Kicked into touch

Zaha Hadid's Cardiff Bay Opera House project is dead. Long live the Welsh National Stadium. When rugby won the Lottery cash war, what became of arts provision and regeneration in the Welsh capital? By Glyn Mon Hughes
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The Independent Culture
The show could hardly have gained a better billing. A contemporary drama, with elements of farce and tragedy. Principal roles played by well- known, real-life figures. The plot: a great project to put the Welsh capital on the world arts map. The sub-plot: rejection of a bold, imaginative design, lack of funding and frayed tempers.

Act 1 in the drama surrounding the Cardiff Bay Opera House has ended. The Trust set up to administer an international architectural competition and which progressed almost to the point of piledriving was wound up in the Spring after the Millennium Commission refused funding, preferring to invest Lottery cash in a major improvement of the Welsh National Stadium. The Land of Song lost the match to rugby union, the national game of Wales.

Yet all is not lost. While one camp dejectedly packs its bags, drawing a line under what might have been a great Millennium project, another body - the Institute of Welsh Affairs - takes up the reins with grim determination.

"It's not the end of a dream, and it's wrong to say nothing is happening," says Anthony Freud, general director of Welsh National Opera.

WNO, after all, has most to lose if the much talked about project in the urban wasteland of Cardiff Bay fails to materialise. Not only would it provide a stage for its shows but it would also be a home for the entire company.

"An opera house is fundamentally important," confirms Freud. "We'll do a better job in return for the public funding we receive, in terms of quality, cost-effectiveness and accessibility. Our community and education programme is handicapped at present as we have no suitable building in which to organise events. A new building provides a focal point, generating considerable economic activity. After all, WNO's Cardiff audiences have risen by 88 per cent in eight years."

A Welsh opera house has been the dream of generations past. For 50 years - ever since WNO started to project the voice of the Principality on to the world stage - talk has been of a home for large-scale theatrical productions befitting Cardiff's role as Europe's youngest capital.

Presently, major musicals, ballet and similar productions bypass the city, not because there is no audience - far from it, according to market research - but because there is nowhere to stage them. Audiences travel to Bristol, Birmingham, even London, to see shows. Cardiff loses out.

"Cardiff has huge potential as an international cultural centre," observes Michael Trickey, director of policy and planning at the Arts Council of Wales. "Already, the opera company, the orchestra and other arts organisations are developing rapidly. But we regard the opera house as crucial and we're keen it should make a major impact."

So why has it taken so long (for it to get nowhere)?

Trickey again: "Plans have been floated many times, but it was only in the late 1970s that WNO set up a full-time orchestra and chorus. Only then did the plan become viable. In addition, only after the Lottery was set up did the possibility of large amounts of cash become available."

The New Theatre is the present venue for opera in Cardiff and, though extensively refurbished, only seats 1,000 and would require a major cash injection to bring it up to the required standard and capacity to host touring shows.

But any dream from the past has turned into a present-day nightmare - although glimmers of light are beginning to pierce the gloom.

A couple of years ago, the road ahead appeared straight. Adrian Ellis, of London-based management consultants AEA, who were involved in the project from the beginning, said the Cardiff opera house "was nearly reality" and a worldwide architectural competition attracted 268 entries. The new "landmark building", it was announced, would be "stunning" and would open on St David's Day 2000.

The competition winner was Iraqi-born Zaha Hadid. Her bold design was immediately called into question, with costings said to be way above budget. A spokesman for the Opera House Trust revealed that the original budget for the project, at 1993 prices, was pounds 43m. "Ms Hadid estimates that her building will cost pounds 59m. Others put it at pounds 64m." They immediately sought refinements.

The air of uncertainty was stirred further when the then Welsh Secretary, John Redwood, suggested that any design should not be based solely on the basis of expert opinion but should take into account the reaction of the Welsh public. Their reaction was anaemic: just 8,000 turned up to view an exhibition of designs at the National Museum and 1,500 chose to comment, the majority rejecting Hadid's design.

Therein lay one of the major flaws of the project, according to Alun Michael, Labour MP for Cardiff South and Penarth - which includes Cardiff Bay - and formerly deputy chairman of the Opera House Trust.

"There was no capacity for the public or anyone outside the judging panel to be involved in the competition," he says. "Controversy was unavoidable."

By mid-1995, costs for Hadid's "glass necklace" had rocketed to pounds 86m, yet the Trust's chairman, Lord Crickhowell, formerly Nicholas Edwards, Secretary of State for Wales during much of the Thatcher premiership, remained bullish. "The Millennium Commission is attracted to the plans and is looking forward to working with us," he said at the time. At this point, the emphasis shifted to promoting the design less as an opera house, more a receiving theatre for large-scale productions, something lacking in Wales.

Just before Christmas, the Millennium Commission finally rejected an application for funding. That sent shock waves round the hitherto calm waters of the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation, the biggest such inner- city undertaking in Europe. The opera house project was - and remains - central to the pounds 2.75bn plans for this run-down part of the Welsh capital.

A furious Crickhowell branded the announcement "shocking and incomprehensible". Alun Michael also questioned the decision. "The Millennium Commission has recognised the importance of building an opera house," he said, "but we need to know what has led the officers to a conclusion which does not tally with the best available advice."

He argued that winning public support was made harder when the whole question of funding the rugby stadium came out of the blue. "People then said we could have one or the other," he noted. "We argued that we needed both because sport and the arts are two great engines of opportunity."

The WNO chairman, Lord Davies, reacted furiously, not least because the company might be denied a home altogether. The present HQ is subject to compulsory purchase in 1999, ironically part of the ongoing Cardiff Bay developments and Davies talked of lost opportunities for WNO, Cardiff and Wales.

Mandy Wix, then project director, was also shocked. In the rejection letter, she said, the Commission talked about "imponderables" and "value for money".

"The Arts Councils were positive," she says, "saying we'd make a profit. The Commission turned down our request to see the financial report and summaries. This flies in the face of normal practice for bodies like the Arts Council, which allows an organisation to see an assessor's report on which its very future is being decided."

Even the international opera star Bryn Terfel piled on the pressure, saying he would not sing in Wales again until the opera house controversy was sorted out.

Yet, despite pressure to reverse the decision, the Opera House Trust is no longer. All trustees have resigned. Estate agents have put the offices on the market.

"We failed as a result of a number of factors," Wix said. "It was a purely political decision for the Welsh to be given a rugby stadium. And Sir Geoffrey Inkin, the chairman of CBDC, was not prepared to support the Hadid scheme. It's a massive disappointment and we're still shocked and upset. The past few months have been grim. We've spent time reflecting on what went wrong and it's especially sad to sell off assets and see expert staff, who should be working on a great project lose their jobs.

"I don't think it's the end of a docklands theatre. CBDC is still speaking to the Millennium Commission, but I have no great hopes for the initiative taken by the Institute of Welsh Affairs. When they called interested parties together, there was no consensus on the way forward."

Yet the IWA believes it has brokered a package to bring the lights up again on the project. The Welsh think-tank has drawn together major public and private sector organisations and, in a recently-published report entitled Bread and Roses, made a convincing case for a Millennium Centre for the Arts.

According to IWA's director, John Osmond, "the original idea might have been turned down, but the case for a centre has not disappeared. One problem was the fact that some felt the original proposal would have been an opera house and nothing else. That was never the case. Our new proposals carry this idea forward."

Two previous IWA reports - Wales 2010 and Cardiff Euro Capital - highlighted a need to project Cardiff's identity and its strength as the "cultural capital of a musical nation".

That, according to Gareth Jones, chairman of the IWA's research group, is what the new project will do. "The original project died when Cardiff County Council and CBDC said they could not support the Hadid scheme," he says. "We now propose a new mecca for a musical nation. The musical theatre will seat 1,800. There will be a home for WNO, a new outpost for the National Museum of Wales as well as other leisure and catering facilities."

The driving force remains CBDC who now must work to ensure a new application to the Millennium Commission is made within a tight timescale. "Some 83 per cent of arts funding from the Lottery is allocated to England," added Jones. "We are going for a tripartite approach for the project. The theatre will apply for cash from the Millennium Commission, the WNO can apply to the Arts Council as a smaller capital project, and the museum can look to the Heritage Fund.

"We are back on track with a will to succeed," he notes. "We're designing a skeleton, laying down what the body should be. We'll organise another architectural competition to put the clothes on the body."

Alun Michael is optimistic, too. Michael was a Cardiff city councillor when the decision was taken to build St David's Hall, now a leading UK concert hall and home of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. "That boosted Cardiff considerably," he says. "Look at the hotels which opened on the back of the conference business. There's a similar level of interest from hotels in Cardiff Bay, but those developments and the jobs they will bring depend on the opera house."

"Cardiff is a success," he goes on, "but we still have to battle with a lack of vision in the city. A landmark building on the waterfront will make all the difference. It's a tragedy the Hadid design did not go ahead. It's the most famous unbuilt building in Wales.

"The Opera House Trust envisaged the building as a people's theatre, an engine for the talents of performers and artists in Wales. Industry supported that view and were prepared to put money into the project. Local youngsters saw it as their venture.

"Sydney, as a city, was an empty space in people's minds until the Opera House was built. We need a similar sort of building in Cardiff for us to make our mark."

Hope continues to spring eternal in Cardiff's docklands, however.

An announcement, in the latest round of National Lottery arts grants, of a pounds l78,125 handout to the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation to fund a feasibility study into a Millennium Centre for the Arts on the same site as the original Hadid proposal shows there is still breath in what almost became the corpse of the opera house project.

According to Freddie Watson, a former consultant to the Cardiff Bay Business Forum, elements of the old scheme will be incorporated into the new project.

"The centre will include a 2,000-seat music theatre, an IMAX cinema, a new `People and the Sea' museum and the headquarters for Welsh National Opera," he says.

"We have a great advantage this time, though. The Institute of Welsh Affairs' report confirmed the need for the theatre, thus putting Cardiff into a bigger league. We're not going to organise another international competition but we're designing from the inside out, getting the functions right and working on costs which we think are attainable.

"We must act quickly, though, as the deadline for the submission of forms for the final round of Millennium Commission grants is 16 September," he warns. "But there is no reason why we should not be open for business on 1 March 2001. And I think we have the support of the Secretary of State. Mrs Bottomley did say ours was a superb site for a Millennium building.

"That's one box which has already been ticked."

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