A right royal mess at the Opera House

Paul Vallely reports on rumours swirling at the troubled ROH
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The Independent Online
NO ONE in the arts world could quite believe it. And yet no one could refrain from repeating the gossip. The new artistic director of the Royal Opera House is to be Sir Richard Eyre, the man appointed by the Government to conduct an independent review of the sorry mess in what was once the jewel in the British arts crown.

Surely it could not be true? Sir Richard is the man who is due to report soon on the future of opera and ballet in London. Could the result be a one-man employment creation scheme - a proposal of unique self-indulgence?

Anything seemed possible yesterday in the febrile world of the metropolitan arts at the end of a week which, even by the exaggerated standards of the ROH, was extraordinary.

Covent Garden had lost yet another chief executive. Mary Allen had, after only months in the job, gone the way of her predecessor Genista McIntosh, who lasted an even shorter time. In the past 12 months the ROH has sacked many of its most senior staff, seen its chairman and board replaced and been roundly chastised by a parliamentary select committee which strongly criticised Ms Allen over the manner of her move to Covent Garden from her post as secretary-general of the Arts Council, which funds the opera house. The then Arts Council chairman, Lord Gowrie, when asked why he had not blocked the move, mysteriously told the select committee that he had "bonded too closely" with the 46-year-old brunette.

The ROH was yesterday taciturn about the rumours that Sir Richard was to take over. "That's something he'll have to consider when the post is advertised if he feels that is appropriate," a spokeswoman said.

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport was no more forthcoming. "It's not something we'd been involved with," said its spokeswoman, "and it's not something we'd be commenting on." And at the Arts Council the response was: "it sounds like wild rumour

Yet it is hard to believe that Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, would not involve himself in such a decision. It was he who announced the review of the capital's opera provision without even consulting the Arts Council.

It was he who chose Sir Colin Southgate - the top man at EMI - to take over at Covent Garden to knock some business sense into the dilettante opera clique. It was he who chose Gerry Robinson, the millionaire chairman of the Granada group, and a strong supporter of new Labour, to replace Lord Gowrie as chairman of the rudderless Arts Council which had so spectacularly failed to control the elite which one commentator disparagingly christened the Covent Garden crazy gang.

The arts establishment is alarmed enough by Mr Robinson, whom it has variously dubbed a "slash-and-burn merchant" and "a shark in a Val Doonican pullover". Already Mr Robinson, who has announced his intention of working just one day a week, has instituted some Granada-style reforms, shrinking the council from 23 members to just 10. More recently, he announced that the nation's biggest arts companies were to be put on fixed-term contracts instead of being funded fairly automatically year after year.

It is in such a context that the rumours about Sir Richard receive their credence. When Ms Allen was sacked from her pounds 100,000-a year-job, her new chairman told her he wanted not an arts administrator but an old-style artistic director. Names that have been canvassed include Brian McMaster, director of the Edinburgh Festival; Sir Simon Rattle, former chief conductor of the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra; Peter Jonas of Bavarian State Opera; Gerald Mortier of the Salzburg Festival; Mark Elder, former music director at English National Opera; and Anthony Whitworth-Jones, the accountant who was until recently director of the Glyndebourne Festival. Soundings have apparently already been taken among them.

But until now no one has thought of the former director of the National Theatre, Sir Richard Eyre. His report on the future of opera and ballet in London is due at the beginning of May and it is thought likely to recommend the privatisation of the Royal Opera House with the Royal Ballet continuing to be funded by the tax-payer.

Sir Richard could not be contacted yesterday but it is worth recalling what he once said about the top job at the National. "I miss the people there, but I can't say I miss that slight tightening of the muscles around the heart every morning as I approached my office. Every day there was a crisis." It turned, he said, his hair grey. But in the modern world of opera it is, it seems, the implausible which invariably occurs.