Book: Mary had a little plan

A House Divided

by Mary Allen Simon & Schuster pounds 17.99

On the last page of Mary Allen's diary of a nightmare at the opera, Sir Colin Southgate, the chairman of the board, shakes her hand and says: "Well, that's that then." Not quite. The previous 285 pages are Mary Allen's revenge on the place and people who made her 206 days as chief executive of the Royal Opera House "unspeakably grim".

In Sicily, they tell you that revenge is a dish best eaten cold, but this one is still piping hot; nerve ends are raw and the copious tears are scarcely dry. Reading the diary, which is both embarrassing and compelling, I felt like a voyeur.

Hear this about Vivien Duffield, a bouncy woman whose impact is enhanced by her father's fortune. As deputy chairman of the board, she flits in and out of the book casting doubt and creating insecurity. Duffield rounds on Allen after she has fired some senior staff, including the Legendary Keith Cooper, star of The House - the television series that began the mortification of Covent Garden.

According to the diary, Duffield complains that the Board was not told of the changes, screaming: "It's only good manners to let the Board know about something that is going to be reported in the press." (It's amazing how good manners obsess people who don't always demonstrate them themselves.)

Allen replies that it was best for the business if people who were about to go left quickly. "What on earth do you know about running a business?" snaps Duffield, "or running anything for that matter - look what a complete mess you made of the Arts Council ... See how you like it when it happens to you." It happened to Allen only a week later. This isn't grand opera, it's soap opera.

Another villain in Allen's cast is Southgate, to whom Duffield refers sarcastically as "our little miracle-worker". At first, Allen likes Southgate. Having been viciously attacked by Gerald Kaufmann, chairman of the Common's select committee, Allen formally offers Southgate her resignation when they first meet. Southgate replies that she would go only if he wanted, not because of "some idiot like Kaufmann".

That was on 13 January this year. A little over two months later, Southgate had decided he did not like Allen's style. (It was too confrontational; too like his own, perhaps.) He announced that he wanted the opera house to be run by an artist, not an arts administrator like Allen. Within months Southgate had announced the appointment of an artistic administrator to run the mess. We await the artist.

Sympathetic characters are thin on the ground in the diary. Jeremy Isaacs, who was Director when many of the decisions that led to disaster were taken, appears briefly to complain that he is deeply hurt by criticism of his regime. Isaacs should be hurting a lot more than he is. Had he not clung to the absurd idea of a temporary opera house on the south side of Tower Bridge, but taken a lease on the Lyceum instead, a great artistic depression might have been avoided.

Lord Chadlington, Allen's first chairman, was hopelessly out of his depth. One of the many occasions on which Allen bursts into tears is at rumour that she only got the job in the first place because she and Chadlington were lovers. (When I asked about this - in a round-about way - she replied robustly that he was not sexy enough. I believed her.)

The diary's only consistently nice character seems to be Mary Allen's husband, Nigel. When she can no longer sleep through the night, she falls asleep at dinner and on the underground and on the sofa. On one occasion when the television had put her to sleep, Nigel had brought a duvet and put it over her; then he brought another duvet so that he could lie on the floor beside her. He never complains when the car disappears or when she breaks down while they are eating the Christmas goose.

We learn plenty about the insecurity and vulnerability of this proud, confrontational woman. Despite having served as secretary general of the Arts Council, she is out of her depth at the Royal Opera House. The politics are too slippery, the black hole into which money disappears is too huge. The Board incapable of keeping its hands off, and the interests of artists running the opera and ballet conflict with the strategies of the administrators.

Worse - there is something about the place that encourages irrational fantasy. For example, we learn that the act of treachery that extinguished the Royal Opera and Ballet season at Sadler's Wells next year was being seriously contemplated by Allen last January, nine months before the bombshell exploded. The idea then was to perform in the Lyceum instead, even if that meant paying a penalty for reneging on the Sadler's Wells deal.

Mary Allen's diary convinces me that the Royal Opera House must be close to self-destruction. It staggers under the news of Bernard Haitink's resignation, and of Vivien Duffield's threat to close her purse (made as early as 8 September 1997, according to Allen). Yet the huge redevelopment in Covent Garden requires remarkable administrative skill, great artistic sensitivity, and pots of money. The diary shows clearly that all three essential ingredients are missing.

The company is still capable of fine work (the recent Ring in London and Birmingham is proof of that), but most of the people who run it have lost the confidence of their artists, the loyalty of their audience, and the ear of the government. I don't believe the Royal Opera House will reopen for years.