Leading Article: The Royal Opera is too important to leave to these amateurs

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The overwhelming majority of the population cares not a tuppeny bit for opera and ballet, and therefore imagines the Covent Garden saga to be a distracting sideshow, of interest only to the effete and elite. They are wrong for two reasons. It matters, even to those who can't tell their Siegfried from their Sieglinde, because their money pays most of the bills. It also matters because the story shows how, for all the talk of Thatcher's handbags knocking the Establishment off its perch, important sectors of British life are still being run by back-scratching, self-regarding and more or less amateurish cliques. The management of opera matters because the arts matter, and this whole story bears all the symptoms of what has historically been wrong with arts management in Britain. Moreover, it matters because quality culture attracts visitors, esteem, creates jobs, and reflects and deepens the nation's sensibilities.

That makes yesterday's report from the House of Commons Culture Select Committee required reading. The committee's chairman, Gerald Kaufman, is an ex-journalist, whose instinct is to despise the usual politician's and committee clerk's instinct to couch their criticisms in ambiguous abstractions. This report is written with panache and larded with trenchant phrases. It also shows, not for the first time, that Mr Kaufman rides his hobby horses hard and warps his judgements to accommodate his personal prejudices. His criticisms none the less are on target.

For the past few years the Royal Opera House has been run by gents pretending to be players, notably Sir Jeremy Isaacs. Having once produced great television films, Sir Jeremy was translated into management positions requiring skills he did not possess and - this seems to be a peculiarly British establishment failing - no one blew the whistle. What exactly is the role of the "lay" board which in theory supervises paid management, and who cries quis custodiet when the Great and the Good on it turn out to be incapable of doing the job? Here is a question which can and should be put to a host of public and voluntary sector bodies.

At the Opera, board and management took a sequence of decisions leading up to the closure for redevelopment which were wilfully obtuse. The Kaufman committee spends a lot of energy reviling Mary Allen, the recently-appointed chief executive. But for all the questions surrounding her appointment, the woman only arrived in September and neither she, nor the chairman, Lord Chadlington, who is only a year in post, can be held responsible for the financial deficits they inherited, nor the failure to find the opera and ballet companies satisfactory billets during the evacuation from Covent Garden.

But the Royal Opera House does not exist in a vacuum. It gets an annual grant from the Arts Council which is supposed, in its turn, to be supervised by the Department of Culture, Department of National Heritage, or the Office of Arts and Libraries, to name the three most recent Whitehall departments with the arts remit. Mr Kaufman says it is not worth criticising Lord Gowrie, the Arts Council chairman, since he is going anyway. But will the system of monitoring be any better under his successor? Is there a valid case any longer for the administration of public money for the arts to be at arm's-length? When the Council started, in the 1940s, it seemed vital to prevent the state deciding how much should be spent on poetry rather than orchestral music. But now, when the politics of culture (and cultural politics) are so much closer to the mainstream of national life, would it really be so oppressive to have Mr Chris Smith and his officials cutting the cake - and, most importantly, carrying the can? The present arrangement allows everyone to blame everyone else (in the politest possible way, of course).

Faced with the debacle in the Garden, Mr Smith has already acted in interventionist spirit, by commissioning Sir Richard Eyre to report to him on the future of nationally-funded opera in the capital. In the light of the Kaufman report he needs to use his financial leverage to demand assurances. An honourable man in Lord Chadlington's position would not need to be pushed, he would go - British public life has had enough of Conservative public relations men for the time being. He may not have caused the chaos, but he has been lackadaisical in restoring order. Ms Allen has not had time to prove her mettle: let her continue, provided she can demonstrate that a tight financial regime is now in place. As for Covent Garden's board, a careful clear-out is recommended, retaining supporters of real value such as Vivien Duffield, and stern chaps, such as Bob Gavron, but otherwise starting with folk of more determined mien.

The Royal Opera must hold down the hatches this winter season, and then, starting next year, separate the opera and ballet companies for good, reanimate the repertoire and ensure that the vitality of opera as a living art form starts to manifest itself once more in Floral Street.

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