Opera: Happy birthday, dear Garden

Fifty years ago this week, the Royal Opera sang its first note. Peter Conrad profiles a company worth making a song and dance about
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A very significant date is about to sneak past uncelebrated. On 14 January 1947, the opera company newly established at Covent Garden, in a reclaimed dance-hall, gave its first performance. The 25th anniversary of that event, in 1972, was marked by an opulent exhibition at the V&A. But no drums and trumpets are sounding for the half-century on Tuesday, in case the tabloids - still frothing over the grant of Lottery money for the Royal Opera House's redevelopment - incite another epidemic of envy about toffs and their expensive tastes.

Such anniversaries provoke gloomy retrospection: times have changed, and not for the better. That first season began with Purcell's Shakespearian masque The Fairy Queen, in which Robert Helpmann played a swishily epicene Oberon. The musicologist Edward J Dent called the production an "appropriate symbol of the new enterprise" and a "proclamation of our faith in the greatest of English musicians", though he regretted that water shortages had curtailed the aquatic carnival prescribed in the stage directions. The greatest of English musicians returned to Covent Garden in 1995, when another masque, King Arthur, was staged to commemorate the third centenary of Purcell's death - but now there were no grounds for national self-congratulation. The production had been created for a French ensemble, with an American conductor, and was freighted in courtesy of Eurostar. It had already played for a month in Paris; Covent Garden could only afford it for three days.

But back in 1946, the creation of a resident opera and ballet company testified to post-war euphoria, when history seemed set for a blissful new beginning. The search for company members was conducted in a spirit of infectious populism: the South Wales Echo cheered a Rhondda miner who hung up his pit clothes and went off to sing in the opera; among other recruits were "Miss Hazel Clore, a well-known Harrogate soprano", and Nada Pobjoy from Emby, plucked from the obscurity of a parish choir. The enterprise resembled a collective fantasy, acting out the fond hopes of an entire country. When the freshly convened chorus met for its first rehearsal, a newspaper headlined its report "71 Dreams Come True."

Even the location made its contribution to the mystique. In those days, Covent Garden market was a cockney Arcadia, with traders behaving like jolly urban rustics. Michael Powell's 1948 film The Red Shoes conveys the atmosphere exactly: yodelling porters, somnolent dray horses and squashed tomatoes existed just a few yards away from ballerinas vaulting free from gravity and sopranos singing notes which by rights should only be enunciated by angels. Nowadays it is a different scene, given over to chintzy retailing. The Royal Opera's own shop has surrendered its premises to Monsoon, and the company's archives have been kicked upstairs by the Seattle Coffee Company. In this boutiqued precinct, the theatre looks ill-at-ease.

Covent Garden's founders had definitely populist ambitions; yet its opera was too easily annexed by high society. Pomp and circumstance stifled the premiere of Britten's Gloriana, commissioned for the Coronation season in 1953. The auditorium had been festooned with 3,000 English roses. Jewellery clanked and jangled. The Queen was immured in a box lined with cloth-of-gold, guarded - for fear that she might attempt to bolt - by a beefy cohort of Yeomen Warders. The Duke of Edinburgh, natty in knee breeches with jewelled garters, spent the evening scrutinising his programme. Britten's characterisation of Elizabeth I seemed like lese-majeste: at the supposed onset of a second Elizabethan age, the Queen confronted a raddled, balding, tetchy predecessor. When the Coronation season concluded, the company was despatched to Bulawayo - perhaps as a penance? - to fly the flag and commemorate the centenary of Cecil Rhodes. (Flag-waving continues to play a big part in the ROH's life. Luckily, one of Jeremy Isaacs' many talents, during his recent term as general director, was his bluff and witty removal of the stuffing from occasions when the theatre has to entertain visiting dignitaries - who mostly have other things on their minds. In 1991, with the Soviet Union collapsing, Mikhail Gorbachev came to London to plead for a subsidy from the G7 economic summit. He spent a night at Covent Garden, wanly smiling through Rossini's Cinderella story, La Cenerentola: where of course the impoverished servant girl wins the prince and all his gold. Isaacs, welcoming Gorbachev, apologised in advance for the gap between operatic make-believe and realpolitik. Goodness, he pointed out, does not always triumph.)

IN A culture where music traditionally consisted of pious oratorios performed in Town Halls, Covent Garden did much during its first decade to challenge decorum and relax stiff British manners. Ballet, after all, is about men in tights, and opera's abiding subject is sexual passion. Critics teased the company's first Carmen in 1947 for being so un-Mediterranean. Had no one told the matronly Edith Coates that Carmen was a slut? The tenor was a Commonwealth import, and one reviewer sniffed that a laconic Australian could hardly "have much in common temperamentally with the passionate Don Jose". For whatever reason, he seemed limply reluctant to kill the heroine. Nevertheless the baskets of Seville oranges and strings of onions in the decor delighted an audience accustomed to rationing. And a scandalous Salome directed by Peter Brook in 1949 helped to shock Britain out of its Puritanism. The erotomaniac princess was played by Ljuba Welitsch, a wild Bulgarian redhead who romped in scarlet nylon; Salvador Dali designed the set, with flying hippos, giraffe-shaped harps and a Biblical cocktail cabinet.

Of course there were setbacks. In her recent biography of the choreographer Frederick Ashton, Julie Kavanagh describes the courtly fuss over Constant Lambert's 1951 ballet Tiresias. In advance of a Royal visit, do-gooders from Buckingham Palace policed rehearsals to check on improprieties: wasn't the subject a hermaphrodite? But they didn't manage to embargo Margot Fonteyn's see-through top; and though Fonteyn scrambled into a cardigan before being presented to the Royal party, Princess Elizabeth haughtily snubbed her for such indecency.

Gradually the paying public warmed up, and began to behave operatically. The press snidely noted a peacocking array of "gay waistcoats" - one in pale-blue satin, another in red corduroy! - at the premiere of Britten's "all-male opera" Billy Budd in 1951. The music, however, still seemed impolite: a provincial review in the Newcastle Journal grumbled that there were "loud and sometimes angry passages from the orchestra". The stodgy ladies of the chorus took even longer to persuade. In 1965 Peter Hall directed Schoenberg's Moses und Aron, which - with its orgy around the golden calf - looked rather like a dodecaphonic version of Hair. A senior chorine fretted during a tea-break in the canteen: "I hear Mr Hall is going to have us all absolutely naked. And me with my figure!"

But slowly, inevitably, Covent Garden's display of performers who specialised in elemental fury and melodious frenzy - Nureyev's sensual savagery, the glowering violence of the bass Boris Christoff, Callas with her plangent neurosis - revolutionised the brittle, talky English theatre. Now a single costume, currently installed behind glass on one of the theatre's staircases, sums up the delirium of opera, which so confounded our timid rationality. This is the white shift, spattered with blood, which Joan Sutherland wore as the husband-stabber in Zeffirelli's 1959 Lucia di Lammermoor. That nightmarish nightie, large enough to house a sorority of lesser sopranos, transformed a stolid housewife from Sydney into a maenad.

FIFTY YEARS on, the unamused profile of Queen Victoria still looks down from the proscenium, and the lion and the unicorn continue to pose on the red velvet curtain, pretending to personify dieu et mon droit. But when the curtain rises, other, less official truths are told. Last year Tim Albery's production of Nabucco starkly reviewed a long history of anti-Semitism, with Verdi's chorus herded out of cattle trucks at Auschwitz station; and Richard Jones has used Wagner's Ring to show the dozing merchant bankers in the stalls what a society looks like as it falls apart, corroded by greed. Those who booed were, as the psychobabblers say, "in denial".

The leaky, dilapidated theatre finally closes for renovation at the end of this season, after a performance of Wagner's Die Meistersinger. The production is by Graham Vick; in it, the proud, altruistic citizens of Nuremberg - who stage a song contest to show the world that they care about something other than money - carry to church scale models of the buildings with which they intend to endow their city, anxious for a blessing on their enterprise. Those architectural trophies, handled so tenderly and reverently by Wagner's burghers, ought to remind us of a time, only 50 years ago, when people in this country dared to believe in reconstruction and the common good. !