Opera House cuts prices in `new era'

THE ROYAL Opera House spelt out its masterplan for becoming the people's opera yesterday. In a big change of ethos to respond to the criticisms and crises of recent years, ticket prices will be reduced, the new House at Covent Garden is to be open all day and there will be weekly free lunchtime concerts.

The ROH also announced its new programme yesterday. It will include a festival to mark Covent Garden's reopening in November with concert performances from Placido Domingo, Angela Gheorghiou and Roberto Alagna. It will also stage new specially commissioned ballets choreographed by William Forsythe, Twyla Tharp and Ashley Page among others, followed by a more traditional season of opera and ballet. The Royal Ballet will also perform The Nutcracker on Millennium Eve.

Michael Kaiser, the American executive director brought in to turn round the fortunes of the House in central London, said it was "the start of a new era". He added that the House's current deficit of pounds 14m would definitely be cleared by March 2000.

The ROH, which has had a massive uplift in its public subsidy from pounds 14m to pounds 20m a year, will reduce its highest ticket price from pounds 250 to pounds 150. Seat prices will be lower on Fridays and Saturdays than the rest of the week. Tickets will start as low as pounds 6 and more than half the house will be priced at under pounds 45 even on Monday to Thursday evenings. The top price for a Royal Ballet performance will be pounds 60, with over half the tickets costing less than pounds 30. Formerly, the best Royal Ballet seats were pounds 70.

Asked whether a top price of pounds 150 for opera did not still seem a lot for a publicly funded institution, Mr Kaiser replied: "On Friday and Saturday nights the top price will be pounds 85. In over half the House prices are pounds 40 or less and most people buy at the mid-price. There will now be a much more unified audience. We have a very full and very rich programme. We are offering these things at prices that are affordable, and we are re- opening on time.

"The new studio theatre excites me most with its weekly free lunchtime concerts. I think that shows we are entering a new era."

Other key aspects of Mr Kaiser's masterplan include:

t Opening the Opera House all day for the first time in its history for tours, meals and drinks

t Enhanced educational programmes with lectures, music workshops and dance clubs plus the usual school matinees

t Daily use of the new studio theatre seating 420 people for lunchtime recitals, education and community events

t A new ballet studio space seating 200 with workshops and small-scale performances programmed by Royal Ballet principal dancer Deborah Bull.

But despite the optimism at Covent Garden yesterday the House is still without an artistic director to work alongside Mr Kaiser. Two Americans, Sarah Billinghurst of the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the freelance director Francesca Zambello, have been approached but have turned the job down. Mr Kaiser said the board was "actively seeking" an artistic director.

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