Book review: Torn curtain

Never Mind the Moon by Jeremy Isaacs Bantam Press pounds 20 In House by John Tooley Faber pounds 25

Jeremy Isaacs, the man who brought us Channel 4, had never failed at anything before he became general director at the Royal Opera House. This confident, clever but prickly Glaswegian ran Covent Garden for nine years before it closed for redevelopment. Both his successors, and a chairman, left after a few months in the job; the board resigned en masse. The Opera House became a laughing stock, a scandal, and a candidate for complete closure.

What no one has so far asked is how much Jeremy Isaacs was to blame for this catastrophe. He is, himself, rarely susceptible to doubt, and in this matter seems to harbour none. Towards the end of his convivial apologia, he says: "I am pretty clear that the financial governance of the House in my time was as good as could be managed, at least if we aimed at artistic excellence. On closure [for redevelopment], I know of no better scheme available."

John Tooley's memoir, In House, does not end with his own term as general director in 1988, but goes on to examine Isaacs' regime. Normally he is a man of exaggerated politeness, but not in this case. He declares Isaacs' regime an unmitigated disaster. Tooley's case for the prosecution is based on evidence of poor management. Manning levels rose after Isaacs' arrival, making serious increases in ticket prices inevitable. Isaacs did not always get on with staff, especially with Bernard Haitink, the music director. Tooley's conclusion is that, by the end of Isaacs' term: "Covent Garden had become a place of corporate entertainment, no longer a theatre primarily for opera and ballet lovers."

Isaacs reports Haitink's dislike of a provocative production of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman: Haitink said that nothing like it should ever be seen again. "As a newcomer, I kept my powder dry, but I could not agree. Creative activity has a licence to fail," he writes. Isaacs had hoped to acquire a kindred spirit as a new opera director. He tried to hire Bryan McMaster, then at the Welsh Opera, and Nicholas Payne, then at Opera North. Isaacs says that both said no. Tooley, on the other hand, claims that Haitink had threatened to resign unless Paul Findlay, a veteran of his regime, was appointed. Isaacs rests his defence on the artistic quality of the work done while he was general director, and it is true that Covent Garden did finally discover Janacek, paid handsome tribute to Britten and Birtwistle, and did well by Verdi. But, with the exception of Die Meistersinger, they stumbled over Wagner, maybe because of the chilly relationship between the general director and the artistic director.

Tooley blames Isaacs for Haitink's disenchantment. Isaacs says that Haitink was a gloomy, uncommunicative figure. He thought the thaw set in when he showed Haitink episodes from his television series The World at War; many others thought the ice never melted.

Isaacs found the board could be hard work too. After a grisly period in their relationship in 1992, Isaacs and Bamber Gascoigne went together to the Department of National Heritage. "At one point [Gascoigne] brashly informed the meeting that all was now bound to be well, because from now on, Jeremy would be kept on a short leash and not allowed to act on his own initiative." Though Isaacs did not actually bite Gascoigne, he made his displeasure clear. Isaacs does admit to one serious error: "A development document I ought to have tackled immediately lay unnoticed at the bottom of my heaped in-tray. My colleagues wondered if I had too much on my plate." Though they decided he had, they did not ask him to leave then.

Episodes like these are evidence of a lack of confidence in Isaacs' management, and, like many more that are damaging to him, the source is Isaacs himself. Development plans were delayed because of bad relations with the local community association; Isaacs concedes that the Opera House was "perhaps too arrogant and aloof". He admits that his was the decisive voice in letting television cameras in for the riveting but immensely damaging six-part documentary The House.

Worst of all, Isaacs hopelessly mismanaged the closure of the Opera House during its redevelopment. He had hoped to move to Drury Lane. "It was so much the answer to our prayer that for a year I allowed myself to be strung along by a sweet-talk proposition." The easy decision would have been to move to the Lyceum, despite its deficiencies. But Isaacs plumped for a brand new, temporary building on the south side of Tower Bridge. His chairman insisted that there should be a fall-back position, but when planning permission for the building was not readily forthcoming, there wasn't one. Isaacs was asked to leave nine months early - and agreed, as long as he retained his title and his salary.

When the bad times rolled, the exclusivity of the House, its high prices, and its general air of superiority meant that it had few friends in any places, high or low. But Isaacs was gone by the time chaos degenerated into a nightmare - which may be one reason why the matter of his own culpability has been overlooked. It is, however, quite unnecessary to side with Tooley in order to decide how to distribute blame. Tooley's bitter, vengeful tone rules out his book as admissible evidence. No. All the evidence necessary to decide upon whether Jeremy Isaacs was deeply responsible for Covent Garden's descent into chaos is to be found in Never Mind the Moon.

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