Arts: Small, but perfectly formed

The compact, state-of-the-art Linbury Theatre is proof positive that life is beginning to stir at the Royal Opera House.
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The Independent Culture
It may be below ground, it may be modest in size, but it's not shoddy bargain basement, even if much of what it will offer is free. In fact, the Royal Opera House's new state-of-the-art Linbury Studio Theatre - up to 450 seats, with a flexible configuration - is the redevelopment's most crucially powerful component, programmed to shake up, enrich, democratise and modernise a stuffy and snobbish institution. Previous ROH regimes paid lip service to the idea of broadening access; now at last something within the building is really stirring.

Well, that is how it seems. And who would be cynical in front of the proselytising enthusiasm of Michael Kaiser, the refreshing new chief executive? He has got the Studio Theatre up and running ready for the reopening, and enlarged its agenda. He heads the committee that schedules its activities, and these look excitingly ambitious.

Yes, there are all the expected educational events for children and adults, according to the Jesuit doctrine of winning minds through practical involvement, lectures and study days. But the theatre is as much for outside dance, music and opera artists to strut their stuff.

"I felt this was a good opportunity for us to build bridges with other organisations," says Kaiser. "For example, we are inviting the English Bach Festival Opera, The Place Theatre (also being redeveloped), the Covent Garden Festival. They don't pay rent and they get the box office. The idea is to diversify what we show, so people can see each other's work, and learn."

The Studio Theatre will also be the setting for in-house experimentation, including a festival of new work by emerging Royal Ballet choreographers in June.

"Companies find it so expensive to get a new piece on a big stage that they don't give young choreographers enough opportunities. But here we can create a lot more work with a lot less investment. So let's get young people in. In the end, some might be brilliant and ready for the main stage, some might be awful and we say goodbye to them, some might need to go back to the rehearsal room, but it gives us a chance to allow people to work."

He wants to invite composers with a string quartet, or whatever. He also wants opera composers to present workshops of their projects there, and if this links with the main theatre's programme, all the better. "For example, we have a major opera commission for 2002, Sophie's Choice, by the British composer Nicholas Maw, with Simon Rattle conducting and Trevor Nunn directing. In the year before I think they will workshop some of it in the Studio Theatre."

The Studio Theatre's ethos of openness and accessibility will spread through the building, with events and daily backstage tours. Go up two levels of stairs from the Studio Theatre's serene grey and white foyer, then travel up the escalator to one of the Royal Ballet's luxurious studios and you can see a Royal Ballet class every month. Outside ballet working hours, this studio - the Clore Studio Upstairs - presents public workshops and performances organised by the Royal Ballet principal Deborah Bull. She has started what she calls the Artists' Development Initiative "to give independent artists access to resources and expertise they need for their development".

Among them are "people from a non-conventional background" such as Escape Artists, a company made up primarily of ex-prisoners whose performances in the Clore Studio Upstairs will earn them the money and status to tour for the first time. Back down the escalator towards the Linbury Studio, you come to another space offering exhibitions and daytime concerts: the magnificent Vilar Floral Hall, overlooked by the long Amphitheatre Bar and Restaurant, and all open from 10am to 3pm. The what Floral Hall? Royal Opera House habitues may be familiar with the Linbury Trust (representing John Sainsbury and his ex-ballerina wife Anya Linden) and Vivien Duffield's Clore Foundation as major benefactors. But Vilar? "He's a Cuban-American who is very involved in supporting the arts around the world," says Kaiser. "I've been called the crass American for this, which is interesting because it was planned long before I arrived." He means that the ROH Board always intended to name three sections of the building after donors. "But frankly I'm thrilled," he says, "because it gets us that close to finishing the appeal." At pounds 98.3m this is a hair's breadth from the pounds 100m target.

Yes, you too could have had the Floral Hall named after you, if you had stumped up pounds 10m. It seems that the very rich don't just want expressions of gratitude, they want immortality. It might have been preferable to commemorate people already linked with the place - Margot Fonteyn, Maria Callas, Frederick Ashton - but you can't argue with pounds 10m.

"And we will be honouring the artists in other ways," Kaiser says. "We're displaying material from our archives throughout the building, so that everywhere you go, you'll see photographs, or costumes, or sketches. We have these wonderful archives and no one has seen much of them before."

The essential goal of all these activities is to bring people closer to the art, he says. The ROH language is now sounding like Labour-speak. It is amazing what a few politicians leaning on an institution can do. Suddenly the ROH has become a cultural centre, flinging its doors open to the nation.

"Access is about giving people the opportunity to build a habit of going to the theatre," says Kaiser. "By having that range of programme in the Studio Theatre and elsewhere people can try things out, and they might say, that concert was fun, I want to come another time, and another."

So the Studio Theatre is to be the key into old, forbidding main auditorium, tempting punters up a step to try an opera with Roberto Alagna or a ballet with Sylvie Guillem.

Looking into a doorway from the modern gleaming metal, glass and wood of the Floral Hall, the glimpses of old-fashioned red carpet, gilt and chandeliers offer a surreal contrast.

And that is not the only surreal contrast. From free or near-free performances, you jump to pounds 50 - not for a top-notch seat, but for the Amphitheatre rear or sides for a weekday Falstaff. True, you can stand for pounds 15 in the Amphitheatre. And there are cheaper tickets for Fridays and Saturdays, and for other productions - pounds 18 for the same pounds 50 seat when it comes to a ballet mixed bill.

But compare that with 350F (pounds 35) for the best view at the Paris Opera Ballet. "Their government subsidy is three times ours," says Kaiser. "Ever since I've been here I've heard: keep your ticket prices very low, don't ask the Government for any more money, and don't give anything to donors. Obviously then you can't produce any art."

With a tight amount of money to play with, he has to find a delicate balance between increasing access and rewarding donors. "Are we going to get the balance wrong? Absolutely. Are we constantly going to evaluate the balance? Absolutely. But the truth of the matter is, it*s a very hard balance." He will always please some and disgruntle others.

He wants the activities of the Studio Theatre and elsewhere to benefit not only audiences, but artists. "This is going to force everyone to work together, to see each other's work, to be stimulated creatively. And if in five years we haven't seen a great increase in, for example, wonderful new choreography coming out of this institution, I will feel like a failure.

"As wonderful as this new building is, it is now up to us to fill it with great art."