Trumpeter sounds clarion call as opera looks forward to opening doors to the masses

Click to follow
When Puccini first premiered La Boheme - arguably the best known opera of all - on 1 February 1896 in Turin, it was an instant hit. After appearances in Manchester, New York and Paris, the musical tale of the fragile flower-girl Mimi made its London debut in Covent Garden in 1899. To celebrate its centenary, La Boheme again starts a London run on 1 February, this Thursday.

Yet instead of a Covent Garden run at the Royal Opera House, the music promoter Raymond Gubbay is bringing La Boheme to the Royal Albert Hall, at a fraction of Royal Opera House prices; the production is causing ructions in the opera world.

He has already called the Royal Opera House "elitist and wasteful" and the marketing of this production has caused questions to be asked about the nature of opera subsidy and about the Royal Opera House and English National Opera.

Gubbay has thrown down the gauntlet, with a maximum ticket price of pounds 37, compared with more than pounds 100 for a Royal Opera House production, and hopes to fill 40,000 seats in the Royal Albert Hall over the next two weekends. Ticket sales so far have reached 25,300 in this revolutionary way of selling opera and he has upped the performances from five to nine.

"It's a completely different thing from what the Opera House does," he said yesterday. "This is performed in the round of the Albert Hall, and from the sales, it's very clear we're going way beyond the normal opera audience."

There is also a successful touring production of La Boheme from Opera North, with ticket prices from pounds 7 to pounds 36, but that has not come under fire from Gubbay. Opera North's production is almost sold out and after its current run at Leeds' Grand Theatre, will tour Hull, Sunderland, Nottingham and Manchester.

The Royal Opera House, which was criticised last year when it received pounds 78.5m in National Lottery funding, has hit back, arguing that the scale of Gubbay's productions is not in the same league as its own efforts. Fraser Gordon, who has worked at the Royal Opera House for eight years, said: "This can fill an auditorium of 25,000 but we only have a 2,000 capacity and we have orchestras, operas and ballets doing different productions all at the same time.

"We do live free relays into Covent Garden piazza, and all this has to be paid for. It's different quality. They're not going to be getting someone like Bernard Haitink to conduct, or Placido Domingo to sing, for one concert for them."

Gubbay's production, directed by Michael Hunt, has two casts including both Katerina Kudriavchenko and Susan Bullock in the lead role of Mimi. Jose Avocar and Arthur Davies alternate as Rodolfo, and Vivien Tierney and Anne Williams-King share the role of Musetta.

New costumes have been designed by John Bright, who won an Oscar for his work on the film Howards End, and the entire cast has been rehearsing together for the past four weeks, which is unusually long for the production of such an established opera. Yesterday the cast of about 90 and the orchestra were putting the final stages of their production together at the Three Mile Island in Bow, east London.

The Royal Opera House has so far had a disastrous 1996. It has suffered terrible publicity from staff redundancies, problems finding a temporary venue from 1997 to 1999, and a BBC2 documentary which portrayed huge internal management squabbles.

Raymond Gubbay said last night: "I had a hand-written letter from Jeremy Isaacs [the Royal Opera House director] the other day, asking me not to be so abusive about the House. That struck me as strange given that anyone watching the documentary would see a much greater level of abuse.

"La Boheme is being done commercially but that doesn't mean it won't be done with any less love or care than it it was at Covent Garden. "This [production] shows there's a mass market for opera if you can market a show properly."

A night at the opera: what it costs

Royal Opera House - pounds 7 (the gods, where you can see "a third of the stage") to more than pounds 150

English National Opera - pounds 8 to pounds 50 (on Saturdays, top price normally pounds 48)

Opera North - La Boheme - pounds 7 to pounds 36

The Royal Albert Hall - La Boheme - pounds 13.50 to pounds 37