Royal Opera runs into row over subsidies

Arts clash: Plan to perform at Albert Hall with help of public cash angers promoter who funded La Boheme
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The Royal Opera House, soon to become homeless, looks set to walk into a new row with plans to hold some performances at the Albert Hall.

The clash centres on the fact that ROH will continue to receive its taxpayers' subsidy while its headquarters in Covent Garden, central London, receive a pounds 215m refurbishment before reopening in 2000. A recent commercial presentation of Puccini's La Boheme at the Albert Hall received no subsidy.

The concert promoter Raymond Gubbay, who underwrote 10 performances of the opera for 40,000 customers, is irritated at the prospect. He said yesterday: "There's a great hornet's nest there. I am aware that the Opera House is negotiating to go into the Albert Hall and I am concerned about the use of public money."

Sue Rose, an Arts Council spokeswoman, confirmed that the ROH will still receive subsidy while away from Covent Garden, depending on the number of performances it puts on. The ROH head of public affairs, Keith Cooper, confirmed that discussions had taken place with the Albert Hall. "It's particularly interesting because they have got time in the autumn. The scale of the theatre is different but we'd like to present some operas in large venues and some in smaller venues."

But in an apparent dig at the limited run of 10 performances for La Boheme, he added: "There isn't an unlimited audience for opera at the Albert Hall, as Raymond Gubbay has found out. It wasn't critically well-regarded but it was commercially well-regarded."

Mr Gubbay was similarly scornful of the ROH. "There's a huge market for popular opera but with an institution of 1,500 people they'd probably cock it up because they don't have the flexibility of an individual promoter to take risks."

The west London arena is one of the venues the ROH is likely to use next. Other likely sites include the Barbican, the Palladium, the Royal Festival Hall and the Coliseum. "We're speaking to everybody really," Mr Cooper admitted.

The ROH will be expected to fill the Albert Hall's 5,200 seats, as opposed to the 2,000 it normally has to fill. The ticket prices, as high as pounds 150 at Covent Garden, will have to be lowered. The highest ticket price for La Boheme was pounds 37. Eve Hewitt, an Albert Hall director, said yesterday: "La Boheme worked from a ticket-selling point of view, we had 83 per cent capacity. But we don't discuss our future clients, whether it's rock stars or opera companies."

This is just the latest controversy surrounding the troubled Opera House. The ROH has had problems with the refurbishment of its Covent Garden home, a BBC documentary which portrayed management squabbles, and it is still looking for a new general director to replace Jeremy Isaacs. In addition, when a leaked report indicated that as many as 500 staff jobs could be lost when the company moves from Covent Garden, management had to agree to union demands to prevent industrial action.

Gerry Morrissey, of the staff union Bectu, last week brokered a deal whereby ROH management have had to recognise the union, agree to no compulsory redundancies this year and to a small pay increase. Furthermore, those made redundant will be given first refusal on jobs when the company returns to Covent Garden.

Battling divas, Section Two