Media: New Royal Opera chief aims to keep out the riffraff

The new chairman of the Royal Opera House does not want to sit next to someone in smelly shorts and trainers. David Lister, Arts News Editor, meets Covent Garden's outspoken new leader.

Sir Colin Southgate breezed into Covent Garden last night and broke ranks with his predecessor's public hand-wringing about reducing prices and increasing access.

Sir Colin, also chairman of EMI, said: "On the one hand everybody wants us to sell the tickets for nothing; but the same guy pays a fortune to go to Arsenal. We mustn't downgrade the Opera House. I don't want to sit next to somebody with a singlet, smelly shorts and a pair of trainers when I go to the opera. I'm a relaxed guy. I'm not wearing a tie. But there are standards."

Sir Colin, 59, who has turned round the fortunes of the EMI record company, was chosen this week by Culture Secretary Chris Smith to replace Lord Chadlington, who resigned after a withering report by a Commons Select Committee.

The House's problems remain. It emerged last night that the possibility of closing the opera and ballet companies for the rest of the Royal Opera House closure period had been discussed and ruled out. But it has been decided to axe two Verdi operas which were to be performed at the Royal Albert Hall. The House still has a deficit of pounds 5m. Referring to the need to maximise attendance at opera and ballet, Sir Colin said: "It's about bums on seats, guys."

But if he has been chosen for his business acumen, it will quickly hit chief executive Mary Allen and her staff that in style he is unlike anyone they may have encountered in operatic circles: Sir Colin admires the Spice Girls and cites his favourite artist not as Pavarotti but Tina Turner.

Last night he added that what the House needed was "a little bit of love and leadership. It needs a cuddle." But behind the laid-back music-industry approach, he is also formulating a business agenda. He would be reconstituting the board and filling it with skilled people. "I want someone who knows about constructing a pounds 200m building," he said. He went to the opera a dozen times in the past year, he said.

A businessman was a good appointment to the chairmanship, he said. "Because we are better structured in the way we deal with time, the way we deal with people, the way we deal with issues. I'm used to taking creative risks." Privatising the ROH would be a ridiculous idea and sharing facilities with the English National Opera was "silly." He revealed that he had been short-listed for the job of chairman of Channel 4 and added that the ITC had not yet bothered to tell him it had gone to someone else.

Yesterday Sir Colin released a statement saying: "I am delighted and happy to have been asked to take on this challenge. I look forward to working with the executive team through the transition period and to making the new House a wonderful success. For our vibrant opera and ballet companies to continue to perform ... at world-class levels it is essential they get the support and facilities they deserve." But the new chairman in person gives a much livelier performance than his officially worded statements would lead you to believe.

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