Arts: A farewell to alms?

The Royal Opera House, notorious for mismanagement and extravagance, reopens next week. But are the bad old days really over?
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The Independent Culture
It would be a great relief for everyone if we heard less about the Royal Opera House in future. To have reopened the refurbished theatre to the sound of trumpets and, almost in the same breath, to have cancelled one of its new productions, Ligeti's opera Le Grand Macabre, is only the latest in a long line of catastrophic news stories.

For many years, the ROH has done British culture a great disservice by its arrogance, mismanagement, extravagance and snobbery. Scandal after scandal has chipped away public confidence not just in its own competence, but in the larger cause of arts subsidy. Any discussion of that subject leads almost immediately to jibes about the goings-on at Covent Garden.

The House, as its proprietorial habitues like to call it, has been more of a de-luxe hospitality suite for politicians and captains of industry than a workaday arts organisation. The huge (by British standards) Arts Council subsidies have seemed little more than an ingenious device for redistributing wealth from the poor to the rich. In the coming days, many more column inches will be devoted to the Royal Opera House. The heart sinks. We have had enough. But at last and for once, despite this week's debacle, the news is fundamentally good.

Next month the theatre emerges from a 30-month closure, re-equipped with up-to-date technology back-stage and better sight lines for the audience. The 400-seat Linbury Studio Theatre has created a second stage, and performances can also be held in a small studio space. Teething problems, though embarrassing, are to be expected.

It is a good moment to ask what we are entitled to expect from the nation's premier opera house - and whether we are likely to get it. One answer is that it need be no more than a gold and red-plush cage with fabulous songbirds and dancers inside it. It is true that, for all its other sins, Covent Garden has played this role to perfection and has consistently presented excellent work.

But these days this is not enough. Large sums of public money come at a price. Citizens expect to feel ownership of what they are told is a great British institution and a world flagship, especially when they are paying for it (at a rate of 65p a year per taxpayer).

Other leading performing companies have long understood this fact of life and taken action. English National Opera (admittedly with a larger annual grant in the past than Covent Garden) has kept ticket prices down and, through its Baylis Programme, has gone out of its way to develop education and outreach work in the wider community.

The Royal National Theatre has made the most of its wide foyer spaces, with a bar, cafe, restaurant and bookshop open all day, and exhibitions and free concerts. The Royal Shakespeare Company has encouraged new work in small performing spaces, and tours the country. Leading regional theatres such as Nottingham Playhouse and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, while maintaining their core mission as play-producers, invite other companies to perform on their stages and have transformed their theatres into arts centres with programmes that are aimed at every section of the local community.

Methods may differ, but the common approach is friendliness to all-comers, investment in innovation and a sustained effort to make contact with disadvantaged communities. The new regime at Covent Garden recognises that it must follow suit. While the forthcoming programme in the main house is much as it has always been, elsewhere there is striking evidence of a new spirit of openness and imagination. The reformed, slim-line board now boasts more artists and arts promoters than businessmen in its ranks. The old, discredited grandees, the supermarket moguls and clever men from the City, have all quit the stage; the one exception is the vice- chairman, the impassioned Clore heiress Vivien Duffield; but she has given so much money to the place over the years that she could be forgiven for seeing herself as its part-owner.

Cheaper seats at the opera and a wealth of additional activities have been announced, all of which will cost a great deal of money. But, we are told, the days of obstinate over-spending are over. The executive director, Michael Kaiser, refuses to stamp his feet, as some of his more egregious predecessors have done, about inadequate funding. He has been able to balance his books, not by putting his financial telescope to a blind eye (I see no deficits), but by cutting operating costs and fund- raising. Before the closure it employed more than 1,100 people; today the payroll is below 550.

None of the lost jobs has come from the artistic staff. The savings have been made partly by streamlining the management and partly by using new, labour-saving production technology. Fundraising has gathered in nearly pounds 100m, which has been spent on the redevelopment, wiping out the pounds 20m operating deficit and creating an endowment fund. As a reward for good behaviour, the Royal Opera House's annual grant will rise from pounds 16m before the closure to pounds 20m next year.

However, all this is merely a long-overdue clearing of the decks. There are other, far more exciting signs of change. Part of the ROH complex, the Vilar Floral Hall, will be open during the day, with free concerts, exhibitions and other events. More opera and ballet education and community projects than ever before are planned, including a performance by local primary schoolchildren of their own opera, workshops and small-scale performances in hospitals and hospices, an international conference for arts education practitioners and a long-term project, Blueprint 2000, whereby ROH artists will work with young people on joint performances.

The Clore Studio Upstairs, the third performing space, will be made available, free, for artists and small companies to develop work across all the art forms. They will be helped by creative and technical staff and will be given training in fundraising and essential administrative skills. The idea is to create a "laboratory" for experiment. Last but not least, a deal has been agreed with the BBC for the regular broadcasting of opera and ballet, allowing those who are unable to travel to London, to enjoy ROH productions at home.

Can we trust this remarkable transformation? Deathbed conversions betray fear of retribution as often as true conviction. Perhaps the new developments will be cosmetic. It is perfectly possible that they are the price a cynical management is prepared to pay in return for being allowed to carry on much as before - providing lavish entertainment for the high and mighty. The company's dependence on a regular inflow of private gold could mean that, behind the scenes, the invisible hand of wealth and privilege will go on managing the marionettes with the familiar, brutal flair.

Anyone who did business with the Royal Opera House in the old days acknowledges, with bruised awe, its capacity to say yes and do no. These are ungenerous thoughts and we should, for the time being, put them behind us. The sheer ambition of the plans for the new spaces, the welcome to people who live and work in Covent Garden and the investment in new talent, deserve the benefit of the doubt.

However, we should keep a sharp eye on proceedings. There is a simple sincerity test to be applied. Success for Mr Kaiser and his board will be best demonstrated by the creation of a unified artistic community where the offerings of little boys and girls can stand alongside the glamorous attainments of the Bussells and the Domingos in an equality of respect, where the laboratory experiments in the studio theatre produce talent that eventually makes its way on to the main stage, where the building itself becomes a common resort for all classes and kinds of Londoner.

We shall know that that happy day has arrived when our appetite for information about the Royal Opera House returns at the very moment when its doings have finally vanished from the news pages.

Royal Opera House box office: 0171-240 1200;

The writer is a former secretary general of the Arts Council