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Thursday, 20 September, 2001, 11:46 GMT 12:46 UK
Royal Opera House's troubled past
Royal Opera House
The Covent Garden venue was expensively refurbished
London's Royal Opera House has had a turbulent time since it was built almost 150 years ago.

The original house was built in 1809 on the site of a theatre which had stood since 1732, but it was destroyed by fire in 1857 was rebuilt a year later.

Almost 150 years later, the house had established a reputation as one of the world's finest opera houses, and the powers that be decided in 1994 that it would be transformed and extended during 1996-2000.

Accessibility for all opera lovers, rich or poor, was a key demand of former Culture Secretary Chris Smith when he helped to broker the refurbishment.

The interior looked like this before refurbishment
The result, costing 216m including 78.5m lottery money, was the building that stands in Covent Garden today. It is home to both the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet.

But despite its much-publicised facelift, the ROH's problems had only just begun.

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

In the early 90s it was in the midst of a financial crisis.

In July 1995 it received a 55m grant with the promise of 23.5m more from the National Lottery.

Queen Mother and Pavarotti
The Queen Mother met Pavarotti after he appeared at ROH in 1990
But a fly-on-the-wall BBC documentary, The House, during December that year disclosed the rifts and acrimony behind the scenes.

The next month plans to build a temporary Royal Opera House theatre at Tower Bridge fell through.

And Sir Jeremy Isaacs stood down as chief executive in December 1996 - 12 months early - frustrated at low subsidies.

The house did not fare any better the following year.

After five months in the job, chief executive Genista McIntosh also resigned through "stress".

Arts Council secretary general Mary Allen took up the post three months later.

The house is a key part of Covent Garden
But its problems were not just backstage - front of house was not doing too well either.The problems were not just backstage either.

In June 1997 Macbeth, the last production before the Royal Opera House closed for the refurbishment, was cancelled at a loss of 200,000.

The house closed in July that year, and board member Vivien Duffield organised a 2m loan for it.

During the refurbishment the performers had to go on stage at other venues, with a reduced number of shows.

By October, it was made known to the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee hears that the touring season had run up huge deficits because of poor audiences.

Under fire

The following month former Culture Secretary Chris Smith announced that distinguished theatre director Sir Richard Eyre was starting a review into opera and ballet in London.

Lord Chadlington told the select committee that the house faced insolvency within days. A 15m rescue package was found.

By December the Royal Opera House was under fire from a select committee report.

"We would prefer to see the house run by a philistine with the requisite financial acumen than by the succession of opera and ballet lovers who have brought a great and valuable institution to its knees," it said.


It called for the entire board, headed by Lord Chadlington, to resign.

Two days later that is precisely what happened.

Mary Allen tendered her resignation, but was asked to stay on.

The house hoped to start afresh in January 1998 by appointing EMI chairman Sir Colin Southgate as its chairman.

But the following month sales and broadcasting head Keith Cooper departed along with finance director Richard Hall.

Opera director Nicholas Payne also quit to join the rival English National Opera.

And Mary Allen resigned in March 1998 and the house cited "a growing difference of views over future plans".

Click here for the second instalment on the ROH's troubled past.

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