The Royal Opera House – a lost opportunity?

Article by Brian Sewell

The refurbishment of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden is well under way, its completion expected by November this year, the estimated cost of £214 million enough to pay for it. And what shall we have for such a blithe extravagance? – far better accommodation for the unseen mechanical business of the theatre, for the orchestra and for rehearsals, far more luxurious dressing rooms, an entirely new studio theatre and far more space for meeting, greeting, entertainment, wet umbrellas and the emptying of bladders, but at its core the theatre itself will be much the same much loved old thing of red plush upholstery and gilt, with the same old wretched sight lines from the flanks of its horseshoe auditorium, the same dead acoustic patches, and no more than dozen extra seats to expand the audience. Will it be accessible – New Labour’s favourite word in every cultural argument – to new audiences with previous little money in their pockets? Will it become The People’s Opera House? Will it ever make a profit? Will its income ever match its outgoings? Will it ever function without vast sums of subsidy from the taxpayers who will never, no matter how much they may want to, set foot in it? The answer to these questions is no, no, no, no, no.

The Covent Garden phenomenon yet again confirms that we are obsessed with conserving our past above all other considerations, that we cling to what we know – just as we did to beastly nurse, for fear of something much much worse – and that we are incapable of judging architecture both familiar and unfamiliar; thus we struggle to preserve the ugly and unworthy old while, fearful of appearing fuddy-duddy, we surrender to the ugly and impractical new – the refurbishment of the Opera House is one half of Britain’s architectural equation, and the Libeskind wing of the Victoria and Albert Museum is the other, conservationists the worst enemies of conservation, and architects the worst enemies of architecture, while the sane man despairs. Perhaps we should heave a huge sigh of relief that Daniel Libeskind was virtually unknown in this country when the future of the House was discussed and agreed – and yet perhaps not, for there are those of us who argue that giving another century of life to such an exhausted building has been a disastrous error, excluding a vast potential audience and lending strength to the insults of those who damn opera as elitist, exclusive, pretentious and the preserve of a rich and privileged class, the Opera House its embodying monument. There is justification for this pejorative view; it lies with the wealthy clique who have cared not a fig for those not of their means and who, exploiting an incestuous relationship with the Arts Council, have run the Opera House as a private club for themselves and their friends among the corporate sponsors necessary to top up the Council’s funding; such snobbish exclusivity has long been a commodity for which the ignorant, uncritical and vain English of a certain monied caste have been content to spend their shekels – the rubric “Pay and Display” does not apply only to parking tickets. Such snobbery will be as firmly entrenched as ever when the refurbishment is done and such would-be toffs will, with their ostentatious donations of cash from time to time, still be essential to the Opera House as it stumbles into the next century, never able to break even. Nothing will change.

It is not, however, only in this perception of opera and its audience – a perception common to those who love the art and wish to share more of it more widely, to left-wing politicians who loathe it as a symbol of class, and to right-wing politicians who hold the view that the arts must pay for themselves – that the damage has been done by the restoration of the Opera House. For no architectural or functional reason that the sane man can uphold, this ill-designed and shoddily constructed building, wholly dependent for its doubtful charms on the conventions of its day, thrown up in eight months after the fire of 1856, is listed as Grade I with a Star; this can only be for the sentimental baggage carried by the building, not because its architect, Edward Middleton Barry, was in any way a worthy heir to Michelangelo, Palladio, Bernini or any other man who drove the history of architecture forward, for his wretched design was as much in the pattern-book idiom of his day as any pseudo-neoclassical, semi-detached (with portico) executive residence is now. Brave clear-sighted men would have cast off the Covent Garden aura and consigned the sentimental part to the dust and spider’s web of library and archive, recognising that to retain the existing auditorium defeats, and can only defeat, all notions of accessibility and opera for everyone. If ever there was an occasion to acknowledge that a famous building had reached the end of its useful life, it was with this opera house – we should have flattened it and built another.

The silence of the Opera House since July 1997 has given thousands of buffs the opportunity to experience opera at the Royal Albert Hall, and all who say through each episode of The Ring there last autumn know for certain that the arguments rehearsed for retaining the historic atmosphere of the Covent Garden auditorium were snares and delusions – with 5,000 in the audience instead of 2,141 the intensity and wonder of the experience were not one whit diminished as the circus architecture of the Hall came significantly into play. The stage, the shape of a boomerang, lay between the orchestra and the audience, thrusting the singers into a new intimacy with those who had come to hear them; the spaces below and in front of the stage extended it and gave it different levels; the stairs to either side of it, flanked by the audience, and the organ loft, were brought in as adjuncts: with no scenery and with props and costumes minimal, it was music and movement that fired our imaginations and we conjured for ourselves the mountains and mysterious caves, forests and the depths of earth, Valhallah and the Rhine, wholly transported to the Dark Ages of Norse mythology, seeing what Wagner and his music commanded we should see with no constraint imposed by lunatic or fashionable designer. It was an austere and wonderful performance and those who run Covent Garden must surely have learned lessons from it, for it was drawn entirely from the Royal Opera’s resources – but perhaps they learned nothing, for most of its gilded guardians did not use their free tickets and have the production scant support. From the huge audiences that did attend, as from the audiences for Raymond Gubbay’s presentation for Tosca in the Royal Albert Hall this past February, the Labour MPs who damn opera as elitist could have learned what all buffs know – that it is nothing of the kind, that it is not the preserve of the dinner jacketed brigades of Glyndebourne and their ilk, but the intellectual and emotional territory of ordinary people, given half a chance.

Gubbay’s Tosca made another point – made earlier with his Bohème and Butterfly – that the “intimacy” of a small auditorium, seen as so desirable by Sir Jeremy Isaacs, the panjandrum who brought the Royal Opera to its knees, is not an essential factor for a small-scale opera; his Tosca had a more compelling truth about it on the promenaders’ floor of the Albert Hall than any performed on a conventional stage, and proved that so vast a space is as adaptable to “intimacy”.

The most galling aspects of the Opera House fiasco are that not only in all matters of performance and audience accommodation does it maintain the status quo, but that it failed to take advantage of a great opportunity to advance the history of the theatre. In essence the refurbished building would at once be recognised as a belated heir to theirs by Palladio, Scamozzi, Aleotti, Inigo Jones and Jacob van Campen, the architects who late in the 16th century and early in the 17th brought theatre in from the cold and gave it the proscenium arch. This was the last great innovative period of theatre architecture and technology, when the theory and practice of dramatic lighting spread from Italy and influenced the history of painting. Angelo Ingegneri in his Della Poesia… e del modo… sceniche of 1598 maintained that lighting was of “supreme theatrical importance” and must both cast a glow over the scene and light the actors’ faces; he devised a batten with reflectors that could be adjusted, and he also prevented light from spilling into the audience, which he believed should be in darkness. In 1638 Nicola Sabbattini, designed of a theatre in Pesaro, published his Practita di fabricar scene e machine ne’ Teatri, advocating side lighting which, he observed, gave better brightness and contrast than frontal lighting and required no ugly shield to prevent penetration into the auditorium. Sabbattini was able to darken his stage almost instantaneously by lowering tin cylinders suspended on wires over every lamp. Candles were widely used as well as the simple cruse oil lamps with a floating wick; the more ingenious lamps, and more flexible in use, were glass globes with handles that could be jammed high or low into holes drilled in a board; light could be coloured by placing glass containers of red, yellow or green liquid in front of lamps, and enhanced by mirrors and burnished metal reflectors. This low technology of the early Baroque theatre still informs the higher technology of the late 20th century. We needed such men as these at Covent Garden to re-think the architecture for the theatre, to breathe new life into old opera and give fresh scope for new, for if opera is to be a living art form it must do more than echo its own history, and for that it must have new architecture, new forms and methods of production. There can be no doubt after the great Ring of last October that the music must be given primacy, and that if the performers are given a few props, the imagination of the audience can provide the most fantastic, convincing and reliable scenery. Perhaps there is a law of opera – that the greater the music the less it needs the support of the designer. Perhaps a great new opera house should be adaptable, providing both proscenium arch and open circus.

The political pressure to abandon and prevent the renewal of the perceived elitism of opera, and the financial pressure for it to be self-supporting, should have dictated the destruction of the old auditorium and the provision of seating for an audience of not less than 3,000 and possibly as many as 5,000 – if Raymond Gubbay can make a profit with an audience that size (and even the Royal Opera, vague as ever, admits to not losing money on its Albert Hall Ring), then the sweet reason of the point is proved. It really doesn’t matter a hoot how many people wander into the new reception areas of the Opera House for coffee and a sticky bun, buy souvenirs, look at the view, find stray people with whom to go to bed on wet Sunday afternoons – these may be the marvellous new facilities achieved for £214 million, but they will not make opera itself one jot or title more accessible, they will not put buttocks on seats at a price affordable to multitude of students, pensioners, families or men who dig holes in the road, and from Chris Smith down, the smug authorities who control the Royal Opera and spin its propaganda fantasies, cheat and deceive us when they say they will. In the refurbishing of the old auditorium, opera has been done a grave and irremediable disservice.

Brian Sewell is a columnist for The Evening Standard