Royal Opera seeks pounds 100m to cut the price of seats

Covent Garden/ singing subsidy
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The Independent Online
THE Royal Opera House is pressing ahead with plans for a pounds 100m endowment fund which will enable it to reduce seat prices at Covent Garden.

Covent Garden has been regularly criticised in the past for putting opera beyond the pockets of most music lovers, with tickets for the best seats in its red- and-gold auditorium costing more than pounds 120.

But according to Sir Angus Stirling, chairman of the board of trustees, the opera house is so confident it will be given the pounds 78.5m of National Lottery funds it is seeking for its redevelopment that it will go ahead with proposals for a further pounds 100m private endowment fund, some of which will be used to reduce seat prices.

"We want to be able to offer as wide a range of seat prices to as wide a range of people as possible," he said.

"We are considering a fund that would be invested, and would yield sufficient income to help sustain the operations at the Royal Opera House. An appeal of about pounds 100m would enable us to do that. And we are very confident, provided the Lottery comes in, that we will raise what we need." Sir Angus, who warned that the Government must not be allowed "to regard the Lottery as an alternative to the revenue subsidy", added: "The extreme and persistent shortage of funding makes it impossible at the moment to maintain the quality of our work."

His bullishness will surprise insiders who are making a point of maintaining a show of humility until the Arts Council makes its long-awaited announcement about the pounds 78.5m application for Lottery funds. Should the application succeed, the money would be used to help finance just over a third of the cost of a massive redevelopment due to start in 1997.

"The critical response has been very good, but these things are cyclical," a spokesman said. "I don't think we should be arrogant and believe we deserve this money."

The outcome of the application, which comprises pounds 58.5m for construction and pounds 20m to cover the drop in income over the two years of rebuilding when the opera house will have to go elsewhere, could be announced next month.

Sir Angus's confidence will also surprise the opera house's artistic directorship. Although Covent Garden has enjoyed critical success during the current season, culminating in an acclamation for Roberto Alagna, the young Franco-Italian tenor who has been dubbed the "new Pavarotti" and who opened as Rodolfo in La Boheme last week, the new financial year got off to a shaky start.

The cancellation of a ballet performance, and an opera performance by Luciano Pavarotti in Un Ballo in Maschera last month, along with lower- than-expected sales for Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, have cut box- office receipts. Last week the opera house cancelled plans for a new production of Jules Massenet's Herodiade with Jose Carreras, although no annnouncement has yet been made.

Not everyone endorses the opera house's activities. The Covent Garden Community Association, a long-standing opponent of the redevelopment plans, claims that the Lottery Board "has quietly asked the ROH to resubmit its proposals after failing them on three counts" - that the plan allegedly fails to include a coherent business plan and a long-term pricing policy, that it provides insufficient access for the disabled and that there is no artistic input to the design.

Keith Cooper, the opera house's corporate affairs director, confirmed that it had been asked "to clarify certain details and present additional material" to the Arts Council. He added however: "To suggest that they have sent back the application, quietly or not, is simply not true."

Lord Gowrie, chairman of the Arts Council, said: "The Lottery application is very straightforward. If you meet certain criteria, you get your money as of right."

David Mellor, former Secretary of State for National Heritage, also believes the ROH will get the funds it is asking for. "They can offer substantial matching funds. There will be trouble about it, of course. But in the end they will get the money because they need it."

The opera house has pledged to match Lottery funds for the redevelopment, which will cost pounds 213.78m and which has been under discussion for more than 20 years, with private finance. Two leading donors, Lord Sainsbury and Mrs Vivien Duffield, have already committed an undisclosed, but "considerable" portion.

The most important decision which the opera house must make after the Arts Council announcement will be where it will relocate the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet while Covent Garden is closed. It has been talking to a number of potential partners about building a temporary theatre, including Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, foreign developers and several city councils outside London. The favoured site remains the Lyceum in the Strand.

The lottery decision will also lead to the launch of the Royal Opera Appeal, a massive fund-raising exercise chaired by Mrs Duffield, which will co-ordinate private-sector bequests, an appeal for corporate sponsorship, raising funds to match the lottery funds, and the endowment fund.