20 SEPTEMBER 1963, Page 16

The Arts

Everything in the Garden


COVENT GARDEN OPERA HOUSE, music's vegetable love, stands on an island surrounded on three sides by squashed cabbages and on the fourth by a police court. For three or four thousand people— singers, dancers, orchestral players, directors, programme-sellers, link- men, stage-doormen and many others, including its journalists and that tiny, essential nucleus of its regular audience—this large, faded building, now encrusted with scaffolding, is a sort of home. For the rest of the country it is either a status-symbol, a convenience, or (overwhelmingly most likely) a nothingness, a thing perhaps at most glanced at in the papers. For Covent Garden is the most publicised theatre in the country, perhaps in the world. Over the year, at least two or three times a week, the press pays homage to its importance by letting a largely indifferent nation know how Miss X fared as Aida, or conveying the stirring news of Miss Y as Odette/Odile. Occasionally a Gala Performance captures the Royals stiff in glossy photographs, or a personality-kid, a Callas or a Nureyev, whirls Covent Garden, protesting like an innocent bride, through the news pages and the sillier reaches of the gossip columns. The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, is— and one must be quoting—part of the fabric of our national life. Citadel of national culture, tourist-trap, mausoleum and laboratory, Covent Garden looks four-square at the world. It was not always so.

The present theatre is the third to stand on the site. The first was built by John Rich, and like its successor was burnt down by fire. The existing building, designed by Charles Barry, opened its doors in 1858 with an interminably long performance of Meyerbeer's Les Hugue- nots, in which Mario and Grisi sang on long past most of the audience's bedtime. Since then Covent Garden has had Golden Ages and Silver Ages and Silver-Gilt Ages, and singers have never been what they were. Covent Garden played its part in The Season (coming either just before Cowes or after) with a prehistoric Glyndebourne audience paying through the nose and blocking up its ears, sitting in a horseshoe of horse-boxes, tiaras a-twinkle, white shirts gleaming and the tenor of the moment bellow- ing—often, it seems, more sweetly than ever before or since. Then August came for the people, September came for the war and in 1939 (while the soon-fading posters announced Markova and Danilova and Riabouchinska and Toumanova and all those other De Basil lovelies) the shutters went up and the theatre died. While opera houses all over the world were doing their best .to keep the troops happy, Covent Garden inimitably did its Own bit by becoming a dance hall.

The ground landlords, Covent Garden Proper- ties, let it be known early in 1944 that on the expiry of the then existing lease they were pre- pared to grant a new lease to permit Covent Garden to be used once more as a home for ballet and opera. The music publishers, Boosey and Hawkes, immediately jumped in and secured

a five-year lease. They then formed an autonomous body, the Covent Garden Opera Trust, which was to work in close association with the Arts Council of Great Britain, and appointed a General Administrator to be responsible for giving effect to the Trust's policy. The first Chairman of the Trust was Lord Keynes and the General Administrator was David Webster. The Trust was officially not 'created until February, 1946, but prior to this it had been pre- ceded by a consultative body, the Covent Garden Committee, nine of whose members, including Lord Keynes, became Trustees, together with five others, drawn from outside.

The policy was opera for the English, in the English and now and again even by the English. As for the ballet, that was to lose its `Rooshun' accent, and a British national ballet company was to be founded. As a necessary condition to the formation of these companies, the Opera House was to operate on an all-the-year-round basis, and the opera and ballet were also to tour the provinces and overseas. For the ballet company the Covent' Garden Trust did not have to search far. During the war, against all prob- ability, the Sadler's Wells Ballet had become in effect, if not name, the national ballet. With the naturally reluctant, but generous, agreement of the Governors of the Sadler's Wells Theatre, the Sadler's Wells Ballet left' its Finsbury home and moved into Covent Garden.

The sheer nerve of this operation now leaves one gasping. The Sadler's Wells Ballet, ex- hausted by the demands of the war, was in no condition to take over at Covent Garden. Dame Ninette de Valois summoned together what she has called her 'bedraggled, war-weary company,' and the plunge was taken. Hesitation would have been fatal. The Sadler's Wells Ballet had reached its popularity crest partly through the war-time absence of any glamorous opposition. In a matter of months foreign companies, complete with by then legendary pre-war stars, would be challeng- ing their supremacy. De Valois had to get her claim in first. On February 20, 1946, the Sadler's Wells Ballet opened at the Royal Opera House with a sumptuous, if inadequately danced, ver- sion of The Sleeping Beauty. It was a triumph; the opera house had been occupied and all the company had to do then was to grow to fill it.

Opera Was another story. Once the Trust had decided not to accept the Sadler's Wells. Opera lock, stock and barrel (a wise decision, for it had recently been riven with internal dissension), the problem of forming a brand-new opera com- pany was left looming gigantic on their agenda papers. Ten years later the operatic policy was officially described as an intention to 'train a native company that would base its work on a repertory of foreign opera in translation in the hope that if it succeeded in establishing a genuine national style of operatic representa- tion, it would attract native composers and librettists to write for it. In this way a corpus of English works might be gradually built up that would show that this country had an im- portant contribution of its own to make to the international repertory.' Brave words, and the first step the Trust took towards their fulfilment was the appointment of the Austrian-born Dr.

Karl Rankl, a forty-eight-year-old former student of Schoenberg, who had been resident in this country since 1939.

During the summer of 1946 Rankl and his embryo music staff travelled up and down England, Scotland and Wales holding auditions. On December 12 that year the company made its first bow at Covent Garden, appearing with the ballet in Constant Lambert's adaptation of Purcell's The Fairy Queen. There is no doubt that the production was intended to stand as a symbol. The original preface to the work (written in 1692) might well have been in the minds of the Trustees. At least one hqpes so, as it seems so remarkably apposite: 'That a few private Persons should venture on so expensive a Work as an Opera, when none but Princes, or States, exhibit 'em abroad, I hope is no Dis- honour to our Nation: and I dare affirm if we had half the Encouragement in England, that they have in other Countries, you might in a short time have as good Dancers in England as they have in France, though I despair of ever having as good Voices among us, as they have in Italy.' This was the hope and this was the problem.

Just how much of a problem became apparent when the opera company made its solo debut on January 14, 1947, with Carmen. The more expensive parts of the house were frigidly polite, but the gallery grew more and more restive as the evening proceeded. At the final curtain calls they showed displeasure by loudly booing, en- gulfing any sporadic counter-cheers

The ballet prospered, and in a short time we did, prophetic words, have 'as good Dancers in England as they have in France,' and indeed we were soon taking on the more formidable competition of the United States and Russia. De Valois and Ashton (luckily a choreographer born to live at Covent Garden) reshaped the repertory, and the dancers, first in ones and twos, started to emerge. In 1948 de Valois, still gloriously unprepared but game for anything, invaded New York, and achieved a shattering victory. This, and the company's equally vic- torious European tours, made the' Sadler's Wells Ballet the most internationally acclaimed in the world—and for nearly a decade they remained virtually unchallenged at the top of the heap, until at long last the Soviet companies trundled out of hiding, the Royal Danes started a few international forays and the Americans them- selves finally got their own ballet house in order. But by then the 'fabulous' Sadler's Wells ' (as their astute American impresario, Sol Horuk, dubbed them) had become well and truly estab- lished, and it seemed a natural development when in 1956 they received a Royal Charter and be- came the Royal Ballet.

by Salvador Dali. This possibly still ranks as the most disastrous operatic production post- war Britain has seen—clumsy, ludicrously pre- tentious, and in total opposition to the opera itself. When Brook resigned in February, 1950, few opera-goers could regret his passing.

Meanwhile, the 'buy-English' policy towards singers was slowly being amended. For the com- pany's second season the Italian baritone Paoli Silveri and the German soprano Elizabeth Schwarzkopf were engaged—but they sang in English. The opera was still a poor relation to the ballet, but its prestige was increasing, and so were its audiences. In 1947 it played to 68.5 per cent capacity, but this rose steadily to 74.5 per cent (1948), 82.5 per cent (1949) and 83.9 per cent (1950). Rankl did a very fine job, particu- larly in his Wagnerian productions. Thirty operas were produced during his regime, yet he was not always popular with audiences, and after the 1951 `Festival of Britain' season he resigned. The groundwork he put in has proved remarkably substantial.

From then on the story of Covent Garden's Opera has been one of continual rise. After Rankl's departure, the post of musical director was not filled for four years, but many guest conductors were associated with the house, notably Erich Kleiber, who introduced Wozzeck into the repertory in 1952. This production was a landmark in the history of the company. By. now the pattern of the opera was changing. Callas and other star-names came, often at special prices and often with vast success. From 1955 to 1958 Rafael Kubelik was the Musical Director and during his regime and in the interregnum before the appointment of Georg Solti in 1961, there was a tendency for more and more operas to be sung in their original language. Over the years the Covent Garden Opera has changed direction from .a national opera to a kind of international company, much more like that of the Metropolitan Opera House, New York.

Who runs Covent Garden? When the original five-year lease Boosey and Hawkes had from Covent Garden Properties expired in 1949, the Ministry of Works negotiated a new forty-two- year lease of the property, which they sub-let to the non-profit-distributing company, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Limited. This com- pany was incorporated on April 1, 1950, taking over its functions from the Covent Garden Opera Trust. Its first Chairman was Lord Waverley, who had also been Chairman of the Trust since the death of Lord Keynes in 1946. Waverley himself died in 1958, when the chair- manship passed to Lord Drogheda, chosen partly for his swashbuckling business acumen.

Apart from Lord Drogheda, there are ten directors. The chairman is elected every five years, and two directors retire each year, although they are eligible for re-election after a nominal lapse of time. The Board holds monthly meetings, where they are joined by Sir David Webster (the General Administrator), John Tooley (the Assistant General Ad- ministrator), John Denison (Arts Council representa- tive), Sir Frederick Ashton and Georg Solti. There are also four special committees also meeting once a month, adding to the Byzantine complexities of the organisa- tion: the Finance Committee (Chairman, Lord Robbins), the Opera Committee (Chair- man, Sir Isaiah Berlin), the Ballet Committee (Chairman, Mark Bonham Carter) and the recently formed Design Committee (Chairman, Sir Colin Anderson). Among this hive of committees, there can be little doubt that finance has the strongest voice.

How much actual power the board and the committees have is difficult to ascertain. On ad- ministrative matters the influence of the directors is obviously large, but on artistic matters, one presumes, far less. These are much more in the control of Webster, Ashton (who this season suc- ceeds de Valois as Director of the Royal Ballet) and Solti, together with their advisers. However, Lord Drogheda has proved a much more lively Chairman of the Board than Lord Waverley, and it may be that he, too, has a large say in the final artistic policy.

Unduly sensitive even to mildly adverse press criticism—the Royal Ballet has a tradition dating back to Sadler's Wells of regarding anything less than a eulogy as treason—the opera company seems to have developed a similar area of sen- sitivity, making it seem strangely insecure in its dealings with the outside world. (One might add that the British critical press, as some visiting companies have found to their pained surprise, is probably the least inhibited in the world.) The reasons for this insecurity may well be linked with the organisation's comparative poverty. Covent Garden is, by the standards of its peers, a poor opera house, trying always to make ten shillings do the work of a pound, and is naturally distressed when told it hasn't.

Ever since 1946 the Arts Council subsidy to Covent Garden has been going up and up. But so has the cost of living, and so have the stan- dards expected of Covent Garden. For years the company's finances have been assisted by the profits made by the Royal Ballet's overseas tours, and the Opera House has been ruthless in flogging the ballet's commercial possibilities. One de-

plores this, yet to an, extent one sympathises.

There is a strong feeling in ballet circles (both inside and outside the company) that ballet does not get its fair share of the money available. This is a disputable point (what is fair?) and has in fact always been hotly disputed by Covent Garden itself. Certainly Dame Ninette de Valois has never publicly complained.

At first the Arts Council grant was a fairly arbitrary figure, but later it was based on a set formula. The penultimate formula, in force until the financial year ending March 31, 1962, was 43 per cent of actual 'allowed' costs up to a maximum subvention of £500,000. A new formula is now in force (and its agreement must be reckoned a diplomatic triumph for Lord Drogheda, Webster and, perhaps particularly, Robbins) whereby the current grant is based upon a percentage of 'reckonable' receipts during the preceding financial year. The present formula sets this as 17s. 6d. subsidy for each pound taken, with no subvention ceiling placed upon it.

Financially this puts Covent Garden in a much stronger position. For example, the touring sec- tion of the Royal Ballet, which, although pleasing the Arts Council (anxious to see Covent Garden doing something for the provinces, even if it's only giving them Swan Lake), was financially something of a drain, now becomes a quite `profitable' undertaking. But the danger of the new formula is equally evident, in that it tends to encourage a 'safety-first' policy and to stifle enterprise. It places much the same box-office pressures on the organisation that one would expect to find in a purely commercial venture.

It is perhaps this unfortunate element of `commercialisation' that leads to many of the most frequently voiced criticisms of Covent

Garden. The opera reper- tory is unadventurous when

compared with the reper-

tory of Sadler's Wells. Moreover, the stagione

system (by which an opera is usually kept in the repertory for only a part of the season and sung by a largely invariable cast) which has been favoured by Solti, while it has some- thing to recommend it musically, leads to a certain sameness. During the first eight weeks of the present season there

are to be given four performances of Glitter- darnmerung, six of La Boheme, four of Lohengrin, five of The Carmelites, four of Khovanshchina and one of Madame Butterfly. This is not very well balanced, and is paralleled

cn the ballet side by a surfeit of nineteenth-

century classics. The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, Giselle, Coppelia and, more recently, La Fille Mal Gard& have been given so frequently that the Royal Ballet could probably dance them in their sleep.

Of more lasting importance than this perhaps are the major drifts of policy over the years. The opera company started by attempting to build an operatic tradition in this country, but now it seems to have relinquished this task to Sadler's Wells and, to be fair, its own ward of court, the English Opera Group. The cause of opera in English (officially supported by Solti) has fared badly in recent years, and the encouragement of new British operas has not been remarkable. Undoubtedly the public has indicated that what it likes best is, say, Callas or Sutherland in La Traviata, but always to give the public what it wants is not necessarily the best way of build- ing—what was that phrase?—`a corpus of English works that would show that this country had an important contribution of its own to make to the international repertory.' And as for 'estab- lishing a genuine national style of operatic repre- sentation,' it does look as though Colin Davis and Glen Byam Shaw at Sadler's Wells are mov- ing towards that praiseworthy end with much more confidence.

The vexed question of opera in English is naturally difficult to answer, In Music and Musicians a year ago, Solti suggested : 'The most important task ahead of us is to build up a first- class English company at Covent Garden so that we can do the operas we want in English. Then we could give all the comic operas and all the Slav operas in English, leaving ourselves free to put on any other opera in the original lan- guage if we felt it was desirable in any par- ticular case to do so.' However, as Harold Rosenthal has been pointing out in Opera re- cently, we really seem no closer to an English ensemble, while 'star-studded casts and guest artists now seem to be the accepted thing.'

On the ballet side there has during the past season been a series of artistic blunders, cul- minating in the final solecism of reviving a disastrous ballet, Le Bal des Volcurs, which no one in the organisation had actually seen (or presumably examined either existing scenario, score or design), and then having to withdraw it, without so much as an apology, before the com- pletion of its scheduled performances. Such events, and, for example, the freedom apparently allowed Rudolph Nureyev to ride roughshod over the company's classical productions, are disastrous. Even, more disturbing is Covent Garden's lamentable failure to provide proper channels for the Royal. Ballet to do the experi- mental work without which it will eventually atrophy and die.

What is interesting is whether Covent Garden has succeeded in extending the ballet and opera audience. Its increasing reliance on the star system has served to give it a more fashionable audience than it had immediately after the war, but one idly wonders if it has a more intelligent audience. High prices and a conservative reper- tory seem to press down heavily on the audience, which appears to be getting richer and duller season by season. Yet let me at once admit that I am being harsh on Covent Garden. Many of these mis- takes (not all, by a very long chalk) are a direct concomitant of insufficient money to do its job completely. Drogheda has already asked for the 17s. 6d. formula to be replaced by a £1 subsidy for £1 receipts, saying that this might provide the 'elbow-room for experiment.' This could help, but what could help even more is proper sub- sidy, generous enough to keep Covent Garden and its three companies (two ballet and one opera) up to international standards and yet free of any strings. And the tightest strings of all are the strangling demands of the box-office.