A longish, sometimes ill-tempered history of London’s Royal Opera House in the tumultuous, belt-tightening postwar era.
When he was a young man, English music journalist and BBC radio commentator Lebrecht (The Maestro Myth, 1992, etc.) says, his older sister took in productions of the Royal Opera two or three times a month at a cost of two-and-sixpence, or about two pounds today. Those democratic days, when, thanks to the efforts of ROH chairman and famed economist John Maynard Keynes, access to the arts was taken to be something of a civil right and a governmental duty, are long gone; ticket prices today are astronomical, thanks to extravagant productions and, more, the bloated salaries of operatic stars such as Luciano Pavarotti (who, Lebrecht writes, really got his start at the ROH, and who comes in for quite a shellacking in these pages). In a narrative populated by the likes of Rudolf Nureyev, Joan Sutherland, Margot Fonteyn, Maria Callas, and Placido Domingo (who earns high praise for his courtliness and commitment, like Keynes, to bring art to the people), Lebrecht explores how the once-mighty Royal Opera and its sister Royal Ballet were brought to their knees by a cabal of Tory privatizers, self-serving chairmen, and arts bureaucrats—as well as by changing popular tastes—transformed from purveyors of life-enriching experiences to good-life accoutrements of mobile phone–toting yuppies who made the ROH “nouveau chic” in the darkest days of Thatcherism. In later years, the ROH garnered ticket sales through the unwilling patronage of Princess Diana, who, post-Charles, attended dance performances but not operas; ticket sales fell at roughly the same time that stars began to demand bigger and bigger salaries and incidentals, casting the ROH into a fiscal crisis. Lately, it’s been recovering thanks to aggressive direction by American entrepreneur Michael Kaiser, who, in the spirit of the early directors, believes “passionately in taking the arts to the widest possible public—not as a public right, but as a public responsibility.”
Too long by half and overdetailed, but nonetheless of much interest. Especially useful reading for arts administrators and fundraisers.