How long before Ofop steps in?

Patrick Carnegy

  • In House: Covent Garden, 50 Years of Opera and Ballet by John Tooley
    Faber, 318 pp, £25.00, November 1999, ISBN 0 571 19415 X
  • Never Mind the Moon: My Time at the Royal Opera House by Jeremy Isaacs
    Bantam, 356 pp, £20.00, November 1999, ISBN 0 593 04355 3

As the Royal Opera House staged its grand reopening, two of its former bosses filed conflicting accounts of its recent history. Both John Tooley (1970-88) and Jeremy Isaacs (1988-97) describe the House’s considerable achievements over the past half-century; and Isaacs’s part in pushing through the magnificent rebuilding was heroic. What we still want to know is why things also went so cataclysmically wrong.

Isaacs had come to the job after five years as the head of Channel 4, where, thanks to him, the performing arts had been given a good run – in one remarkable year the channel broadcast 12 operas. Sir Claus Moser, chairman of the ROH Board, had invited Isaacs onto it in 1985 and within three years he found himself general director. Tooley argues that the job needs theatrical experience, but Moser’s Board took a different view, passing over the claims of music and theatre men like Humphrey Burton, John Drummond and Brian McMaster, and instead gambling that Isaacs would find a proper place for Covent Garden in a televisual age.

Isaacs knew that the House was adrift. He looked forward to bringing a sense of purpose and adventure to the programming, as I did when I agreed to join him in the new post of dramaturg. My own brief was to be ‘involved in discussion of the planning and rationale of all ... opera productions’ and responsible for arranging lectures and other events. I had seen ‘dramaturgy’ at work in German theatres and knew something of what Edmund Tracey and Nicholas John had been doing at the English National Opera. No one did that kind of thing at Covent Garden, and the mail I received suggested that others, too, thought it was high time they started. Those in the House were less certain. An opera house is a trade and craft-orientated place in which every seamstress and stagehand knows just how the show ought to go. Hiring an outsider to have a say in that was not altogether popular.

When Tooley stepped down in 1988 he’d been with the House since 1955, first as assistant to David Webster, the Liverpool department-store manager who’d built it up from its wartime use as a dance-hall, and then for 18 years as general director. The high point of Webster’s reign was the Georg Solti era (1961-71). Tooley presided over the rather lesser era of Colin Davis (1971-86). Things, indeed, began to fall apart when Davis’s partnerships with Peter Hall and Götz Friedrich broke down. Tooley dutifully chronicles the years from 1947 to 1988, but only comes alive in his final 80 pages, with a disgruntled assessment of his successor. Isaacs for his part is critical, if not harshly so, of Tooley. He is, if anything, tougher on himself and disarmingly candid about some (but not all) of the things that went wrong. His tone is characteristically brisk and bullish, his account not short on pride that he achieved so much.

The one point on which Tooley and Isaacs are agreed is that the House has always been strapped for cash, and under Thatcher became impossible to manage sensibly. Public subsidy, as a proportion of income, was cut back from 56 per cent in 1980-81 to 37 per cent in 1991-92 – less than half what comparable Continental houses get. The House struggled to make up the shortfall with private sponsorship (up from 9 to 19 per cent over the same 11 years) and huge hikes at the box office (seat prices up by 126 per cent over the five seasons 1986-91, compared with an RPI rise of 37 per cent).

The consequence of this was that wealthy donors had too much influence on policy, and that a great many people were priced out. The general impression – which did not wholly accord with the facts – was that the taxpayer was stumping up to subsidise the pleasures of the rich. (No one complained that the premium prices paid by the wealthy subsidised the cheaper seats.) Guardians of public money of every political colour from David Mellor and Gerald Kaufman (described by Isaacs as possessing ‘toxic conceitedness’) to Chris Smith were not amused.

How, people asked, was the ‘income requirement’ of the Arts Council’s most voracious client arrived at? Were the singers’ fees not excessive, did the stage crews not live the life of Riley? A succession of investigations by expensive consultants initially acquitted the House of poor housekeeping, though as Isaacs’s regime drew to its close, they did pick up on much that was wrong. In 1983, an investigation of both the RSC and the ROH, commissioned by Thatcher from Clive Priestley, an adviser to the Cabinet Office, concluded that the House was efficiently run and should be more generously supported. A one-off increase in the grant followed, but Priestley’s crucial recommendation, that the annual grant be pegged to inflation, was disregarded. Opera and ballet were luxuries that must be paid for by their audiences. Cash was now coming in from private and corporate sources, and seat prices went through the roof. For a short time the books were balanced. But the upswing in self-generated income was taken by the Government as reason to reduce public funding further. The recession of the late 1980s took its toll of the private sponsors. The House began to falter just as Isaacs’s more adventurous repertory came on stream.

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