and gain the trust of ENO staff and musicians so that changes could be implemented effectively. “I walked into an organization that I really wanted to survive,” she says. “But the choices on how we were going to survive were deeply unpalatable and very stressful to implement.” 

Her strategy included cutting staff, reducing the number of months that the chorus works, reducing the number of productions (though now, with funding, they're once again being increased), and renting out the Coliseum for other productions. In addition, the ENO has staged several musicals, such as "Sweeney Todd" – a plan to attract a new audience that also attracted ire from opera purists, who viewed it as compromising the company's integrity. However, the strategy worked, and Cressida has the numbers to show it: "Fifty-seven percent of people who came to ‘Sweeney Todd’ were first-time attenders of the Coliseum," she said in a radio interview with the BBC, adding, "Of those, 8% have already booked to come to see an opera."

Throughout the restructuring process, Cressida relied on the courage of her convictions. Again, she cites the lessons she learned at the Firm: “McKinsey really teaches you tenacity and resilience, and to manage very different pressures and stress. It teaches you to have the confidence to be able to pull information together, to come up with a plan and a process for it, and to hold to the integrity of your decision-making. The criticism will make you crazy, and it will make you doubt everything you're doing. The most important thing is to be logical and rational in that process.”

She cites advice that she received from current Senior Partner Penny Dash as being among the most influential she ever received. “She told me, ‘You're going to find the people who love what you do and who love how you do it, and you won't have to compromise on what makes you passionate about work.’ She basically said to embrace who I am, and that I would find the people who respect my determination and commitment."

Home of the English National Opera

A new beginning

The reinstatement of ENO’s funding brings a host of good news, Cressida explains. “It means first of all that our major funder has faith and confidence in our stability, in our plans, in our strategy, and in our financial position – which is a huge change from where we were three years ago,” she says. It also means that ENO knows it’s funded until 2022, “which matters to donors,” she says. “Had we not gone back into the portfolio, we would have been shut down.”

Sebastian Schwarz, general director of the Glyndebourne opera house, told the Financial Times recently that Cressida took on a "thankless job" when she accepted the role, and said, "the fact that we are still even talking about ENO is largely thanks to her hard work.”

And, importantly, the people who work there know they have job security. “Every person that works here has spent the last two to three years thinking, ‘I don't know if I'm going to have a job next year,’ she says. “So the funding means they know they're going to have a job.”

Of course, it also means that ENO will continue to have performances – a lot more performances. By the 2019-20 season, the number of operas performed at its home venue will increase from eight to ten – a twenty-five percent jump over the current season. “This is just one part of our wider mission, which is to deliver more opera of the very highest quality to as wide an audience as possible,” Cressida says.

Challenges still exist: forty-two percent of the funding is not adjusted for inflation, and opera houses worldwide continue to find the right balance that will keep older, more traditional audiences happy while also attracting a new and younger audience. But the measures ENO has taken have given it a much more secure financial footing: the Opera has built financial reserves, and its operating surplus has dramatically increased. Cressida uses a jaunty sailing metaphor to reflect the current situation: “We’ve got lead in the keel.”  

And personally, Cressida is thrilled to have played a part in continuing to bring music to the British public – and to enjoy it herself. “One of the greatest gifts for me over the last two and a half years – among many others -- has been that I've got to see so much,” she says. “If you'd said to me three years ago, ‘How much opera do you want to see?’ I'd have said, ‘As much as I want, but it's going to take me two decades to see everything I want.’ 

“While I attended many as an audience member, it was nothing like being in the industry. It’s such a privilege, because I get to sit here, and I remember what it was like to be an audience member. Now I see 50 operas a year, and it changes your appreciation. It deepens and broadens, and you get understanding which I thought it would take me a decade to achieve.”

* * *

And that roof leak? Cressida got it sorted, and the performance went on as planned that evening – just as she has helped to ensure that many more will go on in the coming years. While there is still work to be done, and challenges to overcome, the music will continue at the ENO.

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