Opera house chief pledges to break with elitist image

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The Independent Online
THE chairman of the Royal Opera House yesterday pledged to take it into the top three of the world's musical institutions.

Sir Colin Southgate also emphasised his determination to break away from elitism at the opera house, which is undergoing a renovation costing more than pounds 200m.

He said ticket prices would be slashed and the public had to be persuaded that the Royal Opera House was a national treasure for all. "We're approaching this with tremendous energy at all levels," Sir Colin said.

In December, the opera house was harshly criticised in a report by the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee.

The board resigned, but the chief executive, Mary Allen, stayed on, only to resign at the end of last month. Sir Colin said yesterday that the post of chief executive, re-named general director, would be advertised within the next two weeks and that many applications had already been received.

"This is the number one job in this art-form going. Very rarely do you get to run an opera and ballet company in a custom-built theatre," Sir Colin said as he showed a party of journalists around the building, in Covent Garden, London.

Work on the opera house, which is expected to be finished in 18 months, includes refurbishing the main auditorium, with its ornate balconies and domed ceiling, as well as installing a studio theatre and large areas to facilitate scenery construction. Better sound quality and improved leg room are also priorities.

The building - which will be a home to the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet - is likely to house up to five restaurants without restrictions on who can eat where, depending on the cost of tickets. "We know that we have got to get people to understand that this is not an elitist place," said Sir Colin.

Efforts to do this would include building a piazza entrance off the main tourist section of Covent Garden and reducing mid-range ticket prices from pounds 70-pounds 80 to around pounds 50.

"This is going to be a totally different building," he said. "It's a national treasure and we've got to persuade the great British public."

He said funding for the work - which included a controversial National Lottery grant of pounds 78.5m - was steadily coming in, and not just from corporations. "Private giving is enormous. We had one guy who came in off the street and gave pounds 40,000," Sir Colin said.

The institution should be artistically led, he said, adding: "We will have an artistic vision. Our aim is to get in the top three in the world."

Sir Colin, who was appointed chairman earlier this year, said he was still examining the opera house's budget "with a fine-tooth comb", and added: "I'm an old fashioned guy and I like to read every line."