Portrait of an institution that is far from perfect

Things have improved at the Royal Opera House, but the audiences still suffer
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The Independent Online

A striking new portrait has has appeared on the wall of the Royal Opera House. It has pride of place opposite the box office and information desk, where it is certain to be seen by the public. There are, of course, so many artists in the Royal Opera House's history who are deserving of such an honour: Nureyev and Fonteyn, Maria Callas, Pavarotti, Domingo. The list goes on. But curiously the new portrait is of none of these. It is of Sir Colin Southgate, who has just finished his term as ROH chairman. Even more curiously, to my mind, one reads next to the portrait that it is a "gift" from Sir Colin. How one envies the self-confidence that someone must possess to have thousands of people gazing upon your features and still see yourself as the generous giver.

Hanging the portrait on the ROH wall is not the only mark of respect shown to Sir Colin in recent weeks. The fund-raising gala performance of Pagliacci starring Placido Domingo was dedicated to the former chairman, and after the curtain calls there were not one but two speeches from the stage paying tribute to Sir Colin. Domingo and co-star Angela Georghiou kept their smiles admirably fixed as they had to stand listening to the two strikingly similar paeans.

Gazing upon Sir Colin's noble features in the painting I felt as I did listening to the tributes from the stage: chairmen of our national arts institutions are not dragged kicking and screaming into their posts. To chair the Royal Opera House or the National Theatre or the Royal Shakespeare Company is a privilege. Do we really need to give such fulsome thanks to the holders of those offices? In Sir Colin's case, he certainly helped to turn round the opera house from the debt-ridden, mismanaged place it was to the relatively healthy institution it is now. But it is, I hope, not too churlish to point out that he was in the chair when the disastrous and short-lived appointment of the Australian Ross Stretton as head of the Royal Ballet was made. And the best seat prices continue to be unaffordable for many.

Sir Colin would also, I'm sure, want to take his share of the blame for the undeniable fact that the expensive computerised equipment installed backstage still doesn't work properly. During the Kirov Ballet's spellbinding performance last Monday, a curtain failed to rise properly during one of the acts, and the show had to be stopped for a minute. Regular visitors to the Royal Opera House will know it was far from being an isolated incident. Computer error could not, though, be blamed for the second and unintentionally hilarious interruption to Monday's performance. At a particularly exquisite moment of dancing, two stage hands arranging a backdrop suddenly realised they were visible to the audience, and scampered across the stage to make an undignified exit.

These things happen. Well, they certainly do at the Royal Opera House. And it would be good to hear from the departing chairman why they happen so frequently after all the money that has been spent there. Alternatively, the ROH chief executive Tony Hall or the chairman of the Royal Ballet Lord Eatwell, who both gave those effusive tributes from the stage, could tell us. They might even wish to take to the stage again and pay tribute to the audiences which put up with these irritants.

Sir Colin was an effective and well-regarded chairman. But he still leaves an institution which is not quite as perfect and certainly not as cheap as its leaders continually proclaim. And me, I'd rather gaze upon a portrait of Maria Callas than Sir Colin Southgate at the entrance to the Royal Opera House.

¿ A brochure arrives from the Holland Park Shakespeare Festival. The front cover proclaims that Emily Lloyd will be playing "Orphelia" in Hamlet. Has the production been updated, with Ophelia now a jolly Sloane? No, it seems that Orphelia is a typing error, and the Holland Park Shakespeare Festival still let the brochure go out with the character's name misspelt. Let's hope the production standards are higher than those in the marketing department.

¿ Several of the obituaries of Bob Hope referred to his lightning speed in telling gags. Strange. I always thought of him as a deliberately slow and laconic gag-teller. Indeed, he was a master of the dramatic pause. This was most evident in the three-pronged gag, in which Hope was supreme. The first prong would be a simple name-drop, which got a polite titter from the audience; then a pause before the second prong, a reasonable joke, which got a chuckle, then a further pause before the surprise punch line, which would get a genuine laugh. Of the reactionary American politician George Wallace, Hope said in three-pronged style: "I hear George Wallace had a fire in his library ... burnt both his books ... he'd only coloured one of them." And when Hope came to Britain in the early 1970s, when the celebrated yachtsman Ted Heath was Prime Minister, the comedian told his audience: "I telephoned your Prime Minister, Edward Heath ... they said he couldn't talk to me, he was sailing his boat ... phone didn't reach to the bathroom."