In the wake of Sir Richard Eyre s report on the future of the lyric theatre in London, What s On Stage opera reviewer Keith McDonnell analyses what it all really means....


As reported in the What s On Stage News Section, Sir Richard Eyre s report on the future of the lyric arts has just been published. The report was initially commissioned by Culture Secretary Chris Smith s following his comments that the English National Opera, the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera should all be housed in the Royal Opera House when it re-opens (scheduled for October 1999 with Haitink conducting Graham Vick s new production of Falstaff with Bryn Terfel in the title role).

Now it doesn t take a huge amount of knowledge into how the three companies work to realise immediately what utter folly this idea was. Whilst Smith was busy wining and dining the ‘Cool Britannia crew, very little interaction was happening with those working in the real Arts, fighting for existence on a shoestring of a budget. But Labour no doubt wanted to distance itself from ‘the Toffs playground , as the Royal Opera has been variously described in the tabloid press.

Ignore 50 years of achievement in building an international opera company from scratch. Ignore the huge musical achievements engendered by Karl Rankl, Georg Solti, Colin Davis and Bernard Haitink. Dismiss most of the chorus, dissipate the orchestra and keep your fingers crossed that it will all gel when the theatre re-opens. The thought that this would be allowed to happen in Paris, Vienna, Munich or Milan is quite simply laughable. They take opera seriously. So should we.

First the good news. The ENO has come out well from Eyre s report. Not surprisingly, he has praised the company for its accessibility and sensible ticket prices (there are Balcony tickets for £2.50, roughly a third of what it costs to see a film in the West End - who s being elitist now?). He has suggested that the more weeks be freed up at the Coliseum for dance companies, and that ENO move to a smaller venue, say Sadler's Wells, for a short season.

Although this has gone down well with ENO, a source told What s On Stage that relocating the company is only possible with extra funding, and who knows whether the money will be forthcoming? Artistically it makes sense. Many of the operas which ENO perform would be better suited to a smaller venue. Whilst ENO has the ensemble and ability to do full justice to Handel, Gluck and Mozart, the Coliseum is roughly three times too big for these works. At the Wells, the company could explore more Handel, Rameau, Monteverdi, Cavalli and Gluck repertoire which would be ideally suited to the size of the house.

Education is a key area in which Eyre hopes the ROH and ENO can work together. It was staggering, therefore, to see on the front page of today s Guardian newspaper (Friday 3 July 1998) that the ROH has sacked its new education officer before she even started her job. The arrogance of these people from Covent Garden is mind-blowing. The ROH needs a Gerard Mortier, Hughes Gall or Brian McMaster at the helm to sweep away the incompetence which seems to pervade the whole management.

Eyre has stated that the ROH needs more public money (true - £15m is not enough to maintain a season at an international level), but surely it must get its house in order. How a public company with £78m of lottery funding can think it can act like a private members club beggars belief.

The ball is now in the Government s court. It can either accept or reject Eyre s report. If £275m can be found for Peter Mandelson s Pleasure Dome in Greenwich, anything might happen!