Leading Article: Cherish opera, but don't spoil it

OPERA IS a great art form, and attracts the same level of devotion from its fans as football. Too often it is sneered at by people, including politicians and journalists, who have no interest in seeing it performed; great opera is an uplifting aesthetic experience.

Yet the love of opera has also been the problem with the Royal Opera House. To love the form is not the same thing as to believe that it deserves millions of pounds each year from public coffers, or that it should be administered by well-intentioned fools. Love of opera blinded people to the ridiculous shortcomings of the ROH for too long, and attracted the wrong characters to administer it.

Yesterday's decision to shut the Royal Opera House completely for 12 months is a good one - it needs a clean break, a sweep-out of personnel, precedents and traditions, then, hopefully, a completely new beginning. The question is: what kind of beginning should it be?

There are several shining examples of opera companies around the world which survive perfectly well without subsidies by attracting corporate sponsorship. But the main other difference between the Met in New York, for instance, and the Royal Opera House is the perception in this country that opera is an elitist pastime enjoyed only by toffs and snobs. This belief is self-fulfilling.

For the ROH to break the Catch 22, attract again the sponsorship that has bled away in recent years and more, then strike out without state help (for it is snobbish to suggest that opera is somehow uniquely needful of subsidies), a new and striking competence is crucial. But it is also important to allow the rehabilitated opera house to find its own level in the market-place. If this means small-scale productions to begin with, so be it - good quality doesn't necessarily imply "expensive", and it may find that its audiences grow naturally (so long as the musicians are top-class) as a result of a new image and judicious advertising.

The success of Glyndebourne shows what can be done when a company embraces the nature of its product imaginatively. Let's hope that when "Son of the Royal Opera House" arrives it has a better business head than its predecessor - and is forced to use it.