Is this the way to run an opera house?

MPs get glimpse of 'Byzantine' world inside Covent Garden
  • @davidlister1
The plain man's guide to running the Royal Opera House was yesterday spelled out to astonished MPs by some of the most famous people in the arts world:

t If you're a male chairman of the funding body, "don't bond too closely" with your female chief executive;

t Resign when you discover how Byzantine and unchangeable the place is;

t Make sure you are still paid nine months after you have stopped working there.

In a dramatic session of the National Heritage Select Committee's inquiry into the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, Lord Gowrie described how ROH chairman Lord Chadlington had "raided" the Arts Council's secretary- general, Mary Allen, from behind his back. He had been led to believe that the Secretary of State for Culture, Chris Smith, had approved her appointment as chief executive.

He had accepted that from Ms Allen, he added, because "I bonded too closely with her ... I don't mean bond in a sinister way. I was used to working too closely with this individual."

Select committee chairman Gerald Kaufman said the directors of the opera house appeared to appoint themselves, and noted that "it's not really satisfactory that this very large sum of public money should be at the disposal of a group of people whose relationship to democratic appointments is nil".

Lord Gowrie's eyebrow-raising evidence to the committee was followed by a highly dignified and moving explanation by Genista McIntosh of why she resigned in May after only five months as chief executive.

"I left because I was extremely unhappy in the job," she said. "There is no doubt that being unhappy causes one to be distressed and also stressed." She went on to say that the ROH was "too diffuse and fragmented managerially". The opera and ballet companies had their own boards, the ROH Trust was another independent entity.

When Mr Kaufman asked if it was fair to say that it was a club that made her feel excluded, Ms McIntosh replied: "It's not entirely unfair to say that."

But then, dramatically, Mr Kaufman MP said to her: "You've just utterly blown this cover story that you resigned due to ill health. You found the problems of the culture of the opera house too great to cope with."

Ms McIntosh responded that there was a link between unhappiness and stress. "There's a line to be drawn between recognising that and doing something about it, and not recognising that until it's too late. I did believe that if I had not resigned when I did I would have become ill. So there was an issue of ill health."

The drama of the session continued with evidence from Ms McIntosh's predecessor, Sir Jeremy Isaacs. Referring to revelation in The Independent on Wednesday that Sir Jeremy was still being paid months after leaving his post as general director, one MP asked bluntly: "How do you justify pounds 120,000 a year for doing nothing?"

Sir Jeremy replied: "I don't get salary from the Royal Opera House and I haven't been paid salary since January ... What in effect [the board] did is pay out my contract."

The best summary so far came from committee member Michael Fabricant MP: "There's rather more drama backstage than there is on stage at the Royal Opera House."