A right song and dance

The BBC's documentary series about the Royal Opera House has been called more fly-in-the-ointment than fly-on-the-wall. Fiammetta Rocco thinks that's unfair
SIR JEREMY ISAACS, the general director of the Royal Opera, is standing on the pavement hailing a cab. In his hands he has a suit-bag. "Royal Opera House, Bow Street," he barks, in a low bass. Settling himself in the back seat he smoothes his silky grey curls, before embarking on a duet with the driver about the high cost of staging opera compared with a Barbra Streisand concert (which makes money without a subsidy).

"There are 100 people in the orchestra," he trills like Leporello in Mozart's Don Giovanni. "Sixty to 80 in the chorus. There are 50 stage crew. And you can only fit 2,000 people in." No one puts on international opera without a subsidy, "and ours," he booms in his finale, "is the lowest in Europe. Address your complaints to your Member of Parliament and to the Secretary of State for National Heritage."

This exchange, from the second programme in the new BBC2 series on Covent Garden, The House, could well be the chorus that is sung between each of the series' six parts. For 10 months through the 1993-94 season, Isaacs gave the BBC free rein to film the full panoply of life behind and before the red velvet curtain at Covent Garden. Allowing a "warts and all" portrait to be made of any institution is always fraught with risk, and the general director is bristling about the finished results: "It was naive of me to think we would get a measured picture of our work." He is wrong to be so nervous. Covent Garden is an easy target, and the decision to welcome the BBC crew so openly into the Royal Opera was a brave one. The House is the longest and richest television expose ever attempted of the inner workings of the Royal Opera House. As a portrait of the passion and dedication involved in staging opera and ballet, it is, as the critics would say, a triumph, not least for Isaacs.

The epic ranges from the practice rooms at White Lodge, where the youngsters at the Royal Ballet school learn their first steps, to the Crush Bar of the opera house, where Peter and Bill, who have both been working for more than 30 years, ply their trade at either end of the long bar without ever speaking to one another.

The first episode is easily the most controversial. Leaping nimbly between the opening night of Carmen, with its murderous end, and the imminent sacking of bookings manager Andrew Follon, it concentrates on the powerful figure of corporate affairs director Keith Cooper, who has often had to wield the knife at the Royal Opera in recent years and who remains a not altogether popular figure.

Other programmes feature the inner workings of trustees' meetings, which are gratifyingly outspoken, the Opera House's fraught negotiations with trade unions, the problems of staging Wagner's Ring Cycle, 1994's triumphant production of Die Meistersinger, Isaacs' financial poker game with the Arts Council, and the controversial sacking of principal ballerina Fiona Chadwick, who, at 34, was considered too old to be of service.

The strongest moments are those that concentrate on the pain, hopes and fears of the performers: singers like the soprano Denyce Graves, who barely gets through the opening night of Carmen, the horrific surgery on Michael Nunn's ankle which could end the dancer's career, and the excitement of two children, picked out of their whole class at the Royal Ballet school to dance in the Nutcracker Suite. All the battles over funding and the fights over pay are nothing compared with the struggle for triumph over pain experienced by so many of the performers, who go on stage virtually every night of the week.

If there are two major criticisms, it is that much of the series was shot over two years ago, and is now sadly out of date. The Royal Opera is at a crucial juncture. At the end of next season, it will exchange its home for temporary premises while its controversial pounds 213m reconstruction goes ahead, funded in part by a huge grant from the National Lottery. Yet this is given little space. Rather than dwell on the future, much of the series is inevitably devoted to the past. Many of the people interviewed, or discussed, have left or are about to go, including chairman of the trustees Sir Angus Stirling, who is expected to leave in the summer, and Felicity Clark, director of the Royal Opera House Trust. Isaacs will retire at the end of the next season.

The second criticism is that opera director Nicholas Payne - the man most likely to succeed Isaacs as general director - comes across as a compromiser, a nervous man anxious to avoid conflict at any price. This is not what the Royal Opera needs of its leadership, nor is it an accurate portrait of one of the most gifted opera directors in the country. That aside, there is much to learn from The House, not least that Jeremy Isaacs, who wears formal evening clothes most nights of the week, prefers a ready- made bow tie to tying his own. With so many other battles on his hands, this is one area, at least, where he can take the easy option.

! 'The House': BBC2, 16 Jan, 9.30-10.30pm, and every Tues to 20 Feb.