Tiaras and trainers can mix at the opera

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I HAVE just witnessed an event as rare and awe-inspiring as one of the more infrequent comets - the successful opening of a major lottery- funded London arts project on time. The reborn Sadler's Wells looks like a larger version of a glass-fronted restaurant. You can peer into it from the top deck of the No 38 bus: a crystalline invitation to wander in and buy a ticket to something you have not experienced before.

Behind the theatre, bags of sand and cement are stacked against the walls. Inside, there are loose leads, unfinished paintwork and too few lavatories. Going to the ballet in the capital will, for a while yet, be like attending a house-warming party given by a host who was daft enough to believe the builders' assurances of how long the work would take. "Isn't it amazing?" people kept asking each other on the first night. Never mind the fluidity of the Ballet Rambert wrapping their bodies round Handel and Webern. So dispiriting is the never-ending nightmare of the Royal Opera House that when anything goes right on the publicly-funded stage in London, it is greeted by a communal sob of gratitude. This is the sort of emotional desperation victims of the Stockholm syndrome feel when they are offered a drink of water by their captors instead of a blow to the head.

The Opera House has become one of those morality tales of the 1990s which expose far more than the searing incompetence and arrogance of an elite grown fat and foolish on its own pride. Yesterday Vivien Duffield, its most prominent benefactor, announced that she was considering withdrawing her sizeable contribution towards the rebuilding programme. Covent Garden faces a funding Chernobyl.

Its future will not be one in which further cascades of public money are invoked to save it from its own short- comings. If there is one encouraging consequence to the cultural carnage, it is that the liberal arts establishment has been shocked into considering more radical solutions than would otherwise have been thought possible. Melvyn Bragg, hardly a knee-jerk supporter of Thatcherite privatisation, has called for our leading opera house to be "put out of its misery" and sold off to the highest bidder - subject to guarantees that it will not sacrifice Madam Butterfly to Ginger Spice gala evenings, or not too often. Gerald Kaufman, as chairman of the relevant Commons Select Committee, appears to have reached the same conclusion in his judge- ment that a "blended aroma of mendicancy" wafts ceaselessly from the place.

What he means is that it just won't stop asking for money, which, to be fair, is a perfectly natural thing for any establishment with a call on public funds to do unless they are told that they can't have any more. Richard Eyre's report on London's opera reflected his faith in continued subsidy, twinned with warnings of dire, if unspecified, punishments should Covent Garden not reform itself. But sometimes, it is too late for that, or the rot sits too deep. A management which dismisses its newly appointed head of education on her first day at work because this onerous chore is a seen as a "marginal activity" has signed its own death warrant.

Last week, a school having been deemed to be beyond resuscitation in the state system was privatised. That was a major step for a government tentatively demolishing the Berlin Wall between public and private funding. The arts will not remain immune from similarly robust action, and neither should they. One of the soundest modernising instincts of New Labour is that institutions, however grand, should be called to account. If they cannot or will not change, then we should not be squeamish about adapting structures which allowed them to develop such bad habits in the first place.

So privatisation it will probably be. The challenge is to find a way of doing so which does not mean that one large wealthy and exclusive audience is replaced by another, dominated by the beneficiaries of corporate junkets.

In another context, Lord Neill has pointed out in his report on party funding that the best way to ensure that organisations reflect a plurality of interests is for their funding to be drawn from the greatest number of voluntary donors possible. The same is true of the arts. A new system of tax credits would allow us to channel money into the social assets we value most and whose continuance we wish to uphold - be it a Labour Party not entirely in the grip of supermarket chains, a threatened local theatre, or even, for the masochistic or incurably optimistic, the Royal Opera House. Here is an obvious chance to create a more mature and direct democracy.

In Britain, debates about the future of opera come down with wearisome monotony to arguments about class. Sir Colin Southgate, the Covent Garden chairman, worries that a desire to broaden the appeal of opera will result in the imminent rush of "shorts and smelly trainers" into the upper circle. Gerry Robinson, chairman of the Arts Council, responds with an attack on the dominance of "white middle-class audiences" and suggests that the artistic fare should change to attract a wider social sample.

A pantomime duel is underway between the defenders of privilege - who want their pleasures subsidised because, well, just because - and those who suggest that the way to widen access to refined pleasures is to make them less refined. It is a hoary old chestnut of the trainer-loathing classes that "ordinary" people are genetically programmed not to want to enjoy the arts, or that if they do they will find their way there in the end. They all know someone who was born in a hovel, saved up their shilling for his first seat in the gods and miraculously evolved from prole to culture vulture. Of course, they don't expect anything like the same Sisyphean exertions from their own social peers who are introduced to high culture, quite effortlessly, as part of a fulfilled and varied life. Meanwhile, Covent Garden's poor relation, the English National Opera, is piloting a scheme in which children from deprived areas make scenery for productions in which they take part alongside professional musicians. Long before they are bussed to the Coliseum for their first matinee, they learn about how the sounds of opera are made, where the stories come from and how composers use music to enhance the telling of familiar tales. The unfamiliarity of the form is dispelled. The magic remains. True evangelists of opportunity know that the way to open closed doors is to excite curiosity about the unknown. No social class has a monopoly on that. Those who undermine this hope by making the best of opera archly remote or a national laughing stock deserve neither our money nor our pity when the glory they claim to defend turns to ashes.

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