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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Tale of two opera companies

By Norman Lebrecht / February 12, 2003

It's a case of one up, one down. In the few major cities that can permit themselves the luxury of two year-round opera houses, competition between them is hissingly unproductive. In New York, the all-mighty Met is battling to keep scrawny City Opera out of the rebuilt Lincoln Center. The Vienna Staatsoper and Volksoper are barely on speaking terms; in Berlin, the Deutsche Oper's Christian Thielemann and Staatsoper's Daniel Barenboim are likely to meet next in a libel courtroom.

Rival factories may stimulate the manufacture of a better type of ballbearings, but put one opera house across the square from another and all you will get is an outbreak of backbiting.

The great economist, Maynard Keynes, founding the Royal Opera House in 1946, foresaw a mutually beneficial relationship with the older opera company at Sadler's Wells, later relocated to the edge of Trafalgar Square and renamed the English National Opera. Instead, throughout their separate and not undistinguished post-war histories, the two companies never peaked simultaneously.

If one improved, the other declined. The benefits of experience did not cross the marketplace from Covent Garden to the Coliseum, or vice-versa. If one company was on the up and up, the other was to be found hurtling into organisational hell.

Seldom have the swings of fortune crossed more violently than last week, when each theatre announced a key appointment. The Royal Opera House introduced a new chairman, Dame Judith Mayhew, to succeed the maladroit Sir Colin Southgate in August. Mayhew, a barrister in her fifties, was, until lately, chief moneybags - chairman of the Policy and Resources Committee, they call it - of the Corporation of the City of London.

She allocated more money to the Barbican Arts Centre than it had seen in 20 years, funding a £38 million acoustic and architectural facelift that might, just might, convert a planning disaster into a modest pantheon. She is shrewd, determined, resourceful and provenly committed to improving the arts environment.

Not bad credentials; but the most heartening thing about her appointment is that it signals a return to constitutional government at Covent Garden, whose last two chairmen were directly imposed by Downing Street. Peter Gummer (later Lord Chadlington) was John Major's best mate; Southgate, then chairman of EMI, was rewarded by Tony Blair for his election-year financial support.

Such interventions might have been justified in the Sixties when the state paid 87 per cent of the ROH budget and had a right to call the tune, but by now its input had fallen below one-third. Both chairmen were cuckoos in the operatic nest. Southgate's authority was inhibited from the outset by the manner of his appointment and shattered soon after by his stuttering despotism. He never once in six years faced a press interview.

All credit to Southgate, therefore, for arranging a transparent transition to an untainted successor. Spurning political nominees (who included the much-touted Michael Portillo), he put a strong short list to the board, and then to an open vote, ensuring that Mayhew arrives with no need to measure her neck for New Labour's collars of access and equality. She has the freedom to rule and the fundraising skills to prosper.

Southgate will hand over a company that has recovered - under, or despite, his chairmanship - from a near-death experience while closed in the late Nineties for rebuilding. Its recovery is visible to the naked eye. The Royal Opera, with Antonio Papmanpano as an invigorating music director, has shed its stuffiness and ventured into such with-it productions as the recent Wozzeck, which mocked the exploitative nullity of Gunther Von Hagens's Body Worlds.

The Royal Ballet, after its calamitous Ross Stretton year, has refound its feet under Monica Mason. The only worries are financial, with gifts from the Cuban-American multi-millionaire Alberto Vilar in abeyance and the economy stalling.

Compare then, and contrast grimly, the ROH felicities with ENO's announcement last week of a new artistic director, an appointment that was greeted with stupefaction and dismay. ENO lost its director, Nicholas Payne, six months ago with a hole in the budget and the theatre under scaffolding. It had proved too much for one man to run an opera season and a construction site at the same time. ENO's chair-the city financier Martin Smith, decided, sensibly, to split the roles, installing Caroline Felton as executive director to put the books in order.

Finding an artistic director was vital to restore confidence, both externally and, more pressingly, internally after Smith announced plans to cut the chorus by a third and then take an axe to the orchestra. The post was offered to Pierre Audi, head of Amsterdam's efficient little opera house, and formerly of the Almeida Theatre. Audi thought it over for a week and wisely declined.

Two fine opera directors, Graham Vick and Francesca Zambello, showed an interest - offering themselves ultimately as a dream-team job-share. Their joint talents were passed over in favour of an Irishman, Sean Doran, who for the past four years has run the Perth Festival in Western Australia.

A one-time conductor of a London new-music ensemble, Doran has never run anything as unwieldy as a yearround opera house. Sources in Perth suggest that budget control and human relations may not be his forte. He went £1 million into the red on his first festival and, within a year, lost 10 staff members whom he had personally hired. He denied accusations of impropriety with an unmarried operations manager. Doran maintained that he was the victim of "vicious and venomous" malcontents. Perhaps he will find ENO peaceful by comparison.

The most dispiriting aspect of his appointment is its wilful myopia. Nothing about him inspires faith that Doran will do better than any of the bathroom warblers who are lining up to try for an ENO role in Channel Four's gimmicky Operatunity contest.

The idiocy of promoting an untested candidate from a provincial Australian ensemble was amply demonstrated by the fate of Ross Stretton at the ROH.

ENO, in mortal crisis, has failed to absorb one jot or tittle of the agony that Covent Garden, just across the marketplace, narrowly survived during its rebuilding years.

So, it's one up, one down, all over again. London's two opera houses might as well inhabit different planets for all they have assimilated from each other's existence.

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001