Leading Article: The Royal Opera: no to merger, yes to a new broom

Act One. Exit (stage left, pursued by snakes) Genista McIntosh. Enter soubrette Mary Allen, with Lord Chadlington (basso profundo) in close attendance. General confusion. Chorus appears with baskets of five- pound notes. There you have the recent history of Covent Garden - opera buffa. But now we have Act Two and a spirited intervention by the new counter-tenor, Chris Smith, provoking amazement in the stalls and choking in the Crush Bar. This week's deus ex machina is not the end of the drama. The Culture Secretary has intervened mightily, but the final shape of the reform of the Royal Opera ought to wait for Sir Richard Eyre. He will, we hope, have a lot to say about the organisation of this magnificent but oh so peculiar art form in the capital.

Mr Smith says the Covent Garden show must not go on. He is absolutely right. Hang the "arm's length" principle. The Royal Opera House has become a drain on public money, which, of course, includes lottery revenues. If, as a result, it had become exciting and innovatory, with the world's directors and artists beating a path to its door, the deficits might have some justification. As it is they are insupportable.

Let's dispense quickly with the idea that spending public money on this form of art needs some special justification. Opera attracts far too much attention - as if it were the only "elitist" activity supported by the state, as if government were not embroiled in all manner of activities that directly benefit a number less than the sum of the British population. London ought to have one stage where work by the world's leading designers and performers - perhaps even composers - can be afforded. There is, admittedly, no ready formula for the scale of public support for grand opera. It is a reasonable rule of thumb that world-class opera can be produced with what the likes of Jeremy Isaacs demand, less 5 or even 10 per cent.

People such as him are the problem. Covent Garden has been managed by a board of trustees and executives whose record in simple profit-and-loss accounting is miserable. All the talk you hear about a revolution in public management in the vicinity of Drury Lane (admittedly much of it from Thatcherites in charge when the ROH was going to rack and ruin) - forget it. In their arrogance Covent Garden's managers let in the television cameras, so we know at first hand just what kind of people have been entrusted with running this premier arts organisation.

So much is common currency. The criticisms were mouthed in Gerald Kaufman's demotic as recently as last week. Now Chris Smith promises revolutionary change. The first task facing Sir Richard Eyre is to repopulate the management of the Royal Opera company to ensure, at the least, that in future it operates within its budget. The ROH recently put on Britten's The Turn of the Screw; let that be its managers' watchword. Running "culture" - utilising the techniques of business in an environment peopled by creative people - is not intrinsically difficult. The National Theatre, even the BBC, offer instruction.

Sir Richard's second task is to wean Mr Smith away from his theory of unifying opera production on the same site. Mr Smith's threat (promise?) not to increase the flow of public funds into opera in real terms may be justified; but it does not necessarily argue for physical concentration. By all means, after rebuilding is complete, turn the administration of the Covent Garden building into a separate company that then leases space to the Royal Ballet and a (rejuvenated) Royal Opera. But don't squeeze the very different English National Opera into the same arena. It is not that the ENO has not had its share of troubles - among them its recent lacklustre programme and an attack of grandiosity in the Dennis Marks plan to build an entirely new theatre to house the company. There is surely much more life left in its current home at the Coliseum, just as there ought to be much more life and vitality left in ENO's formula of English language productions on the cutting edge.

Chris Smith is endearingly keen on bringing opera to the people (which surely ENO's Bayliss programme strives to do, not without success). His ideas about making the companies tour is patronising; he seems to have forgotten the existence in Leeds, Cardiff and Glasgow of first-rate opera companies, let alone the autumn circumnavigation of England by Glyndebourne (which offers plenty of lessons about successfully rebuilding a concert hall). Covent Garden ought to be first-rate opera, performed in London, with a proportion of seats at budget price. To achieve that, Mr Smith has to make its management his target. If the positions of existing executives are now untenable, well and good. The arts great and good in this country are not all so great and good as they sometimes like to think.