Royal Opera House wins up to pounds 78m lottery cash

Arts Council grants pounds 55m now and promises more later, buts lays down strict conditions on ticket pricing and wider access; 'This award is in no way crowding out other projects'
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Arts Correspondent

The Royal Opera House has won pounds 55m of National Lottery money - and a strong hint of another pounds 23m still to come - towards its pounds 213m redevelopment.

The pounds 55m comes with a strict condition laid down by the Arts Council that it widens access by changing its ticket pricing policy.

Up to pounds 23m more will be given at a later stage to the Royal Opera House, in Covent Garden, central London, when it provides the Arts Council with clearer details about the use of a second auditorium, and its plans for the closure period.

As soon as the lottery announcement was made, Sir Angus Stirling, chairman of the Royal Opera House, said: "We are absolutely determined to cut seat prices", though he did not give any details as to when or how this would be done.

The Arts Council made a number of conditions in giving the money yesterday. These included insisting that the ROH produces a strategy to widen access that includes ticket pricing, audience development, education and broadcasting, and that ballet be given parity of performance opportunity with opera.

Statements from both the Arts Council and the Royal Opera House reflected recent concern about lottery money going to large arts institutions with audiences drawn from a relatively narrow band of the population.

Earl Gowrie, chairman of the Arts Council, said yesterday: "The world of the arts can rest assured that this award is in no way 'crowding out' other projects - large, small or in between - of a regional or national character. It will not affect the great number of community and amateur awards we are making."

And Jeremy Isaacs, general director of the Royal Opera House, said that the arts received no more lottery money than charities. Money for charities was earning interest and was yet to be distributed.

The redevelopment, two-thirds of which will be funded by private money, will modernise all working areas of the Royal Opera House, and make it open to the public all day with bars and restaurant.

Essential health and safety improvements will be made, the number of performances given will be increased, sightlines will be improved, and 85 more seats will be added as a well as a second, small-scale auditorium. And the redevelopment will give the Royal Ballet rehearsal and training space in the opera house for the first time.

There will be new bars and restaurants, and the neighbouring Floral Hall will be rebuilt as a salon for audiences and the general public, making the ROH, like the National Theatre on the South Bank, a day-long space for the public.

Sir Angus added: "The Royal Opera House is one of the nation's great national assets. There has been a theatre on this site for nearly four centuries. As custodians of this building, the board of the Royal Opera House has a duty to preserve this part of the nation's heritage.

"A key objective of the project is the enhancement of public benefit, including access for the disabled. The theatre, instead of being inaccessible except at times of performance and then only to patrons, will become a place of excitement and activity for the general public throughout the day."

However, this optimism was challenged by the Royal Opera House's former director of development, Dick Ensor, who said: "I am very unhappy about the scheme as it stands. The disabled access is very poor, with disabled people not going into the auditorium with able-bodied people. The front- of-house area will be very pokey.

"The ending of segregation for people in the amphitheatre means that over 2,000 people will now use the front entrance and it will be very crowded. It will not be as an international opera house should be," he said.

Among other lottery decisions yesterday, the Arts Council awarded pounds 1.38m to the English National Opera to commission a study to establish the best location and design for the future housing of the company. The ENO wants a thorough refurbishment of its home at the London Coliseum, near Trafalgar Square.