A secret letter to the Secretary of State for Culture, Chris Smith, from the opera house's chairman, Sir Colin Southgate, says the ROH needs an extra pounds 15m subsidy a year. If the board does not get it, then it could close down the celebrated home of the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet for good.
The letter has been provoked by the report of a committee of inquiry into opera in London under the former National Theatre director Sir Richard Eyre, which has already been delivered to Mr Smith and will be published in about two weeks' time. It is almost certain to call for extra funding for the opera house. Mr Smith himself yesterday made it clear that he would use the report to put pressure on the ROH to become more efficient and serve a wider audience.
He is aware that the public mood is unlikely to support immediately a call for more money for an institution which receives more annual grant per year than any other arts venue, has had pounds 78m of lottery money and has been plagued by inept management.
Sources inside the ROH said last night that the board under Sir Colin, who is also chairman of EMI, had been preparing a shock gesture for some time, knowing that the Eyre report could mean massive changes.
According to one insider, Sir Colin was determined to "get his aggro in first" and demand more money with threats attached. An opera house spokeswoman would only say last night that a letter had been sent.
In its letter to Mr Smith and Jerry Robinson, the Arts Council Chairman, the board says that even if it sells out every performance in the new Covent Garden and meets optimistic sponsorship targets it will be facing an annual shortfall of up to pounds 15m when the opera house reopens.
Sir Colin and his board tell Mr Smith that rather than resign they are prepared to take the step of closing down the opera house permanently if the Government does not come up with extra money.
Mr Smith told the Parliamentary press gallery luncheon yesterday there were two themes in the Eyre report that were "very clear indeed": the need to make management more efficient and to make the arts more accessible.
"I want as an absolute overriding objective of policy to make things of quality available to the many, not the few."