Belgian opera hit by the real world

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(First Edition)

BRUSSELS - Life, they say, apes art; and as in the best operas, power and money have finally forced the hand of destiny, writes Sarah Lambert. But in this case the loser is the opera house itself, Belgium's national opera, La Monnaie, whose president resigned yesterday after the board rejected his cost-cutting plan to cancel part of the 1993-94 season.

La Monnaie, an imposing neo-classical building sumptuously decorated, is not just any old opera house. In August 1830, a particularly rousing production of La Muette de Portici - an opera about revolution in Naples - inspired some of the audience to start the riots that ultimately led to Belgian independence.

As befits the nation's cultural flagship, the opera's last director, Gerard Mortier, was highly regarded for his lavish productions of a largely classical repertoire - Wagner, Verdi and Mozart. But putting Belgium on the map culturally speaking came at a price. Now La Monnaie is 390 million Belgian francs (pounds 8m) in debt, at least 150 million of which has been attributed directly to Mr Mortier's excesses.

The Belgian state grant for this season is Bfr850m, but it is still not enough to staunch the flow of money. This season is expected to run at a Bfr221m-loss.

Hence the proposal of the administrative president, Andre Leysen, that the opera be temporarily closed. The idea, deemed too radical by the board, to close the opera down temporarily, was rejected by the board.

Things could not have happened at a worse time for Mr Mortier's successor, Bernard Foccroulle.

But Mr Foccroulle believes opera must be anchored in the real world. 'Opera is the means we use to crystallise our understanding of the modern world,' he told reporters. He probably did not want such a comprehensive lesson in bankruptcy.