ENO says high costs forcing theatre move

Click to follow
English National Opera was accused of "an outrageous breach of faith" yesterday after announcing it wants to leave the Coliseum, its much-loved Covent Garden home, for a new theatre outside central London.

Its decision follows a pounds 1.38m feasibility study which claimed that while the cost of refurbish-ing its present theatre would be cheaper than building a new one, the Coliseum would remain so deficient technically as to make staying unjustifiable.

The cost of redeveloping the Coliseum and expanding to an adjacent site would be pounds 100m, but no site was easily available.

In a statement issued last night, David Mellor, the former Heritage Secretary, said: "It is an outrageous breach of faith for the ENO to abandon the Coliseum only five years after going down on bended knee to the Government to be asked to be given the freehold.

"That was done on the understanding that they would find the money for the refurbishment themselves. There has never been any sign that they were able to do so, so it is pie in the sky to think they could raise pounds 28m, or anything like it for a new theatre."

Mr Mellor added: "The Coliseum is a terrific theatre, wonderfully placed in the heart of of London, with great acoustics and splendid sight lines. There are far better uses of lottery money than this."

His views will strike a chord with opera-goers, likely to be unenthused at the nine potential new sites, which range from King's Cross, Vauxhall, Jubilee Gardens, Coin Street in the South Bank, Islington, Paddington, St Pancras, Southwark and Bankside.

ENO estimates it will cost between pounds 80m and pounds 120m to build a theatre on one of them - discussions are continuing with the owners - and say it would cost pounds 73m to refurbish the Coliseum, including the hefty cost of relocating while the work is done.

Dennis Marks, general director of the company, emphasised nothing would happen until 2001, by which time it is hoped that the Royal Opera House will have finished its own pounds 213m redevelopment.

Mr Marks defended himself against the charge that, only five years ago, the ENO had been desperate to buy the then pounds 12.8m freehold of the Coliseum. Now it was saying it was impossible to stay there.

"In 1992, when the freehold of the Coliseum was acquired by the ENO, it was five years away from being homeless and the then owners, Stoll Moss, had every intention of charging us a [far higher] commercial rental. In 1992 there was no lottery ... there were no options."

The company, which has been selling capacity houses, said the difficulties of operating at the Coliseum were such that even a pounds 50m-plus refurbishment could not overcome them.

Sets had to be struck twice daily, while sewers overflowed every time there was heavy rain. There was no storage for sets or rooms for rehearsal.

But the board recognises that moving, with the help of 75 per cent lottery funding from the Arts Council, if it agrees, will be unpalatable. John Baker, the chairman, admitted when the study began in 1995 he had been opposed to moving from the Coliseum, but the study's logic had been "completely compelling".

He said: "The board had its prejudices about staying, but not if by staying the company goes into a lingering death financially and gradually collapses in technical competitive- ness against the rest of the world."

Comment, page 15