Accessible opera at cheap prices? Watch out, ENO

Raymond Gubbay will be staging operas in English and offering lower prices
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The Independent Online

Psychology plays its part in the motivation of great arts impresarios as much it does in the motivation of the rest of us, I suspect. The launch this week by Raymond Gubbay of an annual season of operas at London's Savoy Theatre is much to be welcomed, not least for a promised allocation of £10 seats for every performance.

But I wonder if there is a further motivation beyond bringing popular opera to the people and making a profit. Raymond Gubbay has little time for the Royal Opera House. I have known, liked and admired him for more than a decade and I don't think we have had a single conversation in all that time when the words Royal Opera House have not come up.

His antipathy is well founded. On one occasion he mounted a co-production with the Royal Opera and he remembers the then general director Jeremy Isaacs shaking him by the hand and wishing him: "Good luck with your project." Gubbay had thought it was "our project". On another occasion he was called in to the Royal Opera House and asked not to go ahead with a Royal Albert Hall production of Carmen as the Royal Opera was also intending to stage Carmen. Gubbay loathes such pomposity, and though he would find the present Royal Opera House regime much more amenable, his resentment of the institution remains.

When I first knew Gubbay, he was not always held in high critical esteem. Though his regular popular classics concerts justified their title, classic spectaculars with fireworks were memorable, and Teddy Bears concerts opened up classical music to children, he tended to be sniffed at by the critics. Indeed, around this time I was invited to address a think-in with Gubbay and his lieutenants about how to tackle this. I wish I could say that I suggested he stage operas at the Savoy, but I didn't; nor was it then even a twinkle in his eye. But he did radically change his standing with the critics by employing top directors for his arena operas and for mounting interesting musicals at the Royal Festival Hall.

It all makes Gubbay's latest venture one to watch. But if he has in the back of his mind, as I think he might, the thought that the Savoy operas will inflict a wound on the Royal Opera House, I am sure he is wrong. The only way that Gubbay can make money on his £10m venture - and it's reckoned he'll need full houses most nights to do so - is to employ casts with few, if any, big names. They will be good productions because his director, Steven Pimlott, is of the highest calibre, but the singers will not threaten the internationally renowned performers at Covent Garden. The Royal Opera House is unlikely to lose any of its audience to the Savoy.

The institution that should be worried is the English National Opera, whose singers may well be better than Gubbay's but are probably not much better known to the general public. Added to that, Gubbay will be staging operas in English as the ENO does, and offering lower prices - all within walking distance of the London Coliseum.

It's good news that he is bringing more popular opera to the public at cheap prices and in a central and accessible venue. But, disregard the expressions of "good luck" emanating from the English National Opera. And disregard the ENO statement that the more opera there is in London the better. They have cause to worry and to stay a step ahead.

¿ Raymond Gubbay started his career working for another great music impresario, Victor Hochhauser. Gubbay always tells people that he spent 10 months, 28 days and 12 hours with Hochhauser, which speaks volumes about how much he enjoyed himself there. But the feeling is mutual.

When I once wrote this piece of information in an article, I received a call on the morning of publication from Mr Hochhauser who informed me: "Raymond Gubbay says he spent 10 months, 28 days and 12 hours with me. Well, I can tell you that for all those 10 months, 28 days and 12 hours he was..." There followed an acid few words.

How the arts world could do with more such rivalries among its impresarios. Surely Cameron Mackintosh, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Bill Kenwright and Thelma Holt are eager to phone me to share their innermost thoughts about each other. It could prove therapeutic.

¿ The Saatchi Gallery received a number of mentions on the front pages and on television news bulletins this week, without so much as a new exhibition. Michael Howard chose the gallery as the venue from which to launch his Conservative Party leadership bid. Let's hope that he has set a precedent. If our leaders make political announcements, hold press conferences and launch election manifestos at arts venues, it will, at the very least, remind the public that those venues exist and, with a bit of luck, feature a poster of the latest exhibition or production.

Mr Blair's turn next. The Tricycle theatre in Kilburn, north-west London, is a nice little venue. He could stand in front of the poster for its new production, Justifying War, a dramatisation of the Hutton inquiry.