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 smallby Martin Kettle / August 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Published in August 1997 issue of Prospect Magazine
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 runni…