Friends told Genista McIntosh that she was crazy to take the job of chief executive of the Royal Opera House. With her departure last week after only four months, they seem to have been proved right
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It All happened so fast. Twelve days ago, I walked with Genista McIntosh from Covent Garden to the Savoy after talking to her for an hour about her new job as chief executive of the Royal Opera House. Only 48 hours later, Lord Chadlington, the chairman of the Opera House' s board, was urgently asking Chris Smith, the new Secretary of State for Heritage, to allow him to ignore the customary procedures for the appointment of a new chief executive. He was in that much of a hurry.

Last Monday McIntosh's senior colleagues learned to their astonishment that her resignation was to be announced the next day, and that Mary Allen was to move from the Arts Council, where she is the secretarygeneral, to take her place on 1 September. When the announcement was rushed out at midday on Tuesday, the story was that McIntosh had left because of ill-health, but the only question was: did she leave or was she pushed? "She left," said Keith Cooper, Director of Corporate Affairs. She had, apparently, told her colleagues that it was wrong for her to carry on in a job that was affecting her health, but when we talked, there had not been the slightest suggestion of anything wrong. In the trade, there was no doubt that she had been pushed. "That's mendacious gossip," says Lord Chadlington." She was my first choice and she never let me down."

It is a fact that no one coming from the theatre can be fully prepared for the byzantine complexities of any opera house, especially the Royal Opera, as was clear to anyone who last year watched The House, BBC2's compelling inside story of life behind the scenes at Covent Garden. McIntosh's friends had warned her she was crazy to leave a rewarding job as No.2 to Sir Richard Eyre at the National Theatre. Before we talked I had been told that McIntosh has been surprised by the privileges that had been taken for granted by grandees who have been used to running the Opera House: that, for example, members of the board rearranged the casting for the ballet for the nights when they were bringing guests.

McIntosh gave the impression that she was still clambering up a steep learning curve, but the message on Tuesday was that the stress of running the Royal Opera House had made her sick - literally sick. She had gone and we hardly knew her. But she will be back - or ought to be - perhaps at her old place at the National Theatre when Trevor Nunn takes over in the autumn. He always said he wanted her with him.

McIntosh is 50, and it's Jenny, not Genista. Her office at the Opera House was smaller and neater than her male predecessors' had been: less leather and more fabric. She came into the outer office to greet me wearing a two-piece outmeal-coloured outfit which emphasised her slimness. The only jewellery was a silver broach and a silver ring. Thin-rimmed spectacles made her look more severe than she sounded. She used to sing among the altos in an amateur choir near her home in Kentish Town in north London until it proved one occupation too many.

Her mother Maire was Irish and this shows in her face: high cheekbones, strong jaw and auburn hair. The camera is not always kind to her; she looks best when her face is animated. But it is her brain not her looks that have propelled her career in the theatre. Sir Derek Mitchell, a former Treasury mandarin who sat on the board of the National Theatre, says McIntosh has a very good logical mind of a masculine type, combined with a woman's instinctiveness and heart. She thinks she probably inherited the analytical quality from her father: he was a scientist, who worked in London as a technical translator from French, German and Dutch for a patent agent.

They lived comfortably in Little Gaddesdon, a pretty Hertfordshire village largely owned by the National Trust, and her education was a model of the type then available to bright middle-class children: grammar school in Hemel Hempstead, and on to university at York. Hers was a generation that fell in love with the theatre while watching the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford. Her father first took her there before she was 10. When she was 16 he urged her to see Peter Brook's legendary King Lear with Paul Scofield. She was so overwhelmed by the performance that she went to see it again when it transferred to the Aldwych in London: "It completely changed the way I thought about the theatre," she recalled. The following summer she saw Peter Hall's equally legendary Wars of the Roses, and she was hooked on the first great state-subsidised theatre company in Britain.

At York she studied philosophy, which she said cultivated her analytical mind, but there was no pressure to shine, to achieve. Growing up in the Sixties meant never having to worry about getting a job. She dabbled: attended pop concerts (she best remembers Eric Clapton in his Cream days), joined the Labour Party (she stayed in it), and met her husband. But the thing she liked most at York was theatre, and when she did finally start to think about a job, she thought she would like to work in a company like the RSC.

At that time, there were not many jobs in the theatre for women, unless they were actresses. Not being an actress she assumed there could be no artistic role for her. McIntosh now thinks she that she may have been mistaken: "There may be a gender issue buried in here somewhere because, 20 years later, I thought I might have been a director." She went to work as a secretary for a theatrical agent instead, and discovered a fairly new branch of the trade called casting director. She heard of a vacancy at the RSC in Stratford, and got the job. The first production she cast was for the world tour of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Peter Brook's other celebrated production for the RSC.

"I started standing next to the actors," she said. "My first loyalty is with the artists. No artists, no art." She became particularly skilled at massaging egos. When a real star like Paul Scofield got upset at the National, it was McIntosh who would go and pacify him. She earned a reputation as a trouble-shooter, first at the RSC under Trevor Nunn, Terry Hands and Adrian Noble, and then at the National Theatre where she succeeded David Aukin in 1990 as No.2 to Sir Richard Eyre. She had a young daughter and son by then, but was divorced from Neil McIntosh, the man she had met at York. (He was distinguished in his own field, running Shelter and Voluntary Service Overseas.)

The National Theatre board liked McIntosh because she told them what she was thinking; her colleages liked her because she was a good listener. But they had no illusions about her toughness: "She's nobody's pushover," says a former member of the NT's administrative staff. "If she decides she doesn't agree with you, you'll never change her mind. Hard as ice, with compassion." When I reported this to her, McIntosh did not take it as a compliment: "My children would probably agree that I don't change my mind once it's made up, but I hope I'm not unreasonable. I'm not sure being tough is a very good thing." In retrospect, it is possible that she was speaking from personal experience at the Royal Opera House, but I replied: "It's being decisive."

"Yes, I can be, but it takes me quite a long time to think about things before I know what I'm going to do, or what I'm going to feel. I expect that' s quite irritating. I think I'm quite discursive."

At which stage of the argument?

"I think I prefer to have a jolly good dig around things and look at them from all possible points of view, rather than going straight to the solution and then working back to the justification. I'm not naturally confrontational, so I don't particularly like having enemies. I really do believe it is far better to work collaboratively than to set up fights."

Because you are a woman? "I think there is something in the way a lot of women work which is less linear, and less driven by outcome. My own personal style is much more about process than about outcome. I don' t mean to imply that's a better way of doing things, only that it is sometimes slightly long-winded. But it is the way I work, and other women I've worked with have been the same way."

The appointment of McIntosh, announced last July, came as stunning news to a house which was expecting an opera buff. She was the first professional arts administrator to hold the job. It was a new trade, created by the need to manage in a professional manner the substantial government subsidies that flow to the Arts Council and then on to the RSC, the RNT, English National Opera, and the Royal Opera House, which gets the biggest grant of all. "The most difficult trick is to stop a divide opening between the art and the business," she said. "The two have to be symbiotically related."

But McIntosh, unlike Sir Jeremy Isaacs, was not a member of the board and was paid less than he was. She chaired an executive committee which included Nicholas Payne and Anthony Dowell, who run the opera and ballet companies, and she was content to remain in the background while they produced shows. "I've never believed in keeping dogs and barking myself," she said crisply. But behind the scenes, she was sniffing around and not always liking what she found: "There's an awful lot of poo under the carpet," says an artist who knows the place well.

She reported to a main board, two subsidiary boards and the Royal Opera House Trust, and she had to be nice to the Friends. There are more hierarchies than in the theatre, they are more opinionated, and they remain predominantly male and chauvinist. She had to raise money for the redevelopment of the Opera House, and deal with the unions. "Her sharpness proved very helpful," said a colleague.

Not helpful enough. Perhaps no one can run the Royal Opera in a non- confrontational way.