Opera director's last stand falls flat

Covent Garden crisis: Bernard Haitink resigns over proposal to close for a year in attempt to repair finances

THE GOVERNMENT is to rebuff a last-ditch plea by the Royal Opera House's music director, Sir Bernard Haitink, to stop the company being closed for a year.

Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, is prepared to see him leave in disgust, plunging the institution into another crisis. Sir Bernard has tendered his resignation to the ROH chairman, Sir Colin Southgate, saying he was furious to be told by fax that the Royal Opera was being closed for a year from next January.

Although the house has had a rash of resignations, Sir Bernard's is the most damaging. He is revered around the world and what reputation the ROH has left is due to his stewardship of the musical output.

Sir Bernard, music director for 11 years, has written to Mr Smith asking for a meeting at which he will plead for the Royal Opera season to be re-scheduled - the only condition under which he will stay. But yesterday a spokeswoman for Mr Smith said: "The Government has agreed with the Arts Council and the Royal Opera House on a plan to secure the long-term future of the opera house. That included a temporary closure ... We wanted a scheme that would ensure the future of world-class opera in the capital. There won't be a change of mind on this."

Sir Bernard's contract was to run until 2002 and he is due to conduct the performance of Verdi's Falstaff that is to open the renovated opera house in Covent Garden in December 1999. His reasons for resigning cast the ROH management, which has boasted of bringing in much-needed efficiency, in a deeply unfavourable light.

Sir Bernard said in an interview published yesterday that he only learnt of Sir Colin's decision to cancel the season by fax. "The fax said: `Maybe you will be interested in this.' Imagine! I'm afraid the new chairman does not understand artists ... Closing the company for a year is lethal."

Government intervention on the closure is the only way he will withdraw his resignation, he said. "I have written to Chris Smith requesting a meeting - I don't expect he will want to talk to me - but if he does, I will ask him: `Do you want an international opera company or not? If you say no, then let's close the ... business down. If you say yes, then you have to make it work'."

Sir Bernard is also scathing about the previous ROH general director, Sir Jeremy Isaacs, calling his plan for a temporary theatre by Tower Bridge "a castle in the sky". He added: "I sent [board members] personal letters begging them not to go ahead with the redevelopment until the ROH companies had found suitable temporary homes, but all I got back from Jeremy was a card saying `You're wrong'."

There will be more embarrassment next month, when the diaries of Mary Allen, former chief executive, are published. She relates how, when she got up to speak at a board meeting, Sir Colin went to pour coffee, saying: "Go on; unlike most women, I can concentrate on more than one thing at a time."

Exit Stage Left: The Leaving Players

November 1996: Jeremy Isaacs, general director, is asked by chairman Lord Chadlington to leave a year before his contract runs out, but is paid more than pounds 100,000 of that contract over the coming year.

May 1997: Genista McIntosh, his successor, resigns pleading stress likely to bring on ill health.

November 1997: Lord Chadlington after devastating select committee report; says he had to "do a Carrington" - that is, take the blame as Lord Carrington did in the Falklands war.

November 1997: Royal Opera House board resigns.

February 1998: Helen Anderson, head of opera press office, is sacked as part of restructuring.

February 1998: Richard Hall, finance director, quits.

March 1998: Keith Cooper, the head of corporate affairs, is sacked by Ms Macintosh's successor, Mary Allen.

March 1998: Days later Ms Allen, chief executive, herself resigns after being told that an artistic director will not have full artistic control.

June 1998: Janet Robertson is shown the door after just 45 minutes following a management decision that they do not want an opera education officer.

July 1998: Gillian Brierley, head of marketing, resigns because she is unhappy with chaotic working conditions .

October 1998: Tetsuo Kamokawa, hugely popular Royal Ballet dancer, walks out over unhappiness with the state of the company.

October 1998: Judy Grahame, director of external affairs, resigns - pleading stress, like Genista McIntosh.

October 1998: Sir Bernard Haitink, music director, tenders his resignation. He says he was informed by fax that the Royal Opera company was closing down for a year.

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