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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

The poison in the opera house split

By Norman Lebrecht / October 2, 2002

Ross Stretton's resignation as director of the Royal Ballet faster than his gnarly feet could touch the ground, demands a more truthful explanation than the mutually massaged statement from the Royal Opera House. Stretton said he was keen on "developing the future of ballet" - which makes you wonder why he took a heritage job in the first place. The ROH chairman, Sir Colin Southgate, thanked him for nurturing new dancers, while avoiding mention of the ones he discarded.

The dancers, bless 'em, have been up in arms against the brash Australian from the day he pinned his first castsheet to the notice board. Their dissension, however, would not have persuaded the board to accept his resignation.

The great and the good and the politically correct who preside over the nation's lyric theatre seem never to have paid heed to the below-stairs mutterings of their dancers and musicians. Nor were most aware of a miasma of sexual gossip that swirled out of the dancers' disaffection, rumours for which no evidence has been presented.

So why did Stretton have to go? Swift exits occur as a matter of course in the theatre. A loose hand on the pursestrings, a clash of temperaments, bad personal habits and working relations - any of these can result in summary eviction. The heads of English National Opera and Opera Australia are two of the latest victims. These things happen.

But the Stretton departure is remarkable in that no member of the company has voiced any hint of surprise or regret, even behind cupped hands. His departure was as predictable as his appointment was contentious, and both are symptomatic of the structural faults that rumble beneath the slab-faced exterior of the Royal Opera House. If there is one thing you can bet on at Covent Garden it is that no year will pass without a major upheaval.

The crisis at the Royal Ballet ought, by rights, to result in the resignation of the chairman and board of the Royal Opera House. They appointed Stretton without delving much into his previous record with, for instance, the Australian Ballet where he was a high-handed director with a high turnover in talent. In a publicly listed company, such checks would be routine. But in a publicly appointed board of governors such as Covent Garden's, no one feels inclined to take personal responsibility.

The chairman is there not because he has made an outstanding personal or financial contribution to the art forms but by dint of a gift that his company gave to the Labour Party before the 1997 election. Number 10 put him down for the Arts Council, but a deterrent cough from a senior Whitehall official steered him to Covent Garden where, it was felt, he could do less harm.

The rest of the board are there by grace of Downing Street. One of Southgate's earliest acts was to engineer the removal of his vice-chair, Dame Vivien Duffield, who had raised £100 million for the ROH redevelopment, giving the second-largest donation from her own pocket. To Southgate and New Labour, Duffield was a crimson embarrassment - a woman who had given more than political lipservice to earn her seat. It is anomalies like these that keep Covent Garden permanently on the critical list of world opera.

In the United States, the chairman of an arts institution is the man who gave the biggest donation that year and the rest of the board is made up of his fellow- donors. In Western Europe, governments pay all the bills and call the tune.

In Britain, and only in Britain, a government which contributes around one-third of the ROH's expenditure, retains the right to appoint the chairman and board and approve all major decisions.

The public, who put in more at the box-office than the Treasury's cheque, have no say in what goes on stage and what goes on behind the scenes. The business community, which puts in almost as much, has no more influence on the running of the house than the Pope does at Mecca. The artists who risk limb and sometimes life in performance, are obliged to doff their caps to dilettantes and are the last to be told of decisions that affect and often prejudice their individual and collective destinies. Tony Blair loathes the Opera House and all it stands for, but he won't release his grip on its collar.

This Animal Farm situation breeds a culture of irresponsibility. Sir Colin Southgate is a perfectly amiable man who presided over the Spice Girls era at EMI Records. He knows little about opera, less about ballet, though he means well and would like to be fondly remembered. He will walk away from the post next year, to be succeeded by another ing?ue - perhaps Michael Portillo, whose name Downing Street recently leaked.

Do not be confused by reports that the Tory MP's candidacy was "vetoed" by the board. The board has no say in the matter. Southgate, as it happens, was vociferously opposed by a majority on the previous board but was appointed over their heads.

If the system worked, we might continue to put up with it in the interests of art. But the Stretton debacle is only one of several boils that are itching to burst. The Royal Ballet cannot find a decent music director because the conductors it chooses get abused by the orchestra, over which it has no control.

Relations between the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera are perpetually tense, but the ROH board will not countenance devolution. The Linbury and Clore theatres, two of the spanking new facilities added by redevelopment, are shamefully underused.

Internal spreadsheets suggest that the company is spending faster than it can attract donors - many of whom are deterred by the lack of bang for their bucks. Give a million to the Met in New York and you get a seat on the board. Give 10 million to Covent Garden (as arts philanthropist Alberto Vilar did) and you'll get invited to a thank-you dinner with Prince Charles.

The solution to the unending Covent Garden dilemma is glaringly obvious: the ROH must either take the US highway and privatise or go the European route and be nationalised. The longer it persists with its peculiar English private-public muddle, the more it will court derision for crises that need never have occurred.

Norman Lebrecht is the author of Covent Garden: The Untold Story (Simon & Schuster, 2000).

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001