Royal Opera plans extra performances

THE ROYAL Opera House, stung by government criticism of its high prices and inaccessibility for the public, is planning to put on up to 100 more performances a year by the end of the decade. It also wants to open its doors on Sundays.

But it will tell the Government it can only do these things if it goes ahead with a pounds 150m modernisation plan.

Covent Garden management also fears that if it cannot raise the money for its development plan it will still have to close in 1997 for essential health and safety work, and may not be allowed to re-open once the extent of out-of-date backstage machinery is discovered.

With pounds 90m still to raise for the transformation of the house and surrounding area, the management will adopt a new approach when a fund-raising appeal is launched later this year. Until now it has emphasised the need for the rebuilding to replace antiquated backstage facilities and to provide room to bring the Royal Ballet facilities into the house.

But that approach will change after criticisms of ticket prices and inaccessibility in the media and from David Mellor, the Secretary of State for National Heritage in Edinburgh last week.

The Opera House will announce that if the development goes ahead it will be able to increase radically efficiency and productivity backstage.

It will then be able to put on performances on the 40 nights a year which at present are dark and also, for the first time, have regular matinees. Ticket prices are unlikely to come down, but are also unlikely to rise to any great degree.

Even though the pounds 150m modernisation will only result in 100 extra seats, changes to the stage will also improve sightlines.

It is now proposed to close the house for two and a half years from 1997 rather than the four years originally proposed.

So far the Government has not indicated that it will give any money, though the Opera House hopes money might come from a future national lottery. Covent Garden management is worried that recent criticisms might put off large companies from supporting the venture.

It will produce a video for likely benefactors with stars such as Kiri Te Kanawa adding her voice to the urgency for changes to backstage facilities and machinery. The stage is still manoeuvred by pre-World War One submarine engines.

Some pounds 25m of essential work, including rewiring, has to be done. Senior staff said that when health and safety inspectors see the machinery, they might not allow the house to re-open until much more work is done.

Some pounds 60m will be raised from shop and office development on land owned by the Opera House. By the end of this month shops and restaurants will open at the back of the Opera House in the Covent Garden piazza.

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