A knife at the opera

The grand old farce of Royal Opera House management becomes more improbable by the hour. On Tuesday, Sir Richard Eyre delivers his state- of-the-capital report. But is it too late to save Covent Garden from itself? By David Lister
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The Independent Culture
Last Monday morning at 8.30 sharp the new head of opera education arrived at the Royal Opera House. An hour later she was on her way home. The management had decided they didn't need a new head of education. A pay-off was hastily arranged. It was the first redundancy, the first example of mad management and the first waste of public money of the week. And it wasn't yet 10 o'clock: once again, the knives were out.

The roller coaster catalogue of Royal Opera House blunders continues at such a frenetic pace that this one escaped public view.

It's far from the only matter of public concern that even obsessive opera house watchers have failed to comment on. Take another example - the advertising of appointments - that is an area crucial to the concern of the Eyre report, Sir Richard Eyre's scrutiny of opera in London to be published next Tuesday which could change forever the way opera and ballet are presented in the capital.

The Eyre Report was commissioned by the Government, and a Commons Select Committee inquiry was launched following disturbing incidents at the ROH last year. These centred on the appointment as chief executive of Mary Allen, who was brought over from the Arts Council without the post being advertised.

That was one lesson you'd have thought the Royal Opera House might have learnt. Surely the outcry over that appointment would have taught them that senior posts in the biggest publicly-funded arts institution in the country should be properly advertised, and a fair and proper interview process should take place.

To which one might retort in less than lyrical terms, "Oh yeah!" The present chief executive is Pelham Allen, brought in from the accountants Coopers and Lybrand. The artistic director, the man in overall charge of all Royal Opera and Royal Ballet policy, is Richard Jarman, late of Scottish Opera. Both men are respected. But in neither case was the post advertised. In neither case was there any regard shown for any sort of equal opportunities policy. The ROH replies that both appointments are temporary, yet the contracts are for two years, which these days constitutes a long-term arts job .

But let's be fair. They might not last quite that long. The ROH chairman Sir Colin Southgate now says he will close the House down if the ROH's pounds 15m-a-year grant is not doubled. That, he claims, is necessary to avoid trading insolvently. Chris Smith, the Culture Secretary, is said to be furious at Sir Colin's audacity, though it was Smith who appointed this hotshot businessman (he is also chairman of EMI) to sort out the mess. Sir Colin is said to have been horrified by what he saw when he opened the books. Hence his demand. But aren't hotshot businessmen supposed to ask about the finances and look at the books before they take on the job? Did no one work out the cost of re-opening before pounds 78m of public money was poured into the pounds 214m project?

Sir Colin's ultimatum brought a quick response from the influential select committee chairman Gerald Kaufman MP. He called for the Opera House to be privatised. Could this be the same Gerald Kaufman MP, chairman of the select committee, who stated in the committee's report on the Opera House last autumn that privatisation "under present United Kingdom tax law, which does not offer incentive to donors, is inherently impractical"?

Headline writers have often compared the Byzantine ineptitude at the ROH in recent years to tragic opera (though significantly none of those in overall charge has had an opera background). But tragic opera is the wrong comparison. Gerald Kaufman has forced the departure of a chairman, a chief executive and an entire board. Who else is he but the lord high executioner? The former chairman, Lord Chadlington, who compared his little local difficulty to the Falklands War, was the very model of a modern major general.

The House's tales of comic incompetence, vanity and the British class system at work are straight out of the operas that (perhaps because their subject matter is too close to home) are never performed there: Gilbert and Sullivan.

But could WS Gilbert have made up a fraction of the events and characters of the past two years? Could he have invented the patrician Arts Council chairman Lord Gowrie, who denounced Covent Garden's closure arrangements as a "shambles", neglecting to add that he was supposed to have been authorising and monitoring that shambles? WS could have had fun with Sir Jeremy Isaacs, the ROH general director who stood down a year early railing against inadequate subsidy but took his pounds 120,000 salary for a year after he quit.

Even Sir Jeremy's dignified and likeable successor Genista McIntosh, who resigned after five months, added a Gilbertian richness to the drama when she told the select committee she had left because the place was likely to make her ill. WS would have had no difficulty at all with Mary Allen and Lord Chadlington, who were both at the Arts Council to award Covent Garden pounds 78m of lottery money then moved across to help spend it.

You couldn't make it up. The ROH is an institution that continues to defy credibility. Which is why one can go this far without a single mention of the only two things that should really matter: the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet. The managerial shenanigans, political ultimatums, financial somersaults and personality clashes have obscured the fact that the ROH should not really be about Coopers and Lybrand, Chris Smith or Sir Richard Eyre at all. It should be about Placido Domingo, Sir Bernard Haitink, Darcey Bussell and Sylvie Guillem. Ballet director Sir Anthony Dowell and opera chief Nicholas Payne never got a fraction of the column inches that Mary Allen or Lord Chadlington received. Somewhere along this crazy roller coaster of politics and money, the art got lost.

Sir Peter Hall, who has directed there on several occasions, points out that the Royal Opera has brought on more young singers than any other company in the world. One could add that even in its present peripatetic state during the Covent Garden closure period, it mounts some acclaimed productions and wins awards. One could add that the Royal Ballet, whatever one's views over its repertoire and production styles, has genuine and charismatic stars in Bussell, Guillem, Viviana Durante and Sarah Wildor.

Therein lies the most serious accusation to be made against the succession of managements that have dragged the Royal Opera House down in public perception into the realms of farce: they have, by association, degraded their artists.

By putting on the ballet at ludicrously unsuitable venues they made it look as though there is not an audience for their dancers. By charging up to pounds 250 for opera they have brought that art form into disrepute with the public at large. One has only to be on a radio phone-in on arts funding, as I was this week, to marvel at the sneers that any mention of opera attracts.

But it is no marvel really. The argument that there are seats in the gods for under a tenner to balance the pounds 200-plus tickets, misses a vital point. The very concept of charging more than pounds 200 for an evening's entertainment in an institution already funded by the taxpayer is, to most ordinary people, not just decadent but obscene.

Ah, says the new Covent Garden management, we agree there has been a terrible mess, but we are sorting it out. But at what cost? How much money is being spent on consultants? Coopers and Lybrand do not come cheap. It is safe to say that in the past 18 months upwards of pounds 1m that should have gone on staging productions or reducing ticket prices has been spent on business consultants. The situation continues.

Into this abattoir of waste steps Sir Richard Eyre. He will be nothing short of a miracle worker if he can sort it out. Certainly, he will call for more money to be spent on the ROH, and possibly on the arts generally. If Chris Smith ever dreamt that this champion of publicly funded arts would not make a plea for better funding, then he was being very naive.

But if Sir Colin Southgate believes the Eyre report will support uncritically the Covent Garden demand for more money (or that the Treasury would seriously countenance doubling the grant) then he too is being naive. Next Tuesday Sir Richard will, I believe, call in the strongest terms for Covent Garden to put its House in order; he will demand cheaper seats and wider access; and he will call for closer links with the commercial sector.

It may be significant that one of the people the Eyre Committee spoke to was the highly successful commercial opera and dance promoter Raymond Gubbay. Gubbay said yesterday: "All this crap about another pounds 15m a year or we go under is nonsense. It needs a more radical approach. They should allow the House to take advantage of its prime London position and have commercial companies performing there. The Royal Opera should stage popular operas for week-long periods, not always have to alternate them with other productions and with the ballet. The ballet should have its own seasons at Christmas and in the summer, when there is huge demand. The orchestra should be combined with one of the London orchestras.

There is huge scope for rationalisation and an end to outdated practices."

Gubbay believes the House should be privatised. Sir Richard is highly unlikely to recommend that. But it would not be surprising to see some of Gubbay's other suggestions in his report.

Of course there is another route altogether. Sir Peter Hall, who knows the subsidised arts better than anyone, points out that the House still gets less subsidy than any comparable European opera house. "Why doesn't this Labour Government just say whether it wants the arts or not," he says. "If it does, then fund them properly. And if it doesn't, then let's close them down."

It is true, and all too rarely stated, that paying off the debts not just of the Royal Opera House but of every publicly funded arts institution in this country would not cost more than about pounds 30m - not even a blip on the Treasury graph. That the Treasury and sections of the electorate view opera and the arts in general with such suspicion that they would be alarmed by such a gesture has much to do with the the way Covent Garden has run its affairs. It has turned the public against financing the arts properly. That's not Gilbert and Sullivan. That's tragic.