Opera house reopens row over pounds 150m plan: Chairman dismisses criticism of Covent Garden scheme

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The Independent Online
THE ROYAL Opera House yesterday accused its funding body, the Arts Council, of trying to kill the pounds 150m development of its Covent Garden site without even speaking to the person heading the scheme.

The accusation by Angus Stirling, the ROH chairman, has reopened a row that simmered through last summer between the opera house and Lady Warnock, after she wrote a damning appraisal for the Arts Council. A key recommendation of the appraisal was that the development plan - to rebuild the backstage areas, provide 113 more seats and a home for the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden - 'should be shelved'.

Earlier this month, Westminster City Council said that, before the development could go ahead, it wanted evidence that the ROH could find the money.

At a press conference yesterday, Mr Stirling, who announced that an anonymous foreign donor had given pounds 2.75m to the development, attacked the appraisal. 'Lady Warnock's team didn't spend enough time looking at the redevelopment,' he said. 'They didn't even speak to Sir Kit McMahon, chairman of the redevelopment board. They based their conclusion on a rather skimpy assessment.'

Lady Warnock responded by saying that 'it was probably a mistake not to speak to Kit McMahon, but we spoke to Angus Stirling and Jeremy Isaacs, the general director, and if Kit McMahon had any great news for us he could have seen us'. While she supported the development in principle, she remained constant in her view that 'the Government were not terribly willing to commit lottery funds to a somewhat unpopulist cause like the Royal Opera House'.

However, Mr Stirling said that government hostility to the Royal Opera House was a thing of the past. The opera house's chief fund-raisers, Vivien Duffield and Lord Sainsbury, had held a private meeting with the Prime Minister, and the Government was now supportive.

He expected money to come from the Millennium Fund, and Mrs Duffield and Lord Sainsbury would be contributing substantially - it is thought as much as half - to the pounds 45m public appeal to be launched this autumn. The ROH wants a further pounds 45m from the lottery and Millennium Fund, and the remaining pounds 60m will come from commercial office and retail development.

If thwarted, Mr Stirling and Mr Isaacs stand to lose not only considerable face but will have spent pounds 14.2m on legal, planning, design, construction and property acquisition costs, according to figures published yesterday by the ROH.

The ROH is hoping that the Government will be persuaded to match funding it raises privately by being impressed with the need for the development, the quick response to most of the criticisms in the Warnock report, the current high artistic standards of both opera and ballet companies, and with the assurance that it will have turned its pounds 3m-plus accumulated deficit into a surplus by 1995.

Mr Stirling announced yesterday that average seat prices for opera will be pounds 62 and pounds 27 for ballet, with little hope of any substantial reduction because of financial pressures.

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