Come into the Garden

The new Royal Opera House it trying to offer glamour without elitism. Can it deliver?
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The Independent Culture
There was a story bubbling under last week about an event scheduled for the reopening of the Royal Opera House, at which all gentlemen will have to wear black ties. It was a bit of a non-story, in fact, since the event in question is a private one - there is no dress code at Covent Garden for anyone buying a ticket. But amid the efforts to work this story up into a controversy, I was reminded of a letter which George Bernard Shaw wrote to the Times in 1905, objecting not to men at Covent Garden being made to wear evening dress (a regulation he accepted), but to women being allowed to dress as extravagantly as they liked. His own Saturday night out there had been ruined by a woman in front of him, who "had stuck over her right ear the pitiable corpse of a large white bird, which looked exactly as if someone had killed it by stamping on its breast and then nailed it to the lady's temple".

Nearly a century on, the great problem for opera in this country remains that dead bird - the albatross of class and cultural snobbery. In other parts of Europe, opera has long been a populist art form. There are more than 90 opera houses in Germany, some without PR departments. In London, we struggle to sustain two, and it is not long since Chris Smith floated the idea of putting them under one roof. Even among the educated, the suspicion lingers, which no number of tenors singing at football matches seems able to dislodge: that opera is only for nobs.

Many in the opera world feel jaded at the charge of elitism, regarding it as a canard, a dead duck. Michael Kaiser, the engaging new chief executive at Covent Garden, understands the issue and takes it seriously: "People think they're not supposed to be here - that they're not wearing the right clothes and don't know how to behave." To Kaiser, one of the most upbeat men you're ever likely to meet, changing those assumptions isn't a burden but a challenge: he talks excitedly of the new facilities at Covent Garden "bringing people in". But he admits: "It's not enough if they come just once. They have to come back three times, or five or six. It's not just about access. It's about creating the habit."

When Kaiser arrived just over a year ago, Covent Garden had been dark since July 1997 and its name was mud. In the 42 years before Jeremy Isaacs's tenure, there had been just two chief executives; in the two years after him, Genista Macintosh, Lord Chadlington and Mary Allen came and went in quick succession. The BBC docusoap The House, which did for the ROH what the 1992 Sheffield rally did for Neil Kinnock; a long wrangle over Lottery money and state funding; Richard Eyre's report, which identified "arrogance, naivety and wilful optimism"; a press which had become a kind of anti-claque hired to boo and hiss each new development - all this was deeply demoralising to those who worked there. One observer I talked to compared the ROH staff to abused children. Even a staunch professional like the tenor Robin Leggate - who has been with the ROH for 24 years - says that it felt at times like watching the destruction of a family. Most singers like to get on with their singing, oblivious to management. But now management - and mismanagement - were stealing (and spoiling) the show.

To restore confidence in Covent Garden, and see through its renovation, the board turned to the US. Michael Kaiser is a troubleshooter - a Red Adair of the arts, with a record of coming to the rescue when an organisation is leaking esteem and cash. When we met last week, to walk together round the building, he wore a hard hat. It seemed in character. If he had a refrain, it would not be a classical aria but a pop song, "Turn Around", by Phats and Small. Some call him the Turnaround King.

"Accessibility", "openness" and "outreach" are buzz-concepts in the arts at present, and there is pressure on the new Covent Garden to provide them. But Kaiser likes to use another word: glamour. "When I arrived, the one discussion we weren't having was: What will the public get when we reopen? Well, they're going to be getting one of the most sophisticated theatres in the world. And I want it to be a glamorous experience for them." Robin Leggate agrees: "Many people who go to the opera do so only once or twice a year. There should be a sense of occasion about it."

Glamour without elitism, a sense of occasion without black ties or fancy hats - that seems to the message. The segregation of the old building, with only holders of the more expensive tickets allowed in the more exclusive parts, has gone. The new centrepiece is the majestic restored 19th-century Floral Hall, the roof of which was destroyed by fire in the 1950s and which has long been used as a scenery store. From there, you ascend to the amphitheatre bar and adjoining restaurant - or walk out on to the loggia, with views over Inigo Jones's piazza and beyond. In the evening, any ticket-holder is free to wander wherever (with the cheapest tickets only pounds 6, it's rather like the old Italian system of ingresso, where you paid a nominal sum just to be part of the atmosphere). Between 10am and 3pm, the Floral Hall, shops and restaurants are open to the public. This is a Garden you can Walk Through, where once you were told Keep Out. The Crush Bar - emblem of ancient stuffiness - has become a lecture room, and lost its bar.

A new studio theatre seating 400 has been added, ideal for education work and chamber concerts. But the main auditorium is little altered. Air-conditioning has gone in, not before time. The stalls have been re- raked and the balconies shifted to face the stage rather than each other. With lighting ingeniously fitted into ceiling panels, 85 seats have been added and sightlines improved. But the scarlet-and-gold elegance - and the acoustic, it's hoped - have been retained. The big change is backstage, where increased space means the days of endlessly deconstructing and reconstructing sets are over.

Perhaps the most glamorous rooms of all are the dance studios, high and airy, rather than relegated to the basement, and with balconies where dancers can smoke (as many do, to keep their weight down). The Royal Ballet moved in there last Monday, and the dancers, including Deborah Bull, were at work as we walked round. "I just want to say thank you," said one, kissing Kaiser on both cheeks. "It's not often anything in life exceeds expectations."

Elsewhere behind the scenes, where the admin is done, the emphasis is wood and stainless-steel austerity. Kaiser's office is small and plain. The corridors have windows giving out on to rehearsal rooms and scene- construction spaces, so no one loses sight of why and for whom they're working.

Several people I talked to, including Dennis Marks, formerly of the ENO, said that what they hoped for now was a period of "normality" at Covent Garden, and were pleased by the mix of the opening season, which is solid (Verdi's Falstaff, with Bryn Terfel, and The Nutcracker from the Royal Ballet) but far from staid (two modern operas are scheduled, Harrison Birtwistle's Gawain and Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre, as well as Mozart's rarely performed La Clemenza di Tito).

And ticket prices? The ROH claims to have introduced a new policy, which "reduces prices for most seats" with upper slips, restricted views and standing room available for as little as pounds 6. Fifty per cent of the house will cost pounds 40 or less of an evening, it says. All the same, a decent seat for the opening opera, Falstaff, costs pounds 70; the best seats (stalls, grand tier and boxes) pounds 150. You can make all the comparisons you like with the price of watching World Cup rugby or having a season ticket at Chelsea. It's still expensive. Then again, these prices are clearly not beyond the reach of those who enjoy opera: all performances of Falstaff are already sold out. In the long run - a fact few seem able to grasp - the only way to bring down ticket prices is to increase government subsidy. As Jeremy Isaacs told a Commons select committee in 1997: "You cannot have a People's Opera unless the people are prepared to pay for it." At present the people - the taxpaying public - pay 65p a year for the ROH. To put it another way, the ROH gets between 40 and 50 per cent of its funds from the government; some opera houses in Europe get 95 per cent from theirs.

No one is arguing about funding at present. In the more benign climate Michael Kaiser has helped create, there's eagerness on all sides for the new Covent Garden to succeed. Will it? It's a hard question to answer, when parts of the building are still a construction site and to an untutored eye look as if they can't possibly be finished in time - private performances begin on Tuesday week, the Queen attends on 1 December, and Placido Domingo takes part in the opening gala three days later. But the renovation is within budget and on schedule. And the omens are good. Already, despite the noise and dust, there's a feeling of light about the place, as though the doors had been thrown open, like a dictator's palace seized and given to the people. The sheer number of men and women milling about - electricians, carpenters, Forth Bridge cleaning teams - add to that sense of excitement.

For Robin Leggate, there is an added frisson: as Dr Caius in Falstaff, he will sing the first note of the first opera to be staged at the new Covent Garden, "which gives me a feeling of tremendous pride". In the end, as Michael Kaiser admits, it's on the quality of its productions - on its singing, dancing, and, he adds, its educational work - that the ROH will be judged. But meanwhile, there is a magnificent new building in the heart of London. A feeling that silly hats have had their day. And a confidence that, as Jeremy Isaacs puts it, the long agony will have been worthwhile.

Box office for Royal Opera and Royal Ballet: 0171 304 4000