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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

The House is rocking

By Norman Lebrecht / November 17, 2004


They are painting the corridor walls lime-green. It's the five-year repaint, something most institutions do routinely, but at the Royal Opera House it stuns me to a standstill. For as long as I have known it, this place has cultivated a fond neglect, its very decay preserving past glories. To see it kept in good order is a breach with tradition.

There is another shock in store. Surely it cannot be five years since the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet returned from exile and near-death? Five years it is, since I sat in the barely-finished Linbury Theatre behind a pregnant Cherie Blair and a pack of inner-city kids who fidgeted through a ballet bill until the music got syncopated, and then they leaped from their seats. 'For too long,' trilled Cherie, 'the message that went out from this house was that the arts are for the privileged few. All that has changed now.'

On reopening night, 1 December 1999, Tony Blair was forced into black-tie and had his people spin the tabloids against the event. The evening was all formality and fixed smiles. The microphones went dead on the chairman's speech, the TV relay blacked out twice and Bernard Haitink conducted an interminable hour of German opera lumps. Tony Blair has never been back.

Six months later, the ROH lost its fifth chief executive in as many years when Michael Kaiser scuttled home to the States. It was crisis as usual and the press were in feeding frenzy when, out of left field, an unlikely saviour arose. Tony Hall, head of news at the BBC, was a Birtian careerist and policy wonk with a taste for grand opera. Ensconced at Covent Garden, Hall took time to walk the floors, listening to people in all areas, remedying needless woes. Troublemakers were isolated and eased out. The house was becalmed.

Money ceased to be an issue. Budgets were balanced. A tiny endowment of £200,000 covered unforeseen extras. The new music and balletdirectors, Antonio Pappano and Monica Mason, laid ancient rivalries to rest and sought each other's company. Deborah Bull, Mason's protégée, became director of the smaller spaces, named ROH2, putting on 115 performances a year.

One by one, casualties of the crisis years crept back. Dame Vivien Duffield, lead donor and £100 million fundraiser, had been ungratefully kicked off the board in one of its spasms. She's back now, chairing the endowment.

The BBC has re-entered the picture, taking four TV relays a year. Cable ducts, omitted in the £212 million rebuild, are being inserted next spring to cut broadcasting costs. The unions have stopped demanding extra fees when the cameras roll.

Most usefully of all, the Government and Arts Council have butted out. Where his predecessors could not book an extra chorister without a bureaucrat peering over their shoulder, Hall now has just one meeting a year with Peter Hewitt, head of ACE, and his director of arts, Kim Evans. He never sees the inside of the Culture Department.

Creatively, the company is fertile. It has eight new opera productions this year, twice as many as New York's wealthy Met. Not all of them hit the mark, but the rep is being renewed faster than at any time since the Earl of Drogheda became chairman and Georg Solti music director in 1960. The opening Rhinegold of Pappano's first Ring cycle, with Bryn Terfel as Wotan, sold out within days.

The ballet, in reflective mood for Frederick Ashton's centenary, is no less buoyant. It provoked a stir the other day by announcing a Jimi Hendrix ballet – an idea of Christopher Bruce's who has dropped in after years of hesitation to work with classical dancers in his modernist Rambert style. Strolling down a lime-green corridor I spotted Bruce in a mirror rehearsing Carlos Acosta, one on one, in new moves. Wayne McGregor, another contemporary choreographer, has applied ideas that he developed at the Royal Ballet to his work on Andrew Lloyd Webber's Woman in White and the Harry Potter films. There are signs that the ROH is beginning to reactivate its founding role as the crucible of British performing arts. Still, before you go off thinking that everything in the Garden is rosy, some things never change – and that's where Cherie Blair got it wrong. The audience remains stubbornly composed of plutocrats and ballet mums, corporate patrons and veteran subscribers, a closed shop of inveterate goers who leave few tickets or comfort zones for tentative newcomers.

Such diehard loyalties would be envied by arts venues like the South Bank, which struggle to persuade database members to visit more than once a year. But Covent Garden is under overt political pressure to swap its elitist image for social diversity.

One step has been to slash ticket prices for modern operas like The Tempest by Thomas Ades to £50 tops. This has ensured full houses for difficult works, though the attendance is much the same as usual.

More promising is the Travelex-backed offer of 100 best seats on alternate Mondays at just £10 a head. Demand is intense and allocation is by lottery but early results indicate an overwhelmingly new audience, more so even than the triumphant Travelex offer at the National Theatre. Some 79 percent of the £10 lucky-dippers have never been to Covent Garden before, almost half come from outside London and fully one third are under 30 years of age.

That is diversity by any reckoning, and long may it flourish. Nevertheless, the Travelex every-other-Monday gesture barely dents the perception of the ROH as aloof and elite, or the reality that most nights most people still pay three digit sums for decent seats. Something has got to give. Either New Labour stops whingeing about elitism, or it must provide the funds to make international opera and ballet generally affordable.

It won't, at a rough estimate, cost much. An extra £8 million a year would allow the ROH to offer all seats at less than £100 and many under £20. That would constitute popular entertainment, on a par with some West End musicals. If the Blair Government is more than halfway sincere about its pledges of art for all, it should come at least halfway towards helping the ROH reach a.mass audience with the finest song and dance to be seen anywhere on these shores.

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001