Low note as Covent Garden's tough cookie exits in haste

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Just when you think the cacophony of chaos at the Royal Opera House has reached its miserable crescendo, some new dismal event occurs to add more to the discord.

Yesterday the ill-fated temple of culture announced that its new chief executive, Genista McIntosh, who had only been in the job four months, had left "due to ill-health". You would be hard pressed to find anyone in the arts world who thought there was not more to it than that. Despite tributes from Lord Chadlington, chairman of the Royal Opera House, insiders were in no doubt Ms McIntosh, once described as the most powerful woman in British theatre, had been forced out by a series of disagreements with the opera establishment.

Those who worked with her at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford and at the National Theatre, where she was until recently Richard Eyre's number two, yesterday expressed some surprise. "She's a tough cookie. But it wouldn't be surprising if the job has made her ill. The opera house is a nightmare job and she was the only professional there among a bunch of amateurs."

Morale at the opera house fell to a new low. It was not high in the first place. Some 280 have been made redundant in readiness for closure of the building in July, when a pounds 213m redevelopment takes place. Controversy has surrounded the refurbishment (under consideration for 22 years and under intense planning since September 1988, when Sir Jeremy Isaacs became general director). Recently the chairman of the Arts Council, Lord Gowrie, attacked him for failing properly to plan the closure, leaving the opera and ballet companies homeless and bequeathing a "shambles" to his successors.

Even the announcement of the season-in-exile last month was surrounded by disorder. The press conference was announced and postponed without explanation. Insiders revealed yesterday that confusion arose because of a "major row" between Ms McIntosh and Vivien Duffield, who chairs the Royal Opera House Trust.

Ms Duffield, daughter of the late Sir Charles Clore - the tycoon who pioneered the hostile takeover bid - is a formidable power in Bow Street. The two women had not got on. Ms Duffield's style is described as abrasive, vulgar and terrifying by contrast with Ms McIntosh's, which is said to be non-confrontational. Matters came to a head when Ms Duffield refused to give the Trust's approval to the new season's plans, even though they had been approved by the board, on which she sits.

There were disagreements, too, with Lord Chadlington. The two disagreed about, among other things, ticket prices, which Ms McIntosh wanted to bring down permanently to make the company more accessible. The animus was evident during the new season press conference, when it was eventually held.

"Lord Chadlington repeatedly interrupted her and dealt with her in a generally patronising matter," said one observer. "And it is striking that the press release announcing her departure also contains news of her successor. No wonder people think it is a coup."

Ms McIntosh's successor is to be Mary Allen, secretary of the Arts Council. Her arrival reunites her with Lord Chadlington, who was chairman of the Arts Council's Lottery board when it awarded pounds 78m to the Opera House. Ms Allen, who has no experience running a major theatre, administered the grant. She takes up her new post in September.

Friends say that Ms McIntosh had lost weight recently. None the less, they were taken aback by her sudden departure. The decision was taken only on Friday and members of the board were contacted by Lord Chadlington by telephone over the weekend to sanction the appointment of Ms Allen. "It is a tremendous disappointment because Jenny has done so well," said one director, the composer Michael Berkeley. "But the chairman said that she is ill and this job is very stressful for anyone who is not completely fit."Keith Cooper, the company's director of corporate affairs, insists there has been no coup. He was yesterday telling callers he could not disclose the nature of Ms McIntosh's illness, only that she had left the office already "and gone away to recuperate". Ms McIntosh was unavailable for comment.