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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

The job that can't be done

By Norman Lebrecht / November 22, 2000

In February Michael Kaiser will leave his post at the Royal Opera House, the fifth chief executive in as many years. But with the top post in UK arts management now artistically neutered and at the mercy of a meddlesome board, who would want to replace him?

ADVICE to those contemplating taking the top job at Covent Garden: don't. Only the desperate and the dumb would apply to occupy a hot seat that has roasted five chief executives in as many years - not because of their ineptness but because the job is no longer do-able.

Trouble in the Garden: the interference of the current board and chairman has sapped confidence both within and without

There are two aspects to its undoability. On the artistic side, there is not much of a job left to be done. The Royal Opera has three people in charge of programming: the incoming music director, Antonio Pappano, the Royal Opera director, Elaine Padmore, and casting director Peter Katona. Royal Ballet seasons are planned by the incoming director, Ross Stretton, and the administrator, Anthony Russell-Roberts.

What that leaves for the ROH chief executive is little more than shuffling schedules and making sure the floors are swept. Most people who want to run an opera house do so with a view to having some influence on what happens on stage - inserting a fancied singer here, a favourite ballet there. At the ROH, there are few such satisfactions for the person in command.

What used to be the summit post of UK arts management has been cut down to a shuttlecock role between two performing troupes and an interventionist board - with an increasingly active Arts Council and Culture Department waving bureaucratic ordinances from the wings.

Small wonder, then, that the vacancy has been shunned by every front-rank contender, both home and abroad, leaving the board to choose from a sorry list of long-shots and lame ducks. There is little point in speculating which of them will take over when Michael Kaiser quits in February, or how long they will last. The principal impediment to recovery at Covent Garden is its board of directors - an obstacle confirmed yesterday by Barbican director John Tusa, who ruled himself out of the running.

This is not the most inept or ignorant of ROH boards - there has been stiff competition in recent years - nor is the chairman, Sir Colin Southgate, lacking in dedication or purpose. But this board and this chairman are the most meddlesome in the company's 55-year history, sapping confidence both within and without.

Southgate, the former EMI chairman, has the dubious merit of being the first man to be imposed on the ROH by the party in power. His predecessor, Lord Chadlington, had been an adviser to John Major, but Chadlington was also a lifelong opera buff, who had attended Covent Garden weekly for 30 years and contributed handsomely to its coffers. Southgate, by contrast, was nominated by Downing Street following his pre-election role in rallying the music industry behind New Labour. He had visited the ROH from time to time to see an EMI artist strut the high notes, but his affinity to the enterprise was slight and his enthusiasm muted.

Appointed in the heat of crisis, he proposed a series of radical solutions, only to retreat at the point of implementation. A "war plan" to stem the company's losses by total shutdown was abandoned in full retreat. A job offer to Sarah Billinghurst of the Metropolitan Opera was abruptly withdrawn when Kaiser pitched for the post. A decision to sack a Bectu shop steward for an alleged serious disciplinary offence was scrapped in the face of union resistance; she was later appointed head of sales.

Many of Southgate's ideas and initiatives stemmed from his close adviser Sir David Lees, whom he co-opted on to the board. As managers came and went, Southgate and Lees jointly seized executive control.

To charm the workforce, Southgate affixed a plaque to the rooftop staff restaurant signalling his financial contribution to the amenity. He has allowed salaries to drift upwards and is spending up to £1 million strengthening the ROH orchestra, recruiting musicians from independent London bands at £40,000 a head.

He has stacked the board with much-needed know-how, drawing in the singer Sir Thomas Allen and the dancer Dame Beryl Grey. But the addition of Peter Hemmings, the former Los Angeles and Scottish Opera boss, served notice to Kaiser that the board intended to second-guess his every move.

Hemmings is on the interview panel for the next chief executive. If no suitable candidate emerges, a contingency plan exists for a serving ROH official to run the company for an interim period, under Hemmings's beady eye.

Nowhere else in the world of performing arts does a non-executive board exercise such hands-on control over day-to-day operations; and never in the annals of Covent Garden have these powers been wielded with such contempt for public scrutiny. Southgate, since his unwise remarks in January 1998 about not wishing to sit "next to somebody in a singlet, a pair of shorts and a smelly pair of trainers", has not given another interview or press conference.

He has refused to face questions on the pressures that led to Kaiser's departure, or on his decision to drop Dame Vivien Duffield from the board as soon as the receipts from her £100 million appeal had been safely banked. Her removal, apparently sanctioned by the Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, will serve as a deterrent to future donors.

Covent Garden is being run like a private fiefdom, answerable to no one but the political authorities that appointed the board. Their right to do so must now be called into question.

In the utopian, postwar era when the ROH was established as a public utility with the aim of regenerating British culture, the state paid the bills and called the tune. As late as 1962, some 87.5 per cent of outgoings were covered by the Treasury. The grant shrivelled with inflation during the Seventies and was frozen under Margaret Thatcher. By the time the builders moved in three years ago, barely a third of the £65 million budget was publicly funded. The present £51 million budget, which reduces the number of performances to 200 a year, is underpinned by a 40 per cent grant.

However, having long ceased to be the majority supporter, the state continues to exert an exclusive right to appoint the chairman and board. In the absence of a radical solution to the Covent Garden crisis - privatisation or renationalisation - something must be done to restore public confidence in the running of the house. Sacking the board will not do. What is needed is a more open board, enabling those who pay most of the bills - theatre-goers and corporate and private donors - to have a majority vote.

Smith has talked about "democratising" the governing bodies of arts organisations, but his idea is to pack them with ethnic minorities and focus-group members rather than hard-working, deeply caring supporters of the particular art-forms.

Under New Labour, the ROH has become haughtier and more isolated than ever before. The chairman is personally much to blame, but any hope of progress will be futile until the state gives up its unearned right of appointment and the board is thrown open, perhaps to election by those who pay for and work in the troubled opera house. It will make no difference who takes the chief executive's seat, so long as the meddlers scandal simmers on at the top.

2 November 2000: [UK News] Royal Opera rejects music impresario
18 October 2000: [UK News] Royal Opera House could be run by its worst critic
9 September 2000: How the Garden lost its glory
1 July 1998: [UK News] Waste and snobbery at ROH

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999