Out front, everything at the Royal Opera looks lovely, but behind the scenes...

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The Independent Online
THE ROYAL Opera House hosted a gala reopening last night, hoping desperately to draw a line under the most troubled period in its history.

The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were joined by the Prime Minister and Mrs Blair at last night's lavish re-opening and during the Royal Ballet's section, the Lilac Fairy from The Sleeping Beauty symbolically roused the restored building from its slumbers.

The quality of last night's performances in Covent Garden will have deflected attention from the many current problems but today, the morning after the night before, the management will again have to grapple with the technical problems. These have forced them, after a year's closure and a pounds 214m redevelopment, to cancel one of the opening opera productions, at a loss of several hundred thousand pounds.

They will also have to intensify their search for a finance director. The Independent revealed last week that a `temporary' consultant appointed nearly two years ago was still running the finance department on a salary of pounds 750 a day.

Following the cancellation last week of Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre, attention is now focusing on Verdi's Falstaff, which is scheduled to open the opera season next week. If the technical problems which were affecting the shifting of scenery are not sorted out, then Falstaff too could have to be cancelled.

This would be a disastrous start and according to sources inside the House the management is desperate to avoid this but still will not give a firm guarantee that the opening production is 100 per cent certain to go ahead as planned.

Where the ROH has had overwhelming success is in architect Jeremy Dixon's restoration of the Victorian Floral Hall, now a vast foyer and bar space. It is also open during the day to the general public, emphasising the "people's opera" aspect of the new House.

One part of the redevelopment did raise eyebrows last night, however. The old Crush Bar in the main House has become the "Crush Room" where audience members can chat in the interval. But instead of a bar there is now a set of doors with glass panels dividing the Crush Room from a corporate hospitality room.

With the egalitarian move towards an accessible, classless, people's opera, it is provocatively curious that audiences can gaze on a corporate hospitality area. When last night's royal, corporate and ordinary audience took their seats last night they were treated to a programme celebrating both opera and ballet, Placido Domingo was the highlight of the first, singing the duet with soprano Deborah Polaski from the end of Act One of Wagner's Die Walkure.

In the second half there was a star studded performance from the Royal Ballet with Darcey Bussell, Sylvie Guillem, Viviana Durante, Jonathan Cope and Irek Mukhamedov among those dancing highlights from the company's repertoire since 1946. As a backcloth there were projections of past Royal Ballet stars including Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev.

The Queen, who offered congratulations to the performers backstage afterwards, was accompanied by Prince Philip, Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother. For a time it seemed that the Queen Mother might not be the oldest person present, as there were hopes that the founder of the Royal Ballet, 101- year-old Dame Ninette de Valois might attend. In the event she was not well enough to do so, but she did send a message of congratulation to the dancers.

Though there were speeches from ROH chairman Sir Colin Southgate and Vivien Duffield, the head of the fundraising appeal, the Queen did not say anything or make any official re-opening gesture. That came, fittingly enough, in dance when the Lilac Fairy "woke up" the building. before Darcey Bussell danced the showpiece "Rose Adagio".

Interestingly, both the Queen and Cherie Blair were presented with flowers by young boy ballet students. Executives at the ROH had pressed for boys to present the bouquets as part of a push to encourage more boys into dancing. The new ROH, while winning praise, is still failing to convert all its critics.

Commercial opera producer Raymond Gubbay said last night: "It's a wonderful project with tremendous use of space, but it's just a great shame that there has been so much trauma getting to this point, and that there still is a question mark over real accessibility for ordinary members of the public ... Ticket prices are still remarkably high."

HISTORY OF

THE HOUSE

1858: Building opens

1892: Becomes Royal Opera House, for opera and ballet

Second World War: Turns into Mecca Dance Hall

1946: Reopened by Sadler's Wells Ballet

January 1995: ROH makes pounds 78.5m Lottery bid

July 1995: House awarded pounds 78.5m grant, but the announcement, given before the awards to charities, becomes a public relations disaster

December 1995: ROH director general Jeremy Isaacs cuts 100 jobs to balance budget

January 1996: BBC TV documentary series, The House, exposes the backstage turmoil

May 1996: Finance director resigns

January 1997: Genista McIntosh succeeds Isaacs as director general

May 1997: McIntosh resigns, replaced by Mary Allen

July 1997: Work begins on the rebuilding of the House

December 1997: Entire board resigns after Kaufman Report condemns the theatre

January 1998: Sir Colin Southgate becomes new chairman

March 1998: Mary Allen fired. Pelham Allenappointed

November 1998: Michael Kaiser appointed executive director

December 1998: Arts Council grants 25 per cent increase in the House's subsidy. Royal Opera performs at Sadler's Wells

May 1999: National Audit Office decries Arts Council lottery projects, including the House's rebuilding

November 1999: Ligeti's opera Le Grand Macabre cancelled one week before reopening

December 1: Royal gala reopening of the House

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