Royal Opera, London

::"This article is about the post-1945 opera company at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. See Royal Opera House for the history of the opera house; see Covent Garden for the history of the section of London.The Royal Opera is London and the United Kingdom's most famous and most wealthy opera company, which, as the Covent Garden Opera Company, began in 1946. The company is based at the Royal Opera House, an opera house in Covent Garden, in central London.

Chief Administrators since 1945

Covent Garden Opera Company

In the immediate post-war years, the Covent Garden Opera Company (as it was originally named) planned only to present operas in English and to use the talents of British and Commonwealth singers. However, apart from Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Hans Hotter, who appeared respectively as Mimi in "La Boheme" and as Wotan in 1948, there were few internationally-known singers who were willing to learn their roles in English. Additionally, the ROH performed important works by British composers such as Benjamin Britten ("Billy Budd", December 1951 and "Gloriana", in 1953 for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II), Ralph Vaughan Williams, Arthur Bliss, and Michael Tippett.

Many English-speaking singers made their debuts in those years before about 1955, including such now-famous singers as Joan Sutherland, Jon Vickers, Michael Langdon and Geraint Evans. But, "this flowering of native talent began at a time when the principle of opera in English was slowly being disregarded" (Drogheda et al), and, as it gradually became clear that Covent Garden could not attract international talent by being an English-only company "the retreat from the vernacular, never formally promulgated or announced, provoked some grumbling among the opera-in-English lobby.." but found little opposition elsewhere. [Norman Lebrecht, "Covent Garden: The Untold Story", see below] .However, during the years under Rafael Kubelík as Music Director, a significant number of British and Commonwealth singers did emerge. These included sopranos Amy Shuard, Joan Sutherland Elsie Morrison, Marie Collier, Josephine Veasey, and Joan Carlyle; tenors Jon Vickers and Peter Pears; bass Michael Langdon and Geraint Evans. By 1958, the present theatre's centenary, with the success of a major international production by Luchino Visconti of Verdi's "Don Carlo", with singers of the quality of Tito Gobbi, Boris Christoff, Fedora Barbieri, and with Carlo Maria Giulini as conductor, the house was firmly established internationally. Maria Callas had appeared prior to this time, but was seen again in 1957 in "La traviata", in 1959 in "Medea", and in 1964 and 1965 in "Tosca". Sutherland went on to world fame, as did Vickers and Evans.

When Georg Solti became music director in 1961 he claimed to know nothing about the original aims of the company and, in an interview in "Opera" magazine, stated that Sadler's Wells (now the ENO) has obviously taken over the task of being the national opera company and fulfills it with very great success". [Rosenthal, see below]

Between 1963 and 1978, the opera company operated the London Opera Centre, located in the East End of London, as a school for new and up-coming singers and for stagecraft. It was also used as a rehearsal space and scenery storage facility.

Popularity of Covent Garden performances

From the 1950s, it was common for long queues to form for opera tickets. The management eventually instituted a "queue ticket" system whereby, for each of the season's 8-week (or so) periods, patrons could queue up until 8 am on the morning at which tickets would go on sale after 10 am. For scheduled appearances by popular artists (e.g. Maria Callas in 1959 and 1964), these queues often formed days in advance of the box office opening. The "queue ticket" which was issued was timed for a specific hour of the day. During that time-period patrons could return to actually buy their performance tickets.

A straight subscription ticket system as is practised in the US was never instituted at Covent Garden, although various priority ticket arrangements have been put into place over the years, including the concept of Subscription Vouchers in the late 1960s and into the 1970s. Currently, members of the "Friends of Covent Garden", who pay an annual membership fee, are able to receive priority booking preference.

The Royal Opera

In October 1968, the Queen granted the company the right to be called "The Royal Opera" which, "was a fitting tribute to a company which, from modest beginnings in 1947, had in the course of two decades achieved international status and acclaim". [John Tooley, see below]

It is the only British opera company which regularly features the world's most famous opera singers. It performs operas in their original language and relies on guest artists to play the principal roles in all performances, in contrast to the other permanent opera company in London, the English National Opera, which performs in English and has contracted singers.

The Royal Opera shares the "Orchestra of the Royal Opera House", which is a permanent orchestra of full symphony orchestra size, with the Royal Ballet. It has its own permanent chorus with over forty five singers: the Royal Opera Chorus. A third group of musicians on salary are the members of the "Jette Parker Young Artists Programme", who receive advanced professional training. They are not students as the term is usually understood, as most of them have performed professionally at opera houses of some standing previously, but the programme is intended to accelerate their careers by gaining experience at one of the world's leading opera companies. The programme lasts for two years, with a new intake each summer. Most of the "Young Artists" are singers, but they also include conductors, répétiteurs and stage directors.

Management, funding and politics

While essentially maintaining its pre-eminence in British operatic life, the Royal Opera has undergone a series of ups and downs over the succeeding thirty years. Its financial future was constantly in the balance, especially in the darker economic days of the 1970s and parts of the 1980s; it constantly faces the issue of artistic standards and performance quality; and it forever faces the issues of accessibility of segments of the public in the face of rising ticket prices. Lebrecht's book [Norman Lebrecht, "op. cit."] is a commentary on the vicissitudes suffered by the company since 1945, especially in relating it to the changing cultural and public funding climate of those years.

As the list of General or Executive Directors above shows, the management upheavals of the post-John Tooley era (coinciding with much of the planning for and re-construction of the Royal Opera House, which remained closed between July 1997 and December 1999) had their toll on the operations of the Royal Opera.

After a revealing TV fly-on-the-wall documentary, "The House", which coincided with the run-up to the rebuilding (and closure) of the Opera House during Jeremy Isaacs' tenure as general director, it was evident that much effort was required to revitalize the finances and prospects of the Opera House. Isaacs resigned a year early, protesting a lack of subsidy, although he had helped to raise much of the funding needed for the major refurbishment that took place. This eventually cost £216 million including £78.5 million National Lottery money. A plan to find a temporary opera house during the period of closure never happened, and the pre-closure box office receipts proved disappointing.

Genista McIntosh, his successor, found the job too stressful and also resigned after five months in 1997, creating a challenge for the new Labour Culture Secretary, Chris Smith. Following a meeting with Lord Chadlington, the Chairman, Smith agreed that Mary Allen, then Secretary General of the Arts Council of England, should take over. She did so briefly, but her appointment was controversial (and broke the Arts Council's own guidelines). She resigned in March 1998, after a critical House of Commons Select Committee report ["Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport"] into the mismanagement of funds over the previous years. This triggered a complete clearing out of the Board, including its Chairman.

Allen, who as Secretary General of the Arts Council of England had a leading role in authorizing the Opera House's regular funding agreement and approving the National Lottery grant, has recorded her perspectives ["A House Divided", see below] on the events and personalities involved.

Lord Chadlington was succeeded as Chairman by Sir Colin Southgate who, with a new General Director , the American , Michael Kaiser, managed to bring the house back from a financial brink and saw the refurbished house opened. Kaiser left to direct the Kennedy Center in Washington DC (and who, revealingly, made clear that he was not interested in taking over the same post at the Met in New York when it became vacant in 2006).

However, the Floral Hall's conversion to use as a magnificent dining and drinking space pre-theatre and during intervals, combined with the construction of additional (more affordable) seating at the back of the old amphitheatre, has helped to attract new and younger audiences.

After years of disruption and personality conflicts, the arrival of a young new British Music Director, Antonio Pappano, preceded by a new chief executive in May 2001, Tony Hall (formerly of the BBC) has widened the attractions of the company's productions and pulled in new talent that keeps the house full almost all the time.

However, full houses are not enough to keep the House going. Funding remains an issue in a country which is only gradually learning how to attract the private sponsorship for opera that its elite image makes essential to its support (despite the huge allocation of public funds amounting to £25 million per year as of 2006). The re-involvement of key fund-raisers such as Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover and Dame Vivien Duffield has proved central to this endeavour. The failure of Alberto Vilar to pay money he pledged to the Royal Opera House has resulted in the removal of his name both from the Young Artists' programme and from the Floral Hall, for which he had obtained naming rights.

In recent years, the management has been innovative in a variety of ways: the provision of large-screen relays of live performances - not only to the public in the Covent Garden Market area - but also to other parts of the country, seems to have proved a success. With the stability provided by the current incumbents after 2001/2002, along with their artistic successes, the Royal Opera is widely thought to be regaining its place as Britain's premier company.

In November 2002, Music Theatre Wales, a touring contemporary opera company, based in Cardiff, UK, became the first Associate Company of the Royal Opera House.


Further reading

* Allen, Mary, "A House Divided", Simon & Schuster, 1998
* Donaldson, Frances, "The Royal Opera House in the Twentieth Century", Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1988.
* Haltrecht, Montague,"The Quiet Showman: Sir David Webster and the Royal Opera House", Collins, London, 1975.
* Lebrecht, Norman, "Covent Garden: The Untold Story: Dispatches from the English Culture War, 1945-2000", Northeastern University Press, 2001.
* Moss, Kate, "The House: Inside the Royal Opera House Covent Garden", BBC Books, London, 1995.
* Rosenthal, Harold, "Opera at Covent Garden, A Short History", Victor Gollancz, London, 1967.
* Tooley, John, "In House: Covent Garden, Fifty Years of Opera and Ballet", Faber and Faber, London, 1999.
* Thubron, Colin (text) and Boursnell, Clive (photos), "The Royal Opera House Covent Garden", Hamish Hamilton, London, 1982.

External links

* [ The Royal Opera]
* [ Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport's 1998 Report on funding and management issues at the Royal Opera House]

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