Can he see off the gremlins?
Disaster has dogged the new Royal Opera House. But closure is not an option, says boss Michael Kaiser. Norman Lebrecht reports
LET’S face it: nothing works. The London Eye is glazed over, the Jubilee Line to the Dome keeps stalling and the Royal Opera House can hardly raise a curtain without having to make an apology.
So far, the great British public have displayed high forbearance and the spirit of the Blitz. Many are aware that any new theatre crawls with ghosts and gremlins. It took a dozen years to get all systems working at the National Theatre. The Bastille Opera in Paris had to close for technical tweaks within weeks. At the Sydney Opera House, they are still tinkering after quarter of a century with cramped interiors and a muggy acoustic.
Covent Garden, however, was under pressure to perform perfectly from the first downbeat. After a 30-month comic opera of closure and cock-ups, reopening was meant to signal a return to confidence, efficiency and openness. Eight weeks on, the complaints are mounting, the ministry is meddling and whispers of closure are wafting once again.
Twelve opera performances have been cancelled, including Ligeti’s razzle-dazzle Grand Macabre and a schools matinée of Birtwistle’s Gawain that left teachers and pupils bewailing the waste of curricular preparation. A ballet triple-bill was abandoned midway last Thursday night when the sets would not budge. In Nutcracker, the Christmas tree failed to materialise and in Gawain the audience were kept waiting 40 minutes for a trap door to open. Many left during the delays to catch the last train home. There was not much by way of regret or compensation, no offer of drinks on the house.
The public address system is strident and hectoring, a cross between Radio Tirana and 1984. The public attendants are often no friendlier. Ticket-holders to the Linbury Studio Theatre have been physically barred from mingling with main-house audiences. Getting a drink or a coffee in the Floral Hall requires persistence and ingenuity. Getting your coat can take half an hour.
The box office is often chaotic. Getting through by phone can take all morning. Picking up your tickets can be even more frustrating. If the desk clerk cannot find them immediately, there is no supervisor on patrol and panic ensues. Many who bought top-price stalls seats found themselves tucked away behind a pillar or brass-rail. Refunds are slow to arrive.
Interior-design oversights have added to the general irritation. There are no hooks in the men’s toilets, so jackets are dumped on the floor. In the ladies, I’m told, the vanity mirrors are set back so far from the sinks that a girl can dislocate a hip while fixing her face.
An elderly friend of modest means who has attended regularly since 1947 says he no longer feels welcome: “They don’t greet you nicely; the Floral Hall is like a shopping arcade; the atmosphere is gone.”
The Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, has anonymously intimated that he does not want to see the “same old faces” in the stalls and expects further price cuts to attract “a better social mix”.
Every arts page has been inundated with reactions to the new ROH, many of them blistering – and that does not include comments on the dire opening gala and the Teletubby set for Verdi’s Falstaff. There is a growing consensus that the house is not fulfilling its patrons’ expectations.
None of this comes as a surprise to Michael Kaiser, the chief executive, whose mailbag is probably heavier than mine. Kaiser has remained courteous and cheerful throughout, never raising his voice in the face of intractable obstacles. All options, he insists, are open – except closure. “All along we have evaluated whether we can get shows on safely and efficiently,” says Kaiser. “So long as we can do that, we stay open. The only point at which we might consider closing is if we felt there was no way to solve the problem unless we stopped putting on shows.”
The problem around which all else revolves is the software that drives the wagons that carry scenery on to and off the stage. For some reason, the wagons are ignoring computer commands. “It has been a very steep learning curve,” says Kaiser, “and it’s a question of the software contractors fixing the glitch. At the moment, they are baffled.”
To take down one set and replace it with another ought to take an hour. At Covent Garden they are allowing five hours, and that is often inadequate. Each delay steals time from the next rehearsal, enforcing cancellations.
“It’s very scary,” says Kaiser.
He is negotiating with the backstage union, Bectu, to allow all-night working on a series of wagon tests, but this will prove costly. Losses already sustained have reached £350,000. There is a contingency budget for one million. Should the needle touch that figure, all hell will break loose.
Kaiser insists that most of the problems have occurred on first nights and were resolved during later performances. The tree in Nutcracker was stymied by an over-sensitive safety mechanism. The trap door in Gawain “could have happened to anyone – a cable snapped”.
Extra staff have now been hired for the cloakroom, and adjustments are being made to the Floral Hall to provide better bars. Kaiser blames box-office log-jams on intense demand and sudden flu. Sales for Nutcracker and Falstaff reached 95 per cent. He is looking at the pricing of each and every seat in the house and has received many letters from disabled patrons, delighted with improved access.
The stentorian announcement system, he says, is temporary – it will be replaced next week. Communications and security faults led to the unfortunate segregation of Linbury audiences; this is about to be remedied.
Kaiser, who spends day and night in the house, sometimes pushing wagons himself, refuses to be downhearted. “The demand is huge,” he says, “and I get many letters saying how wonderful the house is.”
What he needs is for a software geek at the computer firm to jump out of his bath this morning shouting “Eureka!”. But even an instant brainwave may not fully repair the loss in glamour and credibility that Covent Garden has suffered.
Questions must be asked about the absence of manual back-ups for the computer system. Lack of training in other areas has caused unnecessary public distress.
The stodginess of the opening programmes, allied to the solemnity that the BBC reserves for mock state occasions, propagated an impression that going to opera and ballet is somehow a public duty rather than a private delight. You enter the theatre with a note of wariness, marshalled by stony-faced ushers and unable to suspend disbelief when you are half-expecting a wagon failure. “I don’t foresee further cancellations,” says Kaiser, “but if the stage doesn’t start working then we will have problems.”
It will take half a season for Covent Garden to erase the mishaps and start making magic – and that is a factor that must concern Kaiser and his ineffectual, disunited board. The ROH is running out of goodwill. Another couple of breakdowns will drain the reservoir of support and reopen the floodgates of contumely.
Senior insiders say it may take until summer to put things right. Sour leaks are rising from union activists and board members. If the next two productions don’t fire on all cylinders, it may prove to be in Covent Garden’s best interest to close down until it can guarantee full performance.