Arts: Covent Garden's `Mr Darcy' is told to leave the stage

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The Independent Online
Keith Cooper, the Royal Opera House chief whose abrasive manner made him one of the most feared people in the arts, is being moved.

David Lister reveals the first move to propel the ROH into the new Labour world of ``the people's opera''

For a brief period, his face was better known than some of the star singers and dancers he promoted. But Keith Cooper, head of corporate affairs, and the surprise star of the BBC series The House has been told by new ROH chief executive, Mary Allen, that he will no longer be the public face and voice of Covent Garden.

Instead, Cooper will be concentrating on marketing strategies and increasing access to the ROH in the wake of demands by Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, for it to become "the people's opera".

Cooper's old role of heading the opera house's press relations and being its public spokesman will be advertised next week.

In the BBC series The House, Cooper came across as the JR of Covent Garden. Awestruck viewers, some of whom wrote him fan mail afterwards, watched him sack a box office manager, publicly accuse an employee of lack of intelligence and close the opera house shop. And each time in a different designer suit. Arts Management Weekly reported that, for women of the chattering classes, Cooper had replaced the surly Mr Darcy of Pride and Prejudice as the man they most wanted to reform.

But now the romantic hero is to be removed from the spotlight and given a behind-the-scenes role.

His new post will involve the crucial task of thinking up ideas to increase access - relaying performances to multiplexes and holding low-price matinees are two ventures he is keen on. And Chris Smith has warned that he will cut the grant to the opera house if access to it is not increased.

But it is equally apparent that Mary Allen wants a change of image for the institution, following a series of high-profile public relations disasters.

These involved not only long-running concern over high ticket prices, but Mrs Allen's own appointment by her former colleague, and now the opera house chairman, Lord Chadlington, without the post being advertised; the shock resignation of her predecessor, Genista McIntosh; the use of lottery money to fund redundancies; the failure to find a suitable temporary home during the two-year closure of Covent Garden, and scathing public criticism by a House of Commons select committee.

The Royal Opera House faces two public tests over the coming weeks. Next week, the Royal Ballet opens its new season at the Labatt's Apollo in Hammersmith. Ticket sales have been poor amid fears that the venue lacks sufficient glamour. The company has also been hit by an injury to ballerina Darcey Bussell.

After that, Mary Allen has to appear before the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee along with fund-raiser Vivien Duffield.

MPs are certain to question them about the opera house's image and its alleged failure to attract an audience from all social classes.

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