Worst of both worlds

The Royal Opera House, which has just closed for two and a half years, is in permanent crisis. This is because its public subsidy is both too big and too small
August 19, 1997

How much should we care about what happens to the Royal Opera House, which has just closed its doors for two and a half years and which many suspect may languish for longer than that? The government, like most of the rest of us, has yet to make up its mind. Its instinct to open up the house to provide opera and ballet for the many-which implies spending more money-still vies with the instinct to land a cheap shot on the exclusive pleasure house of the few.

Compared with the social security budget or even the millennium dome, the question of what to do about opera is low on the priority list. But that does not mean that there should not be a policy. And it does not mean that the government-and the rest of us-should not make up our minds.

If you want opera houses they have to be paid for. At the moment this is not happening, which is why you read about Covent Garden in crisis all the time. The amount that needs spending on the Opera House is peanuts in public spending terms. The ?214m cost of rebuilding (of which ?78m came from the lottery) is about the price of one of the 232 Eurofighter aircraft on which the government seems committed to spend what in other circumstances it calls "the people's money." But in terms of the arts budget, opera is Manchester United to everybody else's Halifax Town.

Cheap opera, though, is a contradiction in terms. Opera is the most expensive of the arts because of the style, size and technical requirements of the buildings in which it is performed and the amount of highly specialised labour it requires.

Opera has always been expensive, which is a large part of the reason why, of all the performing arts, it has always been synonymous with exclusivity. Opera has always required subvention from somebody. Handel in 18th century London and Wagner in 19th century Bavaria both bankrupted themselves to put their works on the stage. And in Verdi's time there was no Italian theatre capable of running as a viable economic enterprise.

"There seems no possibility of making such an undertaking self-supporting," reported Eustace Blois, Covent Garden's managing director in the 1920s. Everyone who has sat in his chair from then until now will agree. What has changed is the source of the subsidies. There are few 20th century princes of the sort to whom Wagner had to turn. They have been replaced as opera's patrons by governments and corporations-and to some extent by the paying public. The issue is not whether opera requires subsidy, but who should pay it and how much.

As soon as you start to discuss the financing of opera, you realise that you are also discussing the financing of any other form of public goods. The options range from total state subsidy to total dependence upon corporate sponsorship, with most big houses clustered disproportionately at the state-dependent end of the spectrum. Compared with any other important opera house in Europe, Covent Garden (which now receives ?14.5m in grant) is underfunded by the state, although even in continental Europe the days have long passed when whatever an opera house wanted, it got. Nevertheless, La Scala, the Vienna Staatsoper and the Op?ra Bastille all receive twice as much of their income from taxpayers compared with Covent Garden. Compared with the Metropolitan in New York, however, and other US houses (which survive off tax-advantaged private donations), the Royal Opera House is still a state support junkie.

Some argue that this gives Covent Garden the best of both worlds. It has a predictable income, but it has to raise substantial funds from business and through the box office. Artistically-the argument runs-this means that Covent Garden can still experiment in the knowledge that the bills will be paid, but it has to balance this security with the need to pull in the public, whose tastes are generally more conservative than those of the people who run the houses.

As the present crises have illustrated, the reality is that Covent Garden's position is not the best of both worlds, but the worst. On the one side its state subsidy is constantly reduced and eroded, forcing it to mount an unpopular raid on the lottery. From the other side the corporate sponsorship never manages to make good the deficits across the range of the house's activities. The net effect is that productions are, increasingly, cancelled, like the staging of Verdi's Macbeth this summer, and prices are increased to help balance the books (although, as Jeremy Isaacs insists, there are more tickets at ?7 than at ?150).

The first state subsidy to Covent Garden dates from 1930, when Ramsay MacDonald's Labour government gave the BBC ?25,000 so that it could pay for the right to broadcast opera. Today another Labour government is committed (as the budget tax breaks for the film industry showed) to investment in the arts. This time, though, its preferred funding model is the public-private combination which may be ideal in theory but which has not worked at Covent Garden.

Perhaps, as John Plender also suggests (page 40), the time has come to stop taking as a given the greed of the big artists and agents, which certainly exacerbates the funding problem. Why do international houses (such as Covent Garden) not establish a cartel to drive down prices in the name of opera for the many?