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The Music Continues . . . for Now

Performing arts: London's Royal Opera House appears to have cheated death yet again, but its troubles persist.

October 30, 1998|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — The Royal Opera House, known as the biggest trouble spot in British arts, apparently has survived its latest crisis of mismanagement and threats to disband the company, which includes the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet.

The music and dance company is battered, broke and demoralized, but it is still kicking after tough negotiations this week between the artistic unions and Royal Opera House board of directors.

As announced last month, the country's premier opera company will close for a year, suspending fully staged performances from January through November 1999 as a cost-saving measure in the face of a $22-million debt.

The Royal Ballet, which also had been threatened with a year in the dark, is expected to finish its current run at Sadler's Wells Theatre in London and to carry on with a regular schedule of performances for the next year in Britain and abroad.

And when the Royal Opera House's Covent Garden stage--newly renovated for $300 million--reopens in December 1999, it will offer a schedule of performances reduced by as much as a third.

But the companies will remain largely intact.

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Colin Southgate, chairman of the board, said negotiations had produced "agreement on enough matters of substance for us to be confident that comprehensive agreements . . . are imminent. I am, therefore, very pleased to be able to say that the possibility of the closure of the Royal Opera House has receded considerably."

He did not release details of the new agreement, which the unions will vote on Monday. They are expected to approve the deal.

Southgate acknowledged that there would be some voluntary staff reductions and that vacant posts would not be filled, but there will be no mass layoffs.

Members of the Royal Opera House companies apparently will remain on the payroll through the dark months and will have a limited schedule of concert and "semi-staged" opera performances to keep the performers in form.

"What you can't afford to do is suddenly assemble a company in December 1999 that will be up to standards and able to face the incredible scrutiny of critics when the Opera House reopens," said Ash Khandekar, editor of Opera Now magazine. "They have got to be well-trained and working together and to keep up the fantastic artistic standards they now have."

Reorganization of the Royal Opera House's administration is to await the arrival of American arts management guru Michael Kaiser, who takes over as executive director on Nov. 12. Kaiser, of the American Ballet Theatre, has been brought in to address the company's chronic financial troubles.

The Royal Opera House is Britain's most highly subsidized arts institution, receiving an annual operating grant of about $26 million. But it has a long history of bad management and shortage of funds. The Royal Opera House has leaped from crisis to crisis; it came within a week of bankruptcy last November, and its deficit is forecast to rise to about $43 million by March 2000.

With their own stage under renovation since July 1997, the opera and ballet companies have had to perform in other London theaters. The productions turned out to be more expensive than they would have been in Covent Garden, and box office receipts plummeted.

The past year also has seen a series of dismissals and resignations by senior executives in the wake of an official report in July slamming the previous management and calling the company's offstage problems "nothing short of disaster."

The government of Prime Minister Tony Blair, its Arts Council and the Opera House board made the decision last month to go dark for a year to tackle the financial and management problems.

The Opera House's acclaimed music director for the past 11 years, Bernard Haitink, tendered his resignation early this month, saying he had been informed of the plans by fax.

"I was flabbergasted. Imagine! I was not consulted," the Dutch conductor said at the time. "There is little point in being music director when there is no music to conduct."

His resignation was not accepted, and his status is unclear following the deal with the unions.

The Royal Opera House is seeking to double the funding it receives from the Arts Council. But the institution has been accused of elitism by critics who decry the high cost of tickets and amount of public money it already receives.

The renovation of Covent Garden has been funded with National Lottery proceeds and private donations.

According to Khandekar at Opera Now, Blair's Labor government has been reluctant to spend more money to bail the Royal Opera House out of its operational troubles.

"There is a sort of snob and class resistance to the Opera House, and the government hasn't been willing to dip into the public purse to help because it is seen as a hot potato, not a popular issue with voters," said Khandekar.

"Historically, every time the Opera House is about to close or fail to make budget, someone pulls money out of a hat," he said. "I suspect that will happen again here, although God knows from where."

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