LSM-ONLINE-LOGO2JPG.jpg (4855 bytes)


Back Issues
LSM Issues
LSV Issues
Throat Doctor
Concert Reviews
CD Critics
Books Reviews
PDF Files

About LSM
LSM News
Guest Book
Contact Us
Site Search
Web Search

The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Sweating it out in the House

By Norman Lebrecht / July 11, 2001

SIR COLIN SOUTHGATE has been telling the Financial Times how he "saved" the Royal Opera House, pretty much single-handedly. This was, remarkably, his first press interview since being appointed to the chairmanship by Downing Street three-and-a-half years ago, and it was the softest of touches - like Tony Blair kicking off his election campaign from Sir David Frost's sofa.

The FT likes businessmen to have a life outside business and does not pry into their extra-mural pursuits. Southgate was allowed to recite his own press releases, telling readers how he was "opening the place up". No one, it appears, ever tells him it's elitist any more.

Sadly, Southgate's credit line does not extend beyond the City. Indecisive and meddlesome, he was unable to get on with the ROH's chief fund-raiser, Dame Vivien Duffield, and its best chief executive, Michael Kaiser. He is now clamouring for more public subsidy - undermining the reassuringly self-sufficient doctrine adopted by Kaiser and his successor, Tony Hall.

Salvation is beyond his grasp, and vital parts keep flying off. A pair of problems caught my eye last week, neither of them readily soluble.

The £214 million redevelopment of the ROH was occasioned by two exigencies - the need to update the backstage facilities by a couple of centuries, and to instal air-conditioning that would enable the house to be used during the sweltering summer months.

The primary aim fell, like a pre-war England cricket team, about a quarter of a century short of its target. The new machinery works, but not as well as the high-tech installed in other houses. As for the air-conditioning, it was put fully to the test for the first time last week and failed by an innings.

London boasted no more exclusive sauna than the one in which the Kirov Ballet danced their Baltic hearts out, to the amazement and gratitude of a sweat-soaked, shirt-sleeved auditorium. Street temperatures of 31 degrees were roughly replicated in the marbled vestibules of the ROH. In the well of the house, you caught a ripple of breeze only if you turned towards Mecca, and prayed.

Attendants assured me that the air-conditioning was functioning at full blast. If so, the ROH must have installed the wrong system - one designed, perhaps, for a pre-war English summer rather than an epoch of global warming.

Compare and contrast: New York's Lincoln Center, which stays open all summer, offers chilled relief from sidewalk sizzle. The Festspielhaus at Salzburg, last refitted four decades ago, is temperate in the most choking fohn heatwave. Glyndebourne maintains an approved Pimm's temperature. Bregenz keeps its cool, Lucerne is lovely.

But the pride of British arts is stuck in anachronistic discomfort, hoping that no one will be un-British enough to complain. Well, many did. When the ROH shuts at the end of August to instal seat-back screens, they should call in ventilation engineers and order them to match New York specifications.

What is wrong at the ROH is not so much the machines as the loss of ethos. When Covent Garden reopened in December 1999, the most visible reform was the abolition of flunkeys who, dressed in what appeared to be spare lengths of stage curtain, used to shuffle on at the end of the show to present bouquets to the artists.

Not very New Labour, it was thought, so the old retainers were put out to grass and replaced by a bunch of young allsorts, dressed in greyish-green two-pieces that might have seen service as wartime camouflage, or at the sales desk of a budget chemist's. Ill-trained and apathetic to all appearances, they stand forbiddingly like jailers at the doors. The old flunkeys had their faults, but they saw themselves as part of a performing company and could discuss roles and techniques with expert authority.

The most testing task assigned to our new warders is to collect a bunch of flowers and hand it to a prima donna or ballerina. I have yet to see one of them pass the test with dignity. They have not been taught to walk properly, to show appreciation or to time the presentation in such a way that the artist can receive the bouquet gracefully and indicate her pleasure. One measly bunch was thrust so clumsily at a Kirov dancer that she dropped it on the floor and left it there. Covent Garden would do better to cancel the florist altogether than persist with such mean scenes. Even ENO does it better.

The fault lies in a failure of self-knowledge. So long as Covent Garden plies Southgate's apologetic counter-elitism, it will offer grunge-level rail-station services. It's on the wrong line. The ROH needs to smarten up, to pursue unashamed excellence without discrimination. If this is elitist, so be it. In a mixed society, there must surely be room for one institution where elitism is permitted - if only in the interests of cultural diversity.

6 July 2001: End of the affair [interview with Dame Vivien Duffield]
6 June 2001: 'We stand for excellence' [interview with the executive director of ROH, Tony Hall]
12 September 2000: The rise and fall of Michael Kaiser [serialisation of Kaiser's book on the Royal Opera House]
2 December 1999: [UK News] Gala night at the opera heals old wounds [article on reopening of Royal Opera House]
1 July 1998: [UK News] Waste and snobbery at ROH [article on ROH's handling of public funds]

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




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999