Nobody tells me anything

Suddenly the Royal Opera Company isn't coming. So how will Sadler's Wells fill 100 free nights?
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Ian Albery is really angry. Just as he was about to preside over the proud opening of Sadler's Wells's completely rebuilt theatre, he has become the principal victim of the Royal Opera House's turmoil. The Opera House had been contracted since April 1997 to give 110 opera performances at the new Sadler's Wells between April and September 1999. So Albery's world turned upside down on 9 September when Sir Colin Southgate, chairman of the ROH board, announced that next year's opera programme was cancelled forthwith.

Albery had heard rumours the night before from a Guardian reporter, but the first official indication that a vital component in his next year's programme was about to be blown out of the water came at 10.15am on the day of Sir Colin's bombshell, when Richard Jarman, the interim opera administrator, telephoned to say that he had bad news.

By the time Jarman said there would be none at all, Covent Garden had whittled down the number of performances to 51. The difference between the two figures should become material if or when litigation begins over Sadler's Wells's claim for compensation. They are thinking in terms of up to pounds 2m.

Meanwhile, Albery is steaming. "A brand new theatre, built at public expense, is to be dark for months to enable Covent Garden to sort out its industrial relations problems. Now we're talking about pounds 1m to sort out our programming problems. If the money isn't forthcoming, we'll be bust," says Albery.

As the implications of the ROH decision dawned on the Arts Council and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport last week, there were sympathetic murmurs from the Arts Minister, Alan Howarth, and promises of meetings with ministers and top managers from the Arts Council. Albery was not appeased.

His life is hard enough as it is. Inside the new Sadler's Wells, he walks through a building site. Floors and carpets have still to be laid; the stage house is an empty shell; wires and cables run bare on the walls and ceilings. Yet scheduled for next Thursday is a performance to test the acoustic, safety procedures and ventilation. It is axiomatic in opera that no matter how much rehearsal time you have, it is always chaos in the end - but this is ridiculous.

Thursday's performance is an essential prelude to Sadler's Wells obtaining a licence from Islington Council. Without it, the box office can't send tickets to the people who have booked for the first public performance by the Rambert Dance Company on 12 October, or for the few performances by the Royal Opera of Smetana's The Bartered Bride in December that have survived the cuts.

Besides the loss of good business next summer, Albery is contemplating a serious shortfall in the funding of the new theatre, which is being built with lottery money and matching funds. The budget was pounds 39m, but difficulties on the site (caused mainly by water, presumably from Mr Sadler's wells) have pushed that cost up to pounds 42m. The difference of pounds 3m has to be borrowed, and interest payments will wreck the planned budgets. Moreover, the matching fund is still pounds 4.5m short of its target.

Who would want to run a theatre in Britain now?

Albery would. It's in the blood. His grandfather, Sir Bronson, was a governor at the Old Vic and Sadler's Wells before the Second World War, and his father, Donald, was general manager of Sadler's Wells Ballet. Ninette de Valois often stayed in the house when Ian was a boy. Margot Fonteyn helped Donald set up his first production company - hence "Donmar", as in the Warehouse. The Albery Theatre in St Martin's Lane is a monument to the family's interest in West End theatre.

Ian never considered a life outside the theatre. "My father sent me off, aged 14, to work at the sharp end: in the box office. I worked as a carpenter and an electrician. I don't think there's a single job in the theatre I don't know backwards. The unions know they can't pull any wool over my eyes."

Albery's first proper job was in New York with the American Theater Ballet. He ran the Festival Ballet and was in charge of six West End theatres. He understands the culture of commercial theatre; he is, says an opera administrator, "a tougher version of Raymond Gubbay, very populist."

He was asked to run Sadler's Wells in 1994 because he was a safe pair of hands. Returning to dance was a strong motive and he persuaded the Arts Council that Sadler's Wells should be the centre of the nation's dance network. "It is the cradle of British dance. Without de Valois and Marie Rambert - both veterans of Sadler's Wells - British ballet would not exist."

Driven by the idea of a national dance house, Albery approached the National Lottery on the day it opened for business, and his application for the price of a totally rebuilt theatre was one of the first to be approved. Even in its unfinished state, he is delighted by it. "I've run lots of theatres - Victorian, Edwardian, more modern 1930s theatres - but this is the first time as a theatre manager that I won't have to keep on saying, 'No, we can't do that.'"

THE IRONY of his plight is that Albery did not want the Royal Opera at Sadler's Wells at all. The Royal Ballet is welcome because the building is designed as a dance theatre, but its capacity of 1,500 is too small for most of the operatic repertory.

"We were required by the Arts Council to take the ROH," he explains. "We were told it was in our best interests, and that if we didn't, there would be trouble. It's a double whammy: first we weren't allowed to do the programme we wanted. Now they've changed their mind; they get extra money, and we're left with no programming for next summer."

The Arts Council denies, through a spokeswoman, that the plight of Sadler's Wells was forgotten during the talks that preceded Sir Colin Southgate's fateful announcement. It is admitted that the crisis at the Opera House was consciously treated as being even more serious in the long run than the short-term embarrassment to Sadler's Wells. That observation would come as no surprise to Ian Albery.

Although he is a member of the theatrical establishment, Albery runs a company that doesn't belong to any establishment. Despite its substantial lottery grant, Albery sees Sadler's Wells as being out in the cold. He has been out there so long he sounds faintly paranoid. "The establishment sees us as slightly funky, dangerous, populist. You might sit next to somebody wearing trainers," he said, referring to Southgate's distaste at the very idea.

"We're not about big names and stars: we're a people's theatre. We embrace Lilian Baylis's ethic when she started the Wells, which is that our seats are at prices labourers and artisans can afford." The median price is pounds 18, and the top, pounds 35. That was to rise to pounds 50 when the Royal Opera took the stage - still a bargain, compared to Covent Garden.

The artistic style is quite different too. Albery defines the approach to ballet as designed to preserve the classical repertory: "High culture, high standards, a museum-style approach." There is nothing wrong with it, he says, but it does not suit his theatre, which cultivates a more instant, popular appeal. It has to.

Albery turns subsidy into a game. The Opera House gets pounds 14.5m, the ENO pounds 13.5m, the National Theatre pounds 12.5m. What's the Sadler's Wells subsidy? About pounds 1m? No, he says. "We get pounds 220,000 from the London Arts Board." That's about 30p a ticket. Including the Peacock Theatre and the Lilian Baylis studio, Albery's box office will be selling 2,800 seats a night. It has to have popular appeal.

IF ALBERY was showing evidence of a persecution complex last week, it was probably because he was being persecuted. The Royal Opera spokesperson said that, of course, they were sorry about the cancellation of the opera season, but the Royal Ballet will play there for a month next July - provided Covent Garden still has an orchestra. And the Welsh National Opera has been engaged for four days to replace some of the lost 51 performances - or 110, as the case may be. But from Floral Street come dark hints that Sadler's Wells's real problem is not cancellations, but the costs on the new building.

After a telephone conversation with the Arts Minister, Albery felt the Department of Culture had got the message that a serious injustice had been done. The Departmental briefers said that "sympathetic murmurs" are being made, and a meeting with Alan Howarth or Chris Smith has been set. Some civil servants play down Albery's fears; compensation for breach of contract ought to mean that Sadler's Wells will be coming well out of the deal, they say.

The Arts Council is also arranging a meeting, sooner rather than later, to discuss with the London Arts Board how they can maintain the programme at Sadler's Wells next summer.

It will not be easy. A lyric theatre, says Albery, is not like a play theatre, where a different production can be substituted easily with six months' notice. "For dance and opera on this scale, we're programming for 2001. I'll need staff I haven't got to fill the gap, and extra money to buy in other companies at short notice. They'll know that I'm desperate. I'll have no bargaining power."

He notes sorrowfully that Sir Richard Eyre's report on opera houses recommended co-ordination and strategic thinking, not knee-jerk reactions; yet this is the usual case of the right hand not knowing about the left. But Albery doesn't think he has been conspired against: "It's slightly obscene that they're going to get more money to do nothing, but it's too much of a cock-up to be a conspiracy."

He is too kind. The Arts Council admits that Covent Garden's closure policy was agreed because sorting out its problems mattered most. What we have been watching is Sadler's Wells being screwed.