Leader: Making opera pay its way

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The Independent Online
It is lucky that the opera house that went up in flames this week is in Venice rather than London. La Fenice - translated literally as the Phoenix - is almost certain to rise from the ashes, given the extent of Italian public support.

But imagine for a moment that the much maligned Royal Opera House in Covent Garden had been razed to the ground. After the furore provoked by the massive National Lottery grant to the Opera House, which already receives a pounds 20m Arts Council subsidy, public support for rebuilding might not be overwhelming. There can be few other institutions with national pretensions that command so little public support.

The debate over opera has become hopelessly polarised. Those infuriated by opera's elitist trappings point to the extortionate cost of tickets - pounds 140 for a good seat at Covent Garden. The argument that the taxpayer should not subsidise the recreational pursuits of a rich, self-regarding elite is rather persuasive. Yet opera lovers argue that it is an exquisite art form that needs to be publicly supported. They are right that it would be tragic if something so beautiful were allowed to die.

But both sides base their arguments on the same two premises: first, that opera is a minority enthusiasm, and second, that it is inevitably extremely expensive. Events of the past few weeks have cast doubt on both those premises.

Opera has a huge potential audience. This weekend, Raymond Gubbay's new production of La Boheme at the Royal Albert Hall will open to a packed audience, many of whom have never darkened the doors of Covent Garden. Plenty of people are prepared to pay to listen to opera - even if they will not tolerate the soaring prices, social grandeur or long hours at the more establishment institution.

Mr Gubbay's presentation demonstrates something even more important: opera does not have to cost a fortune if it can reach a wide enough audience. Tickets cost no more than pounds 37, and with no Arts Council subsidy to help him, Gubbay still hopes to make a profit.

Meanwhile, five minutes spent watching the BBC's fly-on-the-wall documentary The House is enough to persuade the most ardent opera enthusiast that much of the Royal Opera House's money is wasted on incompetent decisions, archaic traditions and restrictive practices.

Covent Garden gets the best principals in the world, exhibits spectacular sets and intricate costumes and delivers continuous variety. But the Royal Opera House needs more commercial management and greater financial discipline.

It also needs to learn lessons from Mr Gubbay. Opera started as a commercial mass entertainment in the central Europe's concert halls. It needs to return to its roots.