Privatise the Royal Opera House, or nationalise it

It is now clear that Covent Garden has somehow, somewhere gone horribly wrong

In Berlin, they used to say at the turn of the century, the situation is serious but not hopeless, in Vienna, the situation is hopeless but not serious. The joke applies to the Royal Opera House over the past few years, except that it's tempting to say that in that period it has gone from one to the other: first serious but not hopeless, now hopeless but not serious.

The latest news that the ROH is to close "in its present form" next January and reopen - perhaps, and if things work out - at the end of the year is not only startling. It asks larger questions than seems to be realised by any of those concerned, notably Sir Colin Southgate, chairman of the ROH, and Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, about public subsidy of the arts and its justification.

Ten weeks ago, Sir Richard Eyre's report recommended a much increased subsidy, and firmly dismissed the idea of privatising Covent Garden. But actions - and inactions - speak louder than words, and the lamentable story suggests that almost any dispensation would be better than the present one.

The closure of Covent Garden for rebuilding has tuned into a gruesome chapter of accidents. Last year, Sir Jeremy Isaacs retired as general director of the ROH, although there was a lengthy overlap, at the taxpayer's expense, with his successor, Genista McIntosh. But she was only in place for a few months before she left, her departure not made less mysterious by the thoroughly unconvincing explanations offered.

Then her successor, Mary Allen, was appointed in puzzling circumstances, arrived, and stayed only months before leaving. A staff vote of no confidence in a senior ROH executive was passed (and leaked), a union representative was suspended, and the vote was withdrawn. A new head of education was appointed but broke all recent Covent Garden records - impressive as they were - by being sacked on the day she arrived. And people complain that the plots of operas like La forza del destino are implausible.

It was hard to imagine the baroque plot thickening further, but it did with yesterday's announcement. Southgate said that in view of the "unmanageable deficit, no proper financial information and ineffective management structure", he and his colleagues on the board propose a complete break. Even then, the company will only reopen after new staff agreements "negotiated in line with a reduced workforce", which is management-speak for mass redundancies.

To be fair to Southgate, he did inherit intractable problems. The ROH is a wonderland of overstaffing, union obscurantism and old Spanish customs (of a kind unknown to those famous Spaniards Don Giovanni and Figaro) reminiscent of Fleet Street 20 years ago.

But the closure, drastic as it is, may be almost by the way. What is now clear beyond peradventure, as that sometime ROH director Lord Goodman might have said, is not only that Covent Garden's management has somehow, somewhere gone horribly wrong but that a larger system has failed: the relationship between ROH, Arts Council, government - and the taxpayer.

Not only the ROH but the whole "arm's length" system of arts funding has long been regarded as a source of national pride. But should it be? Why is it so obviously right that the Government should give money unconditionally to an Arts Council which disburses it as it sees fit?

The Eyre report recommended, among other things, an increase of around pounds 60m a year in subsidy, about which Mr Smith has maintained a silence. And it dismissed out of hand the idea of withdrawing all subsidy and letting the ROH take its chances in the market.

Actually, the argument for privatisation is perfectly good, not only in "right-wing" terms, and is too easily dismissed by the chattering classes and those Sir Trevor Nunn likes to call "the luvvies". A contradiction is too rarely pointed out. Most of those chatterers at once consider themselves on the liberal left and favour heavy state subsidy of institutions like the Royal National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the Royal Opera House.

And yet it is perfectly obvious that all public subsidy of "the arts" represents a net transfer of resources from poor to rich. In this respect, Thatcherite philistines who sneer at the whole idea of subsidising poofs to prance on stage are more honest than lefty luvvies.

I have been attending the Royal opera for more than 30 years, often enough with rapturous enjoyment, but sometimes with a troubled conscience also. Here we sit, the stalls largely occupied by merchant bankers engaged in "corporate entertainment", and almost all of the audience well above the national average income, listening to a soprano who is paid pounds 5,000 for three hours' singing, all of which is largely paid for by the taxes of labourers in Scunthorpe or Southampton. Is this social justice?

What's more, there is a shining existential argument for privatisation 50 miles from Bow Street. The new house at Glyndebourne is not only the most beautiful theatre built in Europe since the war; it was built on time and within budget, a contrast indeed to most large public projects in recent decades. And it was built, as Glyndebourne has always been run, with no taxpayer's money.

That is one logical and honourable path. The other is to follow Sir Richard's advice and increase subsidy in line with comparable opera houses in Europe - but to do so by "direct rule", forgetting about the arm's length which is really a constitutional monstrosity, as Aneurin Bevan called the nationalised corporations.

The greatest irony is that amid these managerial fiascos, the Royal Opera as an artistic enterprise (yes, it is one, however easy that sometimes is to forget) is at a pinnacle of success. Three weeks ago I was in Edinburgh where the Royal Opera gave two Verdi operas. Luisa Miller, in concert performance under Mark Elder, was splendid; Don Carlos, under the Royal Opera's heroic, loyal and baffled musical director Bernard Haitink, wasn't splendid, it was utterly magnificent.

He returns in two weeks to conduct the company in The Ring at the Albert Hall. I trust the directors of the ROH will be more than usually stimulated by Wagner's great parable of greed, intrigue and treachery.

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk