LONDON — Annilese Miskimmon, the British opera director, looked tired and frazzled when she appeared on a recent video call. She was taking a short break from rehearsing “The Handmaid’s Tale” — the first production at English National Opera she is directing since taking over its artistic leadership in the middle of the pandemic. Those rehearsals had not been running smoothly, Miskimmon said, and had been hit by a recent surge in coronavirus cases in England. For a few weeks, the production had been rehearsing partly online.
“This is Zoom stress more than opera stress,” she added, with an awkward laugh. She had already canceled two nights of the run, which now consists of just four performances, from April 8 through Apr. 14.
Miskimmon said she chose “The Handmaid’s Tale” for her English National Opera debut because the company was founded on the idea of “opera for everyone.” The novel it is based on, by Margaret Atwood, is well known here, and its popularity has only grown thanks to the recent TV adaptation. Both of these, and the opera, by the Danish composer Poul Ruders, imagine a near future in which women are seen as little more than birthing machines. The story felt politically urgent, Miskimmon added. “Every day it’s getting more and more dangerous in some parts of the world to be a woman,” she said.
For opera watchers, Miskimmon’s decision to start with a dystopia may seem appropriate. In recent years, English National Opera has been hit by crises both real and imagined. Those have included funding cuts and resignations, as well as complaints about a dwindling number of performances each season. To raise revenue, the company — which only performs in English — now rents out its West End home, the Coliseum, to musical productions each summer.
Miskimmon’s 2019 appointment was a surprise. The announcement came shortly after the American director Daniel Kramer resigned as the opera’s artistic director, two weeks after announcing his second season. Kramer had a never held a senior position at an opera house before joining the company, and many critics felt he wasn’t up to the job.
Hugh Canning, an opera critic for several British newspapers, said he was “puzzled” that Miskimmon had left a job running the well-funded Norwegian Opera and Ballet in Oslo to take up the reins at English National Opera, also known as ENO. “Maybe she enjoys controversy,” he said.
Others in Britain’s opera world agreed that Miskimmon had taken on a tough job. “Running any opera house is hard, but ENO is even harder,” said Gus Christie, the executive chairman of the Glyndebourne opera festival. As London’s “second” opera house, ENO was always competing for audiences with the much-better funded Royal Opera House, just a few blocks away, he added. (The British government gives the Royal Opera House about $32 million a year; ENO gets around half as much.)
“If she can turn things around there, hats off to her,” Christie said.
John Allison, the editor of Opera magazine, said that Miskimmon had gotten off to “a very good” start. During the coronavirus pandemic, she kept things at ENO moving when most British opera houses were shut, with a series of original ideas that raised the company’s profile. Those included a drive-in staging of Puccini’s “La Bohème” (featuring breakdancers and ice cream trucks), a made-for-TV performance of Mozart’s “Requiem” and a community outreach program in which ENO singers offered vocal lessons to people whose breathing had been affected by Covid.
But most of the productions in Miskimmon’s first season had been planned before her arrival, including a staging of Wagner’s “Die Walküre” that will play at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 2025. “A lot is riding on this ‘Handmaid’s Tale,’” Allison said. “It’s her first big calling card.”
The opera opens in the year 2195, with a lecturer describing the horrors of the Republic of Gilead, a theocracy in which women have no rights and where “handmaids” are forced to bear children for the ruling class.
Annemarie Woods, the production’s designer, said that the creative team had researched totalitarian systems and thought about how artifacts of those regimes and their atrocities were preserved. The Coliseum’s stage will look like an exhibition space, Woods said, with items of clothing — including around 50 of the handmaids’ famous red hooded cloaks — suspended and lit like items in a Holocaust museum. Other “exhibits” will include a chunk of a wall where handmaids are executed, displayed like segments of the Berlin Wall.
Kate Lindsey, an American mezzo-soprano who plays Offred, the opera’s main character, said she was enjoying rehearsing with Miskimmon, who “made every effort for people to have a voice in the room artistically.”
“That’s a real sign of a confident director, and a really, really confident leader,” Lindsey said.
Miskimmon’s route to the heights of British opera is far from typical. Born in 1974, she grew up in Bangor, a small town outside Belfast, Northern Ireland, during the sectarian conflict that is known as “the Troubles.”
She saw her first opera at 10 years old, when her father performed in an amateur production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” in a church hall. It was a distinctly lo-fi production: Her father’s costume for the role of Papageno was “a flat cap and some pan pipes on a string around his neck,” Miskimmon said.
Yet Miskimmon soon fell hard for the art form. As much as opera was an escape from the violence of the Troubles, part of its appeal was that it also somehow reflected them, she said: At the time, Northern Ireland was a place where people didn’t feel they had much control over their destiny, since they could “go out for an ordinary day’s work, and be blown up.” In opera, Miskimmon said, “the characters are relentlessly driven toward heaven and hell,” without much agency, either. It felt “a much more honest, artistic representation of life.”
At Cambridge University, where she studied English literature, Miskimmon directed some student productions. But she never thought she would become a professional director, she said, until she was invited to assist the British director Graham Vick at Glyndebourne. After working on seven productions there, she landed a job as the artistic director of the Opera Theater Company, Ireland’s national touring opera, before eventually moving to the Danish National Opera in Aarhus, and, later, the Norwegian Opera and Ballet in Oslo.
Andrew Mellor, an opera journalist who specializes in the Nordic countries, said that Miskimmon was successful in Denmark, with several innovative productions that became talking points. Her take on Mozart’s “Così Fan Tutte” in Aarhus offered audiences two productions — one traditional, one contemporary — and began each night with a vote to decide which would be staged. Equally attention-grabbing was an opera Miskimmon commissioned there called “Brothers,” about Danish soldiers dealing with post-traumatic stress after fighting in Afghanistan.
Her time at Oslo was more “turbulent,” Mellor said. The Norwegian company’s music director, Karl-Heinz Steffens, left before Miskimmon even started, and she “had a fight with its ensemble system” when she wanted to use more guest singers, Mellor said. Amid the conflict, Miskimmon staged several acclaimed productions, including one of Britten’s “Billy Budd” that featured a huge submarine onstage.
“She’s no shrinking violet, and when she has an idea she pursues it,” Mellor said.
Miskimmon said her “memories of working in Oslo are not ones of turbulence,” and added that, in her opinion, it had been “a very positive working experience.”
Whatever happened in Norway, Miskimmon’s experiences of dealing with tough situations will hold her in good stead for her role at ENO, especially given the challenges the company has ahead.
At the end of March, the company canceled a production of Michael Tippet’s “King Priam” that had been set to run in the 2022-23 season. Ella Baker, an ENO spokeswoman, said in an email that this was “with financial prudence in mind,” given the ongoing impact of the pandemic.
The company also faces perhaps more significant financial challenges. Over the past year, Britain’s government has focused on a program called “leveling up,” designed to boost the fortunes of areas outside London. Although “leveling up” includes all sectors of Britain’s economy, arts funding has been a particular focus. Government subsidies for London-based arts organizations like ENO are set to be cut by a total of 15 percent later this year, so more money can be spent elsewhere. The government has said that some organizations may lose their funding entirely.
Allison, the Opera magazine editor, said some British lawmakers have “always had ENO in their sights,” because funding opera is thought to be bad at the ballot box. With the Royal Opera House more prominent, ENO had “always looked vulnerable,” he said.
During the hourlong interview, Miskimmon did not seem concerned by that threat, insisting that ENO already had plans to present more work outside London. Since starting at the company, she said she had been discussing how to turn ENO into a “truly national company” that collaborates with regional opera companies to stage major productions.
Miskimmon added that she had a favorite saying: “A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.” She had repeated the adage so many times at ENO, including in rehearsals for “The Handmaid’s Tale,” that people must be getting sick of it, she said. But it suited her vision for the company, she added.
“It’s about art, and it’s about life,” Miskimmon said. “We’re prepared to take big steps forward, because that’s what opera needs.”