Focus: A fright at the opera

Trouble with the wage bill, trouble at Westminster, troubled by the Minister; it has been a hard week's labour for the opera companies

Mary Allen sank back into a leather chair in the chief executive's office at the Royal Opera House. "It's been a week from hell," she said. She went through it, item by item. Most desperate was the need to bail the company out of another financial crisis. Without an injection of cash, the Royal Opera House would be insolvent, and all the musicians, singers and dancers would have be dismissed. Appearing as a witness before a hostile Commons select committee had been no fun, she said. She also had to sell a new managerial structure to the board. Then she had to digest Chris Smith's astonishing idea that London's rival grand-opera houses, the Royal Opera and the ENO, should get into bed together in the new Covent Garden opera house being built.

But then it was a week from hell for everyone involved in this Wagnerian saga.

Paul Daniel, the new music director of the English National Opera, also had a crisis on his hands. Suddenly it looked as though the company was to be turfed out of its home at the Coliseum. Worse than that: after the company had received a pounds 4.5m boost from the Arts Council only two weeks ago, its survival was again in the balance.

Someone else having a rotten time was Mark Fisher, Chris Smith's junior minister at the Culture, Media, and Sport Department. He blurted out on television the news that Sir Richard Eyre, the former director of the National Theatre, whom Chris Smith had appointed to act as judge and jury on his suggestions, supported them already and would make them work. This cocky assertion brought down on Fisher an extraordinary public tongue- lashing from his boss. "He was wrong in what he said, and I've told him off," said Smith.

And for Smith himself, a week that had begun with headlines proclaiming a radical Blairite plan to sort out the expensive prima donnas running opera in London, had turned sour. From then on much of his time was spent backpedalling. His tone was apologetic: "All I've done is put a proposal on the table," he said. What Mary Allen said was that Smith hadn't thought through the politics of his ideas.

JUST AS visitors to Italy are divided into Venice people and Florence people, London opera goers are split between Covent Garden and ENO. They may go to both, but their loyalties lie with only one.

At the ROH, casts are drawn from the world's highest-priced singers, and the repertory - drawn principally from the operatic mainstream - is sung in its original language. There are 150 performances a year, with the stage being shared with the Royal Ballet. Snobbery at Covent Garden is social and artistic. But seat prices are so high that audiences can feel seriously cheated by bad performances - unless they are sitting in corporate seats and are more impressed by the gorgeous velvet and gilt.

At the ENO, the audience is less well-dressed and more open-minded. Opera performances number 190 each year, and are always in English - though the words are not always distinguishable. The ENO's high reputation is built on performances of complete cycles by great 20th-century composers such as Britten and Janacek.

The decor at the Coliseum has seen better days, but best seats cost less than pounds 50, and there are usually a few people who leave early to catch the last train to the suburbs. But ENO's audience is loyal, and mostly tolerates the company's artistic excesses - stages set at strange angles, for instance, and a penchant for chainsaws.

Last Tuesday, when newspapers reported that Chris Smith proposed the closure and possible sale of the Coliseum, and the transfer of the ENO's activities to a Covent Garden that would be shared with the Royal Opera, the loyal audience sprang into action. The ENO's box office was bombarded by offers of assistance; an accountant asked if he could help with spread- sheets; resting actors offered to address envelopes.

Chris Smith is an intelligent, well-mannered politician who has the courage of his convictions. In Opposition, he had been shadow minister in important, high-spending ministries such as health and social security, but his appointment as Secretary of State for Culture was an indication that he was being downgraded by Tony Blair. After a few months in office, he was being described by arts administrators as ineffective, even spineless. In Westminster, he was being seen as a potential victim of Blair's first Cabinet reshuffle. So perhaps Smith felt he needed to make an impression.

SMITH's Covent Garden proposals were a bombshell. Though he had worked on them for two months, none of the interested parties knew he had any such thing in mind. Under the arm's-length principle, which states that the Government should not become directly involved the affairs of arts companies, it was the Arts Council that should have formed the plan, and announced it. But the first Lord Gowrie, the council's chairman, heard of it was from Smith himself in his office at 9am last Monday.

The problem, Smith told him, was an accumulated deficit between the two houses of about pounds 10m. There was no extra money forthcoming from the Treasury. Smith made it clear that, without a dramatic intervention, the very survival of both companies was at risk.

Lord Chadlington, chairman of the Royal Opera House board, heard the same story from Smith at 10am, and Paul Daniel, the artistic director of the ENO, heard it at midday. Daniel understood that the announcement would be made later in the week, but Smith was in a hurry. He wanted the story out before appearing before Gerald Kaufman's Culture Media and Sport Committee the following day. At tea-time, a press release arrived in ENO's offices; the arts correspondents were about to be briefed by Smith. The story was out before any of the participants had time to draw breath.

They all said they welcomed the fact that Sir Richard Eyre would review Smith's proposals. In fact, they had little choice. "We can't go on the way things are now," says Vivien Duffield, one of the principal private donors for the rebuilding of Covent Garden.

Although he will not name them, Smith says he had talked to "a couple" of people outside his department about the plan; and indeed it was not as original as reports of it suggested. In 1995 an Arts Council review into opera and ballet in London, chaired by Dennis Stevenson, now chairman of Pearson, recommended that the ENO's repertory should be reduced, and the Coliseum should be given over to ballet more often. Earlier this year, the ENO itself proposed moving the whole company to an entirely new theatre, possibly in south London. Having declared their intention to go makes it hard for the company now to argue the case for staying.

During the summer, both companies lost their chief executive. Genista McIntosh and Dennis Marks, in different ways, were worn down. It was in those crisis conditions that the idea of joint management for common services surfaced. Mary Allen recalls hearing of it while she was still secretary general of the Arts Council: "It's an idea that's been bubbling around recently," she said. "It's in the ether, but it's never been expressed in such radical terms. It was more a question of joint management than of selling the Coliseum."

THE NEW opera house is taking shape in Covent Garden, and it is so big that it is not so much an opera house as an opera city, built to accommodate a ballet company as well. It is big enough to house a joint management for the Royal Opera and the ENO - looking after matters such as budgeting, box office, catering and so on. But it is not big enough to absorb a second grand-opera company, with its orchestra, chorus and stage crew. And since the two companies give about 340 opera performances a year, this number would have to be drastically reduced if the Royal Ballet was also to perform regularly.

By Friday, Smith was admitting that three companies into one house might not go. He emphasised a sentence in a letter he had written to Sir Richard Eyre: "You might wish to consider the case for a smaller-scale permanent base for work on one or more of the companies," he wrote. In an interview he talked of "neat synergies" between the ENO and Sadler's Wells, the Islington theatre where the ENO began its life before moving to the Coliseum.

Sadler's Wells is being totally rebuilt and will open in October 1998, and it has already agreed to house extensive seasons by the Royal Opera. Ian Albery, Sadler's Wells' managing director, says the same model could apply to the ENO: "We're happy to have seasons, but there is a difference between having seasons and being taken over."

This is a question of identity, and it is the greatest single problem facing Smith's reforms. The ROH took significant steps to preserve its own identity last week, partly by raiding its property trusts to guarantee, among other things, its payroll. When Paul Daniel talked to the ENO's staff on Tuesday, his clear priority was the preservation of the company. His campaign will be backed by the ENO audience, and together they will form an influential lobby. "It's easy for politicians to underestimate the power of the arts lobby," says Mary Allen.

Chris Smith says he is trying to stretch people's thinking. He has done that. Whether they will stretch in the directions he wishes is another matter.

In an article about the Royal Opera House last week, I reported the rumour that Vivien Duffield asked for cast changes when she attended the ballet. She tells me this is quite untrue. I regret the error.

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