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Musical chairs as ENO make overtures to Payne

Nicholas Payne is being lined up to swap the Royal Opera for the English National Opera. Which will leave a Royal Opera vacancy. Then there's still Glyndebourne, and what about the South Bank Centre? David Lister predicts the results of a seemingly never-ending round of musical chairs.

Nicholas Payne, the head of the Royal Opera, is set to desert the country's most prestigious operatic post and move a few hundred yards down the road to run the English National Opera.

I understand that the ENO board, anxious to fill the vacancy left by the resignation of Dennis Marks, has narrowed its shortlist down to two, Payne and the former head of Scottish Opera, Richard Jarman.

But the prospect of Payne renewing his successful partnership with ENO music director Paul Daniel - the two ran Opera North with great aplomb - makes him the most appealing choice.

Continuing the round of operatic musical chairs, the vacancy also must be filled in the next few weeks for the artistic directorship at Glyndebourne opera. I gather that Nicholas Payne is also on the shortlist here, along with South Bank director Nicholas Snowman and the managing director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Serge Dornay.

If Snowman were to leave the South Bank, where he is disillusioned with its failure so far to win lottery money for a massive redevelopment, he would be a major and interesting signing for Glyndebourne. But with Glyndebourne's owner Sir George Christie always very much in attendance, an artistic director never has carte blanche as Sir Peter Hall found when he left in high dudgeon a few years ago.

Then there will be the question of who will take over at the South Bank Centre, to run the Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room and Hayward Gallery, if Snowman leaves. The clever money is on Patrick Deuchar, currently unemployed, who made a huge success of running the Royal Albert Hall and would relish the move across the water.

Deuchar, I'm told, is hatching a plan for a giant new arena in London to put on spectaculars similar to ones such as the Cirque Du Soleil which he brought to the Royal Albert Hall. A new London pleasuredome might not be the most politically correct project to get off the ground at the moment, so he should still have time on his hands for a crack at the South Bank Centre, and maybe trying to persuade Eric Clapton to transfer his allegiance from the Royal Albert to the Royal Festival Hall.

The most interesting switch, though, would be the move of Nicholas Payne to English National Opera. In all the ROH's troubles over the past year, Payne has kept the high regard in which he is held, putting on interesting and sometimes provocative productions, and - though it attracted scant publicity - managing to balance the budget of the Royal Opera company. We can overlook his late cancellation of Macbeth as a blip on an otherwise impressive graph.

His discontent at Covent Garden became embarrassingly evident when he publicly described a statement on the opera company's financial affairs by his then chairman Lord Chadlington as "bollocks".

Some colleagues say there is a more aesthetic source for his discontent. Payne is said to be uncomfortable with the world of high international fees at the Royal Opera. (I hear that the situation gets ever more ludicrous. When Pavarotti had flu at Christmas the Philharmonia Orchestra which had agreed to pay him pounds 40,000 to sing in Verdi's Requiem rushed in Roberto Alagna as a replacement and had to pay him pounds 45,000.)

Payne would be happier, it seems, at the ENO with no international superstars, but a company renowned for challenging, lively productions in English.

His departure to a rival often perceived as the junior partner would, though, be a blow to the incoming chairman of the Royal Opera House, EMI chairman Sir Colin Southgate. Sir Colin will quickly become aware of the political imperatives and sensitivities at the House. Some snipers are already muttering that he will have to beware of conflicts of interest (Roberto Alagna and other opera stars are signed to EMI).

In the frenzied climate of the moment, with a committee set up by Culture Secretary Chris Smith to decide on the Royal Opera House's very future, he could do without losing a well respected head of the Royal Opera. But this is likely to be the news that will greet him later this week. And after putting a good spin on Payne's defection from the Royal Opera, he will have to find a replacement for him. Still, there's no shortage of possibilities in the liveliest game of musical chairs around.