Plans for a people's opera strike a blow at powers of cultural elite

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Never before has a government minister transgressed so publicly and blatantly the 50-year-old `arms length' principle of arts funding. David Lister, Arts News Editor, examines the background to last night's announcement by Chris Smith on future of the Royal Opera House last night

The Culture Secretary dropped more than one bombshell. His proposal that the Royal Opera House become a receiving house for three "equal partner" companies - the Royal Opera, the Royal Ballet and English National Opera - was radical enough.

His further proposal that all three become true "people's companies" and tour the country and run education schemes was a further cultural intervention by the Government. His third announcement, that in his words "stonemasons will remove the words Royal Opera House" from that building and it will simply be called Covent Garden will have the cultural establishment reeling.

It is Mr Smith who is now making cultural policy. In making this dramatic change he has been helped by two things. First, the shambolic state of affairs at the Royal Opera House, whose board was accused by the chairman of a select committee as being "a self-perpetuating oligarchy".

No longer. With all public sympathy for the ROH extinguished, the opera and ballet companies have simply been taken away from that ROH board by Mr Smith, and the English National Opera, for so many years a junior partner in London, has been bought in on an equal footing.

The second factor is the National Lottery. Increasingly, Mr Smith has been working behind the scenes to ensure that cash for the arts from the lottery is used to benefit the nation. Significantly, he said last night: "We must stop getting fixated with buildings. We are taking money out of bricks and mortar and putting it into cultural activity."

Reflect on the words "we are taking." The Government was not meant to "take", give or move any National Lottery money in the arts. All that came under the Arts Council. With one announcement last night Mr Smith signalled the end not just of Covent Garden's self-perpetuating oligarchy, not just of two opera houses in London, but also of the 50-year-old power of the unelected Arts Council to manage cultural life in this country.

When I asked Mr Smith where the Royal Ballet might be during times when it is not in Covent Garden, he waxed lyrical about spaces in Salford and Bristol. New Labour is serious about people's opera and people's ballet and clearly want national companies to be just that from now on.

But there remain many questions to be asked. Foremost, what will happen to the London Coliseum, one of the most distinguished opera houses in Europe. Mr Smith says vaguely that there are many options. That is too vague.

Second, does Lord Chadlington remain chairman of the Royal Opera House and Mary Allen its chief executive or do they become chairman and chief executive of either or both the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet companies? Again, Mr Smith is vague.

Certainly, neither person will have a job with the same power that they have now. But then the people's party has broken the power of the Royal Opera House as surely as the stonemason will chip away at the words on the building in Bow Street.