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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Is Covent Garden looking for a new chairman, too?

By Norman Lebrecht / December 20, 2000

AS the world awaits a puff of white smoke from Covent Garden, where the announcement of a new chief executive is expected daily, events are moving rapidly above and beyond the cardinals' ken.

A friend of mine was approached last week with a view to becoming the next ROH chairman. This was not a seasonal, party-time, would-you-consider sort of approach, but a serious solicitation from a very senior figure, asking to make an appointment to discuss the intended vacancy. Others, I gather, are also being interviewed.

At this point, the runes go a bit runny. Nobody I have spoken to on the board is aware that Sir Colin Southgate may be on his way out. Whitehall insiders, however, confirm that the Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, has lost confidence in the bumbling Southgate and wants to replace him no later than the end of his present term, in November 2002.

Smith will not hear many objections. Apart from steering the opera house to its shambolic reopening a year ago, Southgate has done little to command personal respect or attract support for the company. He was directly responsible for Michael Kaiser's departure, meddling incessantly in the chief executive's functions, and is on the point of driving out the chief fund-raiser, Dame Vivien Duffield.

Sadly, no great hopes can be vested in Kaiser's likely successor. Tony Hall, the BBC's head of news, has many excellent qualities and his own dedicated press office - which, until last week, stoutly denied his interest in the job. Hall's arts inexperience could be turned to advantage, averting conflicts with directors of the opera and ballet companies, and his media skills will neatly complement Southgate's pathological media aversion.

There is one quality, however, that is quintessential to the running of an opera house, and that is the ability to anticipate and defuse the kind of human conflict that erupts, on average, 10 times daily among highly strung showpeople. But sensitivity in human relations has not been Hall's forte at the BBC. In the murk of a TV studio, this might pass almost unremarked. In the limelight of an already unmanageable opera house, it signals an epoch of accelerated dysfunction.

Still, Hall has managed to win over the incoming music director, Antonio Pappano, and his credentials have satisfied Chris Smith, who is playing a decidedly hands-on game with both Covent Garden and the South Bank - to the dismay of the Arts Council of England, which is nominally responsible for their funding and smooth running.

Shame about the Arts Council, it hardly gets a mention any more. This used to be the time of year when the arts world clamoured around its table for the annual allocations, an agitation that has been successfully diffused by means of frequent flourishings of meaningless sets of figures. If you believe the ACE, the arts have never had it so good. If you have dealings with our national orchestras, you can wait up to a year for payment - on the excuse that the musicians are living from hand to mouth. Go figure.

Which is what the ACE is doing these days. Art-form experts are fleeing Great Peter Street and being replaced by strategists, whose task it is to procure a future for the ACE rather than for the arts of England. Some serious thinking is going on at the ACE, and it occasionally comes to light in an unlikely context.

The Guardian recently published a sob-story about a film project on a North Peckham estate that had been refused funding by the ACE. The ACE's rapid-response unit sprang into action. Within days, the paper ran a lengthy refutation under the name of ACE chief executive Peter Hewitt, an article that appeared to have been written by a dalek programmed by Peter Mandelson.

Those who ploughed through its wonk-jargon emerged with novel insights into ACE priorities. "The Arts Council's track record of supporting art and young people is second to none," it maintains. Makes you wonder what the Department of Education is doing. Further, "the 99 most deprived boroughs in England have received in excess of £260 million from the ACE". Such a relief for the DSS.

So now we know where we stand. The Arts Council exists for the relief of poverty and the enlightenment of youth. To hell with orchestras, theatres and the opera house. Merry Christmas, all.

22 November 2000: The job that can't be done
9 September 2000: How the Garden lost its glory
20 June 2000: [UK News] ROH in turmoil as chief resigns

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




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999