Power & Influence in the Arts / 1. Opera: Can't sing, can't direct, can't conduct: Where they lead, others follow

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The decisions of a handful of people with power and influence set the standards of what appears on the stage, page and screen, or in the concert hall and gallery. In the first of a series assessing the impact of Britain's cultural pacemakers, Mark Pappenheim profiles Nicholas Payne, the new boy at the Royal Opera House.

Conventional wisdom states that international opera houses plan their programmes about five years in advance - at least, that's always been the excuse for the time it takes Covent Garden to catch up with the latest new Continental or American developments, whether in vocal talent, repertoire or production styles. So, when Nicholas Payne took over last September as director of the Royal Opera and overall winner in the round of musical chairs that brought new managements almost simultaneously to all five of our national companies, no one could reasonably have expected his appointment to show results for at least another three or four seasons, even allowing for the two-year hand-over period he had enjoyed.

It's typical of the man that he has managed to make his mark from the start, dropping a planned revival of Nuria Espert's recent but already outmoded production of Madam Butterfly in favour of its 40-year-old but still-classic predecessor, fielding The Magic Flute in a borrowed staging (by Martin Duncan) from Scottish Opera in place of the threatened new production by John (massacre of Les Huguenots) Dew, and shoehorning Massenet's rarely seen Cherubin (makings its Covent Garden debut 89 years to the St Valentine's Day since its 1905 Monte Carlo premiere) into the gap about to be left by a suddenly self-destructing production of Gluck's mighty but demanding Iphigenie en Tauride.

While such interventions might appear more like exercises in damage limitation than in artistic control ('Look, I don't think I'd want to be judged on opening my first season with a Madam Butterfly from 1951,' Payne protests), the priorities he has followed in putting together his rescue package - something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue (allowing for the amorous escapades of Count Almaviva's erstwhile pageboy in Massenet's seductively slight Beaumarchais sequel) - do give a fair indication of the qualities that have characterised his career and earned him what is, effectively, the top job in British opera.

Payne may not, as he modestly insists, be able to do 'any of the things that really matter - I can't sing, I can't direct, I can't conduct' - but neither is he just an ordinary administrator. To begin with, he boasts a knowledge of opera deeper and wider than many of its active participants: he's been going to it for over 40 years (beginning with Strauss's Elektra when he was 7), and has written many a cogently argued programme-note and discography, as well as a few singing translations, during his years in Cardiff with Welsh National Opera (which he joined as No 2 to Brian McMaster in 1976) and in Leeds with Opera North (where he became his own boss in 1982). To that, he adds an instinctive love of innovation and a penchant for the rarer repertoire, coupled with a dislike of novelty for novelty's sake and a genuine respect for those few traditions that deserve it. Above all, he has shown an almost unerring ability to match the right director with the right project, achieving remarkable results in Leeds by putting Tim Albery together with Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage, Phyllida Lloyd with Chabrier's L'Etoile, or Deborah Warner, in her reluctant but ultimately triumphant operatic debut, with Berg's Wozzeck.

It all adds up to a formidable list of talents, lent extra spice by an almost flamboyantly pragmatic approach to planning, a willingness to tear up the longest-laid plans, juggle budgets and bookings and start again in order to achieve the ultimate aim (what his new boss, Jeremy Isaacs, calls his 'whims of iron'). It's a pragmatism born of total control of all the elements that come into play in opera-planning - from casting to costing - acquired during a 25-year-long career that began when the Eton- and-Cambridge-educated Payne landed a junior job in the Royal Opera's accounts department. He thereafter joined the Arts Council as a subsidy officer, before, in a classic case of gamekeeper turning poacher, he put his inside knowledge to use as financial controller of WNO.

But the proof of his abilities has been the way he has turned Opera North, within a decade, from the poorer northern cousin of ENO, purveying largely hand-me-down productions with cast-off casts, into the most universally respected, adventurous and talked-about of all the regional companies. It's a status that can only be confirmed next month when the company celebrates its 15th anniversary by bringing back to Covent Garden, scene of its disastrous 1953 premiere, Britten's once-neglected coronation opera Gloriana in a production by Phyllida Lloyd (a key Payne protegee) which most critics agree has finally vindicated the piece.

'Bold', 'daring' - these are the words people habitually use to describe him, and it's already clear that the risk-taking will continue at the Garden. Take that Cherubin. Where others might have persisted in trying to patch up the ailing Gluck, or, having pulled it, would have limply fallen back on the umpteenth revival of Don Giovanni or Cos fan tutte, Payne seized the opportunity to do something he really wanted to do, reasoning that a well-presented and attractive rarity should pay its way at the box-office at least as well as a tired old revival and that, far from suffering from the sort of young cast available at such short notice, such a youthfully zestful piece as Cherubin should even benefit. As it is, the Massenet has given him the opportunity to offer UK debuts to some distinguished singers, including the American Susan Graham in the breeches role, as well a rare Covent Garden outing for Gennady Rozhdestvensky (yes, even major international conductors sometimes find themselves with spare dates in their diary). And, in Tim Albery, he has also brought to Covent Garden within his first season one of the directors upon whom he most came to rely in Leeds, awarding him major projects like Berlioz's The Trojans and Verdi's Don Carlos. It's a first example of the sort of short-term planning that Payne raised to the level of a fine art in Leeds, but which is clearly going to go on enlivening things in the usually staider arena of the Royal Opera. Even the new Ring - which, with typically impish humour, Payne announced in the middle of a Radio 3 broadcast of the last, scenically disappointing cycle - is going to be put together almost as fast as the stop-gap borrowing from Berlin which it is designed to replace. But then, it's another rescue package, giving the Royal Opera the new Ring cycle that every self-respecting international house should have and salvaging the Richard Jones / Nigel Lowery conception that Scottish Opera was forced to drop half-way for lack of funds.

Funds may be slightly freer at the Garden, but not that much. Up North, Payne developed extremely cunning methods of delivering epic operas to his audiences even on a tight budget, whether by spreading his costs through co-production deals with other companies, as with Berlioz's mammoth Trojans, or by simple sleight of hand, presenting Boris Godunov in Mussorgsky's more compact seven- scene original or Verdi's Don Carlos in the composer's own cut-down four-act version. The trick was to do it without any sense of compromise. It seems to have worked. When Tim Albery's Don Carlos opened in Leeds in the same month as Zeffirelli's new production starring Luciano Pavarotti at La Scala in Milan, the editor of Opera magazine came down firmly in favour of the Opera North staging for dramatic integrity and vocal conviction.

Payne has already announced the five key areas of repertoire on which he will be concentrating: Wagner, with the new Ring (and a Tristan due too); Verdi, with the complete canon to be got through before the composer's centenary in 2001; the English heritage, including Handel; the renewal of the core rep; and a sprinkling of rarities (Giordano's Fedora, with Carreras and Freni, and Rossini's Mose, with Raimondi, for starters this season). He is also firmly committed to the best of 20th-century opera, beginning with a revival of Birtwistle's ROH commisson, Gawain, this spring, although in future brand-new work may fare less well: Payne has just cut the Garden Venture and speaks dismissively of the results of 'doing a new commission every May' in a clear broadside at the Coliseum.

To an extent Payne's new job marks the culmination and consolidation of all he has been working for elsewhere during the past 20 years, albeit with the enviable advantage of now being able to cast from the very top of the international singing pool. It may have taken 15 years, but the lessons of the 'poor opera' and of the Felsenstein school have finally taken root at Covent Garden. Harry Kupfer, the former East German radical producer whose 1978 'meat-rack' Elektra for WNO effectively gave a kick-start to the whole British school of 'Power House' directors, was at last given his own new production (of Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust) at the Royal Opera last year. And it was Andrei Serban, another of Payne's promotions at both WNO and Opera North, who gave the Royal Opera one of its biggest money-spinners of recent years in the white-face Turandot which he devised for the 1984 LA Olympics, and which the company has since toured around the world (including, in its only stab at 'arena' opera, to Wembley). With directors such as Graham Vick presiding over the Garden's recent triumphant Mastersingers, it's clear that the Young Turks of the past are now running the operatic establishment (or, some might say, the lunatics have taken over the asylum).

(Photograph omitted)

Next Monday: Paul Taylor considers the influence of Richard Eyre upon national theatre