An opera company launched yesterday by the impresario Raymond Gubbay hopes to attract new audiences to the genre by staging popular classics with low-price tickets.
The team behind the new venture, which will be based at the Savoy Theatre in the West End of London when it opens next April, said yesterday they were not setting out to challenge the opera establishment, but that clashes were inevitable.
Steven Pimlott, who is part of the team behind the Savoy Opera Company, and directed Bombay Dreams and seasons with the Royal Shakespeare Company, said: "We don't see ourselves as competing with the Royal Opera House or English National Opera (ENO), but as enhancing the choices available and widening the audience."
The Savoy Opera will emulate the ENO by staging performances in English. Top-price seats will sell for £49.50, compared with £170 at the Covent Garden Opera House and £70 at the ENO. There will be only a couple of hundred of the cheapest £10 seats available each week, compared with 500 seats under £10 at every weekday performance at the ENO's Coliseum.
Raymond Gubbay, regarded as the country's leading classical music promoter, has had a long-standing ambition to present classical music to the public at affordable prices.
Organisers hope to put on eight shows a week, with each opera being performed about 50 times, compared with much smaller seasons elsewhere. The first season of seven productions will include The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro, Carmen and La Traviata, on a budget of £10m.
Sir Stephen Waley-Cohen, who runs the Savoy Theatre, said : "We want to be at least as much part of the West End theatre scene as we are of the opera scene." Sir Stephen said opera had been a big part of the West End 50 years ago.
The Savoy Theatre was built next to the Savoy Hotel on the Strand in 1881 to provide a home for Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas, and was rebuilt in the Art Deco style in 1929. With 1,100 seats, it is half the size of the Coliseum or the Covent Garden Opera House. Its clear acoustics made it ideal for pieces by composers whose music would be in danger of becoming lost in a bigger auditorium. Its size also meant the new company could include younger singers whose voices could be damaged in a larger venue. Younger singers also mean lower costs.
Mr Pimlott said: "This is probably the most exciting project I think I've ever worked on and one of the special joys is the theatre."
David Parry, the conductor who is also part of the new venture, added: "There has been an enormous gap in London operatic life where there is not a smaller-scale theatre where you can actually perform Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti in a way which has this intimacy."
The team admitted that they were unlikely to stage new operas for many years, although they could extend the repertoire to more difficult works if they succeeded in developing a loyal following as, for example, Sir Simon Rattle did with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.
But the dependence on the popular classics such as Carmen and La Traviata could mean several versions of these works on offer at the same time.
Mr Parry said he believed more productions would simply encourage audiences. "Opera is like sex - the more you have, the more you want, at least in my experience," he said.
Is cut-price opera a good idea?
Roger Lewis, managing director of Classic FM
This really is a bold and brave initiative, and it should be applauded. It should not be seen as a threat to the Royal Opera House or the ENO. I believe this should complement their work.
It is not without its challenges making commercial sense out of opera is fraught with difficulties. But Raymond will bring flair and panache to opera in the West End. He's put together a quality package of operas and the young casts he's talking about are hugely attractive. And it's a gorgeous theatre.
I've been to many of his productions and his Madame Butterfly was a huge hit commercially and artistically, and many critics applauded his Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci. Raymond's agenda for opera is inclusive and he has honed over many years the skills of making sure prices are affordable and the quality is appropriate. The challenge is how you marry that interface between commerce and art how you make it a meaningful artistic experience but square the difficult circle of making the sums add up.
Ashutosh Khandekar, editor 'Opera Now'
My worry is that it may be used as an argument to erode subsidy. You get the impression that people will say, 'Raymond Gubbay can do opera that is commercially viable and unsubsidised in the West End, so why should other companies be subsidised to the extent they are?' But the sort of work other opera houses are doing is different.
Essentially it's a good thing, but the sort of work he will be able to do is quite limited. The budget is not very big. It doesn't seem like enough money to do seven new productions with big casts. And they're going to have to develop a new audience. If you take into account that the seat prices aren't very high and it's only a 1,000-seat theatre, they aren't going to get a huge amount of revenue from the box office. One presumes he's done his sums.
The other thing about Gubbay is that he's used to working on a huge scale at Wembley and the Albert Hall, so to some extent he's taking a risk. But it's a beautiful theatre and he's right that you will be able to hear every word.