Smith tells Opera: no more black tie events told to call halt to 'elitist' evening dress

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The Independent Online

Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, has sought an assurance from the Royal Opera House that it will not have any more black-tie evenings after its reopening gala next month.

Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, has sought an assurance from the Royal Opera House that it will not have any more black-tie evenings after its reopening gala next month.

Mr Smith, who has said the ROH must become "the people's opera", is said have been bemused that invitations for the reopening at Covent Garden on 1 December specified that the audience must wear evening dress. His staff contacted the House to seek assurances that the new management understood it must not make a habit of evening-dress occasions, as these might give the impression of an elitist institution.

A spokesman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said: "Mr Smith has been assured this is the first and last time this will happen at the reopened Royal Opera House." Mr Smith is to attend the reopening performance and will wear evening dress.

A member of his staff said: "Chris understands this is a gala performance in front of the Queen, and he will be wearing a black tie, because that is what you do at those evenings. But he is determined it must not become a habit. This is meant to be the people's opera now and black-tie evenings send out the wrong signal."

Mr Smith is understood to have been additionally irritated as the reopening of the rebuilt opera house, part-financed by £78m of lottery money, will be broadcast live by the BBC and the black-tie image will be on show to the nation.

The performance will feature, among others, Placido Domingo and the dancers Sylvie Guillem, Viviana Durante and Irek Mukhamedov.

In a report for the Government last year about opera in London, Sir Richard Eyre, former artistic director of the National Theatre, said that snobbery at Covent Garden caused many ordinary opera-lovers to suffer indifference "bordering on distaste".

Opera House insiders say that despite the assurance to Mr Smith, there are almost certain to be more black-tie evenings, for galas and charity evenings.

But the management is keen to emphasise it is making the new House more accessible. There will be free lunchtime performances and daytime access to the building for the public, with backstage tours. Sightlines are better and there is air conditioning and more spacious bars.

"People will find coming to a performance much more comfortable," said the executive director, Michael Kaiser. "We've cut back on administration and put the money into the art."

Mr Kaiser also reduced staff numbers during the House's closure. Covent Garden had 1,100 staff at its peak, 850 when Mr Kaiser took over, and 540 now.

* Mr Smith wants the BBC to hold an annual meeting for viewers similar to shareholder meetings. Such events would not give viewers the power to veto spending but Mr Smith believes it would enable them to make it clear to BBC bosses that they were unhappy with programme decisions.

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