Impresario plans to open third London opera house

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The Independent Online

To some, he is the impresario who stole opera from the snobs and gave it to the masses. To others - those same snobs, he would say - Raymond Gubbay is the vulgarian who turned the art form into a mass-marketed opera-lite.

Now, thousands more people are going to be allowed to make up their own minds, because he plans to provide London with its third full-time opera house.

The unashamedly commercial Mr Gubbay is to launch a joint venture with the Savoy Theatre Group, in which the venue next to the hotel will abandon plays in favour of popular operas.

The new venture, which will be entirely unsubsidised, will put Mr Gubbay into head-to-head competition with the opera establishment, in the form of the Royal Opera House and English National Opera.

Stephen Waley-Cohen, managing director of the Savoy Theatre Group, said: "This is still in the planning stage but if this is as successful as we fully expect it to be, the plan is for the Savoy Theatre to be permanently occupied by opera.We believe there is a large market of people who love opera but for whatever reason choose not to go to see opera the way it is put on at the moment."

Mr Gubbay's company will not make its debut until April, but the industry - a word with which the old school would not wish to be associated - is already bracing itself for an onslaught. The businessman has in the past brought many thousands of new people to opera, by putting on, among other things, Valentine's operas (with red roses), operas for children (with teddy bears) and even "sing-along" operas. His 1998 production of Madame Butterfly sold 80,000 tickets; and twice-yearly "Classical Spectacular" concerts at the Royal Albert Halls sold out.

His new venture will be a little more conservative, however, albeit aimed firmly at the popular end of the market, offering English-language performances of The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro and other favourites. Star name singers will be avoided, in an attempt to keep ticket prices low. The top price for a Gubbay opera is expected to be in the region of £50. The top weekday price at the pre-refurbishment Coliseum (the English National Opera is using the Barbican while its home is being restored) was £58.50. The Royal Opera House charges up to £170, although more than half the seats at Covent Garden cost £50 or less.

Mr Gubbay will work closely with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He has appointed the respected director Stephen Pimlott to run the creative side of the company, and Sarah Playfair, a former administrator of Glyndebourne Touring Opera, to run the organisation. His musical director, David Parry, has worked for the ENO.

Mr Gubbay said: "The more opportunities there are to experience opera in English, the better audiences can appreciate its immediacy as theatre."

He has talked in the past about how the "distinction between 'high' and 'low' art" is an "artificial barrier": "People go to be entertained whether it's a so-called art form or whether it's popular entertainment."

Publicly, his rivals have welcomed Mr Gubbay's initiative. "Anything that brings more choices to opera audiences is a good thing," said a Royal Opera House spokesman. A spokeswoman for the ENO said it took Mr Gubbay's decision to put on opera in English as "a bit of a compliment".

A few years ago, opera was in such a parlous state that there were suggestions that the ROH and the ENO might have to merge, leaving London with just one opera house. Now it is to have three.

There is no doubt that opera's appeal is on the rise. The Channel 4 talent show Operatunity is credited with helping to raise its profile. More than 8 million people watched at least part of the series, and three-quarters of the audience of the final at the Coliseum had never been to an opera performance before.

Last year, more than half of those who bought tickets at the Royal Opera House, which also features ballet, were first-time visitors.

Mr Waley-Cohen believes that there is a huge untapped market beyond those who have plucked up the courage to visit his establishment rivals already. But he will also cater for those who prefer the traditional accompaniments to a night at the opera. "Anyone who comes to the Savoy Theatre and wants champagne will be able to go next door to the Savoy Hotel."