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Covent Garden: The Untold Story by Norman Lebrecht
Simon & Schuster, £25.00 ISBN: 0684851431
Amazon UK   £16  


Norman Lebrecht's new book, his first for four years, is a trenchant and uncompromising study of post-war Covent Garden. But, I wonder, did the book start out as something entirely different? Subtitled 'Dispatches from the English Culture War 1945-2000' it aims for a broader focus - no less than a study of the fruitless struggle to turn Britain into a cultural powerhouse. It is a deceitful title for the book barely touches on the detail of Britain's degenerating post-war cultural life at all. Mention is made of struggling orchestras, the Cinderella existence of ballet companies and the bizarre role that ENO plays in this unravelling puzzle but Covent Garden is firmly at the epicentre of Lebrecht's story.

Despite this, or maybe because of it, this is a completely riveting book and one of the most damning studies of a cultural institution you could ever imagine reading. The sense of paralysis it describes is quite breathtaking. Lebrecht's publishers will doubtless sell many copies of a book that for the first time puts into focus the labyrinthine and internecine struggles that have bedevilled Covent Garden since it became a publicly funded institution in 1945. Many, however, not least the litany of characters who litter the pages of Lebrecht's compelling narrative, may wish it had remained unwritten. Few emerge with any credit and even governments are subjected to Lebrecht's scalpel-sharp analysis. This is, quite simply, a story of failure on a monumental scale. It is a very British affair.

Were it just an unknown question of failure one could overlook much, but it is the reasons for that failure that Lebrecht so magically describes. One of the most astonishing things is the degree of nepotism that thrived, and continues to thrive, in WC2. It has probably had as much as an impact on Covent Garden's inability to prosper as the constant suggestions of indecision which seems to have accompanied every board meeting. Long before Mary Allen's own controversial appointment there existed an even more nepotistic relationship between the Arts Council, the provider of funds, and Covent Garden, its largest client. In 1953, Kenneth Clarke, then Chairman of the Arts Council, discovered an odd arrangement. Douglas Peter Lund, it emerged, was not only the chief accountant and company secretary of the Arts Council he also held the same posts at Covent Garden. It was literally a case of him working at one place in the morning and walking off to the second after lunch. It is possible to read between the lines of Lebrecht's frequent remarks about this unhealthy relationship and see why in the 1990s ENO was awarded a £10million grant by the Arts Council for reconstruction and Covent Garden got nothing.

Where the book is classically Lebrechtian is in his depiction of this story's memorable characters. Vivien Duffield is waspish, and prone to shouting matches with anyone who questioned her authority, the Earl of Drogheda is a persistent note-taker (he would sit during performances with a torch taking notes of things that had gone wrong) and an insufferable snob, and Lord Chadlington is a man of such wisdom he advised John Major to depict Tony Blair (a committed Christian) during the 1997 election campaign as the Devil. Lebrecht writes that on 2 July 1991, at the memorial service for Margot Fontaine, Ninette de Valois 'gave the first dull speech of her long life'. 'The age of oratory is over', Lebrecht writes, and 'Madam now lived in a sheltered flat beside the river at Barnes'.

The book points out some superb ironies, intended or not. The most celebrated must be the perception of John Maynard Keynes' vision of founding a state subsidised opera house under a Labour government (Attlee's) only to see it fifty years later become a bastion for privilege and snobbery. We are told that Bernard Haitink does not believe in charging people to hear music, and yet under his music directorship Covent Garden seat prices escalated to over £200 each for Domingo's concerts. Haitink himself was mortified by such obscene prices but had no control over the matter. The most treasurable irony (revealed by Lebrecht for the first time) must surely be the case of the MP Shaun Woodward who in 1997 donated, through his trust, £1million thus staving off Covent Garden's impending bankruptcy. He now sits on the same backbench as the man who did more than anyone else to push Covent Garden towards insolvency - Gerald Kaufman. Lebrecht more than hints that Kaufman's antipathy towards the Royal Opera House was a very personal one derived, partly, from its overt snobbishness. In the Spectator, Kaufman had written, '…most aggravating of all, there were all those people who did not give a damn about opera, who chatted to each other during the performances…or fanned themselves with their bulkily expensive programmes'. The fact that he could never get served at the Crush Bar must surely be incidental.

Lebrecht begins Chapter 10 by stating that in 1997 'Britain was on the brink of seismic upheaval'. New Labour, it appeared, promised a great deal for the arts - but it came with conditions attached. For many at Covent Garden they were unpalatable conditions. Blair himself, almost the antithesis of an art-loving politician, had his own embarrassments. Dining one evening at the Ivy he was accosted by Harrison Birtwistle who, in a loud voice, condemned New Labour's policy on the arts. To John Tusa he said, 'We're getting it wrong aren't we? Is it a question of money?'

This is perhaps the summary point of Lebrecht's book - that, yes, it is a case of neglect. From once being lavishly funded at a time of national food shortages, Covent Garden had narrowly averted bankruptcy caused, partly, by progressive and persistent underfunding. Lebrecht correctly points out that successive reviews - by Priestley, Warnock, Stevenson and Eyre - only fudged the issue. The Government, any Government, it seemed was just as incapable of decision making as the board of the Royal Opera House. Whether Covent Garden will get the funding it needs to maintain a stable footing is, as yet, an unanswered question.

Lebrecht's book, however, answers that question more persuasively than a thousand committee meetings or Government reviews possibly could. In describing so memorably one of the most spectacular of post-war failures Lebrecht has done the arts an inestimable service. It should be required reading for all government ministers.

Marc Bridle

Covent Garden by Norman Lebrecht is published by Simon & Schuster on 18 September priced £25.00  or Amazon UK   £16  

See Norman Lebrecht in Interview with Marc Bridle

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