Hitting high and low notes Disharmony: Television show peeks backstage at London's Royal Opera House. It's not a hTC pretty sight.

January 20, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- The best opera in town features a diva who loses her voice, a ticket manager who is fired, and two bartenders who work side by side but who haven't spoken to one another for decades.

And that's just the behind-the-scenes stuff.

Britain's performing-arts world is in a panic with the unveiling of a six-part British Broadcasting Corp. documentary on a year in the life of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden.

The fly-on-the-wall show, "The House," was supposed to provide a warts-and-all look at one of Britain's more hallowed cultural institutions. Instead, it's mostly the warts on display as egos clash, tempers flare, and budgets skyrocket out of control.

The house's famed opera and ballet stars are nearly crowded out by the office politicking. One moment, singer Denyce Graves is seen struggling through the final notes of "Carmen" and then fleeing the stage in tears. In another moment, blood is being spilled on the corporate carpets as a ticket manager named Andrew Follon is fired.

If at first, Mr. Follon didn't know why he was fired, well, he knows now. The filmmakers have captured the moment his fate was sealed, as public affairs director Keith Cooper told a boss: "I don't think he has the intelligence, the intelligence, to deliver what we expect."

The critical verdict on the first episode is in: Mr. Cooper, who neither sings nor slays divas, was proclaimed the opera villain of the year.

"Well, you do see things sometimes in unguarded moments," Mr. Cooper says now that the first show has aired. "Heated debates. Difficult situations. But that is the reality. If you put a camera on a newsroom or a boardroom of a factory, there would be the same sorts of issues, albeit, within a different cultural background."

The documentary covers the 1993-1994 season. It shows pleasure, pain and human folly. The designer of "Sleeping Beauty" runs nearly $200,000 over budget and in a panic farms out work on 400 dresses to nearly every seamstress in London. Jeremy Isaacs, the general director of the opera, rails at an accountant, "If you can't help us, we'll find the money ourselves."

And, then, there are the bartenders who simply won't speak to one another. Bill and Peter have mixed drinks at the "crush bar" in the opera house's main lobby for more than 30 years. One says of the other that "contempt has spread contempt."

Plenty of cursing and name- calling is mixed in with the wonderful on-stage performances. It's not an entirely pretty picture, but it is real.

"What drove Covent Garden to this act of self-exposure is a mystery," columnist Simon Jenkins wrote in the Times of London. "From his public comments it even mystifies the general director, Jeremy Isaacs, the star of the show. Never can an organization and its boss have laid themselves so bare."

Mr. Isaacs, a former television producer, is no longer talking about the project.

But others are.

"I don't want to knock the Royal Opera House. Judging by the television series . . . they are quite capable of doing that themselves," concert promoter Raymond Gubbay told an audience at an Oxford Union debate.

Some of those trashed in the TV show are fighting back in print. In the documentary, theater director Trevor Nunn was ripped by opera board chairman Sir James Spooner for going over budget. Earlier this week, Mr. Nunn told the Times, "Since this is a form of trial by television, I must plead innocent to all charges."

The story ran on the newspaper's front page.

Artistic controversies are taken very seriously in London, which is the center of Britain's television, theater, publishing and musical industries. The Royal Opera House is seen by many as an elitist institution out of step with the times. The tabloids ridiculed the house when it landed one of the first big handouts generated by National Lottery revenues.

The truth is, the house is short of cash and has announced layoffs, leading to the sight of tuxedoed patrons walking past picket lines. The house is preparing to shut down this summer for a $300 million redevelopment, and the opera and ballet companies don't even have temporary homes yet.

And overshadowing all is the documentary. But, at least there is some good news. The first show attracted a television audience of more than 2 million.

Says Mr. Cooper: "That's four years of opera-going in a night."

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