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Thursday, 11 January, 2001, 12:29 GMT
A year in Covent Garden
Royal Opera House on opening night
Royal Opera House audiences thought of as elite
By BBC News Online's Olive Clancy

When the Royal Opera House (ROH) reopened on 1 December 1999 as the "people's opera", observers hoped that the longest running arts farce in Britain was over.

The ROH had been dogged with political and press criticism for years - it was said to be too exclusive, too expensive and badly managed.

Accessibility for all opera lovers, rich or poor, was a key demand of Culture Secretary Chris Smith when he helped to broker a deal that ensured the new 214m building, including 78.5m of lottery money, would be built.

Darcey Bussell
Permanent Royal Ballet star Darcey Bussell helps pull in the crowds
And proving that the ROH is accessible has been the key to success.

Physically things have definitely changed for the better.

The beautiful new house, with its bar and escalator access, is a vast improvement on the old.

The complex now boasts a gallery, cafes, restaurants, shops, lobbies and bars, including a spectacular bar at the roof level of the reconstructed cast-iron Floral Hall - formerly used as a scenery store - and an open rooftop terrace overlooking Covent Garden.

Air conditioning is a welcome improvement - people often fainted from the heat in the cheapest seats at the top of the house in summer.


Chris Millard, ROH director of publicity, said: "In the old days the house only opened at 5.30pm for people with tickets, but this building is open daily to anybody who is just curious."

But as the organisation receives substantial public subsidy it will have to prove that ticket prices too are more accessible.

There are doubts as to whether the new Covent Garden will provide what the old notoriously failed to do.

One opening season criticism was that tickets were still too expensive.

The public can still only be sure of getting tickets by becoming a Friend of Covent Garden and donating a sum of money.

The more money you give, the more likely you are to get a ticket.

Seat prices are far too high

Raymond Gubbay
These Friends could in theory account for 80% of tickets, though in practice it is much less.

This ticketing policy provides ammunition for those like music impresario Raymond Gubbay.

He says the new house has become cheaper for the rich but is just as expensive for the poor.

Gubbay, who applied for the job of as head of the ROH but was rejected, says: "Seat prices are far too high for a public building of that kind. They've missed the opportunity of re-examining where they're at, and trying to bring in total reforms."

But Mr Millard points out that most of the planning for the criticised first season was done long before the current administration was installed.

The ROH is adjusting both programmes and pricing as it goes along.

"We have changed things again for the 2000-2001 season, there are more matinees, changes to ticketing arrangements and seating has been altered to make it more acceptable," he said.

Bryn Terfel
Bryn Terfel is a popular and critical success

Another criticism of the opening season was that the programme was unadventurous.

This, says the ROH, is more than answered by the four brand new productions.

Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, The Queen of Spades by Tchaikovsky, Boulevard Solitude by Henze and La Cenerentola by Rossini will all take to the stage before May 2000.

The ROH's education schedule, free concerts and other programmes are also bringing in new opera and dance audiences.

And there are few complaints about the Royal Ballet, the Royal Opera's co-tenant at Covent Garden, whose ticket prices are more affordable.

That is because they have a group of core employees in the Ballet, permanently employed and therefore cheaper than operatic names that are imported for a season.

The ROH budget was said to be healthy in November 1999, thanks to the work of former executive director, Michael Kaiser.

Mr Kaiser is a former executive director of the American Ballet Theater with a reputation as a trouble-shooter in arts organisations.

Ace card

He arrived in November 1998, imposed a regimen of careful planning, and introduced American-style fund-raising.

But he left to become president of the John F Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington.

The House has an ace card for the future in its music director-elect Antonio Pappano.

The London-born Italian American was named Artist of the Year in the 2000 Gramophone Awards and is currently Brussels-based.

Pappano will take over in the summer of 2002 but has already been heavily involved in planning his opening seasons.

And the ROH does seem to be wooing the public.

Chris Millard says: "In the first season alone up to 180,000 new people came to performances of either the opera or ballet in the main house, for the first time."

These may not be the affluent blue collar workers that Michael Kaiser and Chris Smith envisaged, but things are looking up at the Royal Opera House.

See also:

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01 Dec 99 | Entertainment
Royal rebirth for Opera House
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