Is Covent Garden worth saving?: The Royal Opera House is pounds 4m in debt and under attack from many quarters. David Lister looks at the choices it faces for the future

PAVAROTTI'S peformance in Tosca at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, last week was acclaimed by the critics as a triumph. Yet even this long-awaited production failed, like all others at Covent Garden this season, to attract sponsorship. English National Opera, by contrast, has attracted sponsors for nearly all its 20 productions.

The problems for Jeremy Isaacs, the general director, do not end there.

On Wednesday, Lord Palumbo chaired a meeting of the Arts Council, the ROH's funding body, which approved a report on Covent Garden that it commissioned from Baroness Warnock, Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge. The report is understood to be critical of senior management and concerned at low morale among Covent Garden staff.

Interestingly, the same Arts Council meeting endorsed the idea of an international opera house in London: a vote of confidence that betrayed recognition of an increasingly vociferous questioning of the ROH's purpose. Should it continue to be publicly funded? Should it be merged with ENO? Should it just be closed down?

The Opera House has an accumulated deficit lurching towards pounds 4m. In the most discouraging economic climate, Mr Isaacs has committed himself to a modernisation programme which demands a pounds 90m fund-raising exercise this autumn. In his period in charge he has presided over strikes by both the Royal Ballet companies and the orchestra. The ROH's own internal newspaper lashed out at him in a rogue editorial last week.

What is more, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, David Mellor, is making a habit of publicly criticising Covent Garden elitism and high ticket prices for restricting accessibility to a publicly funded institution as well as being an embarrassment to the Prime Minister's notion of a classless society, even if the Prime Minister's wife is often to be seen in the audience.

On the face of it, the problems of Covent Garden seem insurmountable and the Isaacs regime is regularly dubbed a failure. Part of this is down to Isaacs the man. Some critics were not best pleased when he cut their ticket allocation from two seats to one. His management style can be bullish - 'he tends to overheat', said one colleague.

A personality clash with Mr Mellor did not help, though both men are keen to put this behind them and indeed made a point of going out to dinner at the summer festival in Bayreuth to iron out their differences.

However, Mr Isaacs can point to some notable achievements. He has cut overstaffing, negotiated new union agreements enabling more televising of opera and relays to the giant screen in the piazza, successfully moved the Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet to Birmingham, improved standards in both the Royal Ballet and the opera chorus, and has just overseen a season that was artistically a huge success, picking up Olivier awards for both opera and ballet.

His biggest headache - and Covent Garden's overwhelming problem - is the price of tickets. This issue is seen as alienating the public, and it embarrasses the Government and the Arts Council. This discourages both from giving the Royal Opera House their full support.

A token number of pounds 7.50 restricted view seats does not disguise the fact that seats in the gods are now nudging pounds 50. The stalls are over pounds 100, and the grand tier for Pavarotti last week was pounds 250. Mr Isaacs says that the Opera House is expensive but not elitist. He saved up to go to the opera as a young man: why can't people do that now? But his critics dismiss this as a nave argument from another age. Accessibility in the Nineties, they maintain, does not mean having to save up; it means being able to afford a seat out of one's pay, just as one can for a film, concert or play. The accusation of overcharging gathers strength from the comparison with the pounds 40 top prices at ENO, or the pounds 54 best seats for the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden.

Keith Cooper, the ENO marketing supremo headhunted by Mr Isaacs, says that one of his first aims when he joins Covent Garden will be 'a serious review of ticket prices'. If action is not

taken, not only is disenchantment by the public likely to grow, but the cash crisis will worsen as business sponsors continue to be uneasy about being associated with a supposed elitism. Colin Tweedy, director of the Association for Business Sponsorship of the Arts, said: 'Some sponsors incorrectly perceive the Royal Opera House as completely elitist and a bad thing to sponsor. But, I stress, it is an incorrect perception. There is a horrendous whispering campaign which is doing no one any good.'

Unless Baroness Warnock can prove that there really is profligacy at Covent Garden, Mr Isaacs' problem is that he is receiving too little public funding to cover the ever madder costs of mounting top opera (pounds 10,000 per performance is not uncommon even for the second league of international stars) and so has to put up prices, thus provoking both public and private funders into coughing up still less money. So what are the possible solutions to this unhappy situation?

The first is for the Government, through the Arts Council, to increase funding. The argument runs that the Government cannot have it both ways; it is proud of Covent Garden as a national institution, internationally celebrated, and its leading members take great pleasure in being seen there.

Yet it gives it less money than is given to any other major European opera house. The pounds 19m grant has to be split three ways between the opera and two ballet companies. Covent Garden gets only 38 per cent of its money from public funds; the rest it has to generate itself. Five years ago that ratio was reversed.

Wiping out the pounds 4m deficit would not even make a blip on the famous Treasury graph. Nor would a proper increase to stop the ROH lurching from crisis to crisis.

Failing this (and the signs are less than promising), should the Opera House give up any pretence of being an accessible, publicly funded institution, and go private; become a Glyndebourne or a New York Met? Even Mr Isaacs admits that this once unthinkable proposal is no longer impossible if funding is not increased. But it is probably unrealistic, not so much for ideological as practical reasons. Glyndebourne succeeds because it is seasonal, has a long tradition, a loyal audience and (not least) lovely gardens.

The Met depends for its money on numerous billionaires, who, deprived of an honours system, find sponsoring a room at the Met the next best way to public recognition. And it is noteworthy that without public funding the Met is loth to offend its private sponsors by experimenting and mounts precious few new operas.

But there is a third route: creating a grant earmarked simply to keep seat prices down. What happens at the moment is the worst of all worlds. When the big companies get their grants - usually less then they ask for - the artistic programmes are already in place and cannot be tampered with. The only movable feast is the self-generated income, of which the most obvious part is the box-office receipts.

It is ticket prices that always end up expanding to make up the difference between the grant and the cost of running the company. Ticket prices are the last thing to be addressed when everything else is sorted. But what if they were the first thing? What if seat prices were considered totally separately, the most crucial part of the running of the company and subject to a quite separate grant?

Ideally, this grant would be in addition to the general grant; but more realistically it would be a part of it, earmarked to keep prices down. A grant of less than pounds 2m should be enough to keep seat prices at Covent Garden around the pounds 50 mark. It is also possible that business sponsorship would pick up again if the seat prices came down.

And there is a general and vociferous chorus saying that come down they must. Next month Covent Garden presents Porgy and Bess, a marvellous introduction to opera for anyone, but price resistance in first-time opera-goers is even greater than among regulars. High prices mean not only losing the regular audience but standing no chance of winning a new one.

(Photograph and graphic omitted)

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