In British opera, a house divided

November 06, 1997|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- This week, Britain's new Labor government ignited an artistic brawl on an operatic scale.

Labor unveiled plans to wedge into one building London's two proud, prestigious and financially ailing opera companies.

The government also wants to squeeze a ballet company into the venue, the celebrated Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, which is closed until 1999 while undergoing a $300 million redevelopment.

If British culture, media and sport secretary Chris Smith get their way, they'll even sandblast the words "Royal Opera House" off the refurbished venue's facade, renaming it the Covent Garden Theater.

It's a merger that nearly no one in the arts community wants.

But Smith is pushing for the changes in a bid to shake up an arts world that survives on government subsidies and profits from the national lottery.

"I believe London can afford two opera companies," Smith said Monday in setting up a review group to analyze the proposal. "What I doubt is if it can afford two state-of-the-art opera houses."

Yet for the arts' insiders, two opera companies under one roof is a disastrous suggestion, a forced union between a "toff's opera" and a "people's opera."

The two companies don't even share a common language.

The Royal Opera, the grand old dame that normally rules the Royal Opera House, prefers performances in Italian or German. It relies on lush sets, lavish costumes and superstar soloists to bring in a well-heeled, formally attired audience eager to pay up to $300 a ticket.

While the Royal Opera House is being refurbished, the Royal Opera is bouncing from hall to hall in London, piling up debts while playing to less than full houses.

The English National Opera sticks with English-language performances, whether translating Verdi or frolicking to Gilbert and Sullivan. It holds court at the Coliseum, a cavernous, slightly threadbare venue. The top ticket price rarely exceeds $75, and there are plenty of $8 balcony seats filled by students in jeans.

Almost overlooked in the controversy is the fate of the Royal Ballet, Britain's premier dance company, which would also share the stage.

But for Smith and the Labor government, the move to shake up opera makes good political sense. They're basically striking a blow for the masses against the upper-class elites.

"There is a bit of gung-ho spirit for reform with this Labor government," says Ash Khandekar, editor of the London-based Opera Now magazine.

"There's this idea that the whole of the British establishment is going to undergo a period of upheaval," Khandekar adds. "The Royal Opera House stands for tradition and elitism. It is a symbol of all that is old-fashioned about England. You can understand why it has become one of the government's first symbolic targets of reform."

The opera-going elites are upset. And the controversy is the stuff front-page banner headlines in the British press.

Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover, a former chairman of the Royal Opera House, labeled the plan a "national humiliation."

Former Opera House general director Sir Jeremy Isaacs called the proposals "catastrophic," adding, "With one stroke of the pen, this moves London from its position as a leading city for the arts."

London's Evening Standard railed, "It will be a badge of shame for our culture, if this country cannot find the money somehow for two major opera centers in London."

The British news media report that Paris has five opera houses, while Berlin has three.

"Other European cities have been able to break through artistically, while it feels that London is standing still," says Horace Trubridge of the Musicians' Union.

"Opera is really part of the historical significance of a city, and a country," Trubridge adds. "There is such a fantastic history of opera and high art generally in this country.

"It's hard to quantify what it means, though. But it's like family jewels; you don't throw them out, and you don't allow them to get dusty."

Pub Date: 11/06/97

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