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Drama at the Royal Opera House -- on stage and in the budget

There is drama on both sides of the thick, burgundy-plush curtains of the Royal Opera House in London's Covent Garden these days.

On one side, operas and ballets tell of romance and make-believe in ''Le Nozze di Figaro'' and ''Der Rosenkavalier,'' in ''Giselle'' and ''Raymonda.'' But on the other side of the footlights, directors and accountants tell of real-life financial gloom and recession.

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Even the carefully placed 720 arabesque renverses that begin Act IV of Minkus's ballet ''La Bayadere'' - which brought Rudolph Nureyev back into the Royal Ballet Company as choreographer and dancer for three months - gave no hint of the wobbles backstage.

Out in front, all seems normal. Preparations are going ahead for the 250th anniversary celebrations of the opening of the original Royal Opera House in 1732 with a new production of Handel's opera ''Semele'' and a new ballet, ''The Tempest,'' choreographed for the Royal Ballet by Nureyev, with music by Tchaikovsky. Even the designer-clothed and upper-class-accented audience eating smoked trout and quiche in the Crush Bar during intervals seems unaware of the black mantle that hangs over the theater.

The future of the theater seems very bleak indeed, according to the annual report just published. The Royal Opera House faces a deficit next year of at least (STR)1 million (about $1.6 million), because of difficulties with all three sources of its income - the Arts Council grant, box office receipts, and private funding.

For a company that relies on its box office for 40 to 45 percent of its income, a severe drop in attendance last spring during the Falklands Islands crisis - coming after an increase in seat prices which made an evening of ballet cost as much as (STR)19 ($30) and a night at ''Der Rosenkavalier'' (STR)35 a seat (though some 25 percent of seats are kept under (STR)6) - has left the company some (STR)300,000 or more below the anticipated budget.

The recession is responsible for trouble with private funding, although, according to the chairman of the board of directors, Sir Claus Moser, there have been some remarkable evidences of support.

Yet it is the grant from the government Arts Council that is causing the most concern. Sir Claus appealed on behalf of the British arts world in general to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a lover of music and opera, to see whether ''the very few millions needed to sustain the arts'' still could not be found.

If the overall grant to the arts is increased only by the anticipated 4 to 5 percent, it should affect all activities and perhaps close some important companies and institutions.

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''Does the country want to retain a ballet and opera company that brings great acclaim?'' Sir Claus asked. ''If it can't afford it, it will have to close down the Royal Opera House and go back to seasons of different companies, as it did before the war. Alternatively, to save money, there could be longer periods with the house dark - no productions - shorter seasons, and more performances by the ballet company rather than the opera company, since they are less expensive.'

A planned tour to Manchester next September by the opera company has already been canceled, and new productions have been cut to two - a very low level for such a major opera house.

Comparison with four continental opera houses shows that on average they spend 21/2 times as much per performance than at Covent Garden and are all more heavily subsidized by their governments.

While the Royal Opera House economizes where artistically possible, without eroding standards, costs continue to rise.

Yet, out front once more, the magic of dance masks the realities of recession. In three recent evenings I saw eight ballets. They ranged from Greek mythology (''Apollo''), biblical parable (''Prodigal Son''), Russian literature (''A Month in the Country''), Indian love story (''La Bayadere''), and French fin de siecle poetry (''L'invitation au voyage'') to American ragtime jazz (''Elite Syncopations'').

Throw in the special talents of Anthony Dowell, Leslie Collier, Marguerite Porter, Jennifer Penney, and long-limbed Briony Brind - all products of the Royal Ballet School - who bring to ''the garden'' its unique British style and technique.

Add to the season the compelling personality of a Russian dancer whose burning desire to dance blurs technical faults and convinces us, the audience, that this is still the same Nureyev that made his name here back in the early 1960s when he partnered Margot Fonteyn.

It's all worth saving.

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