16th October 1998

ROYAL OPERA HOUSE COVENT GARDEN

Article by Hugh Pearman from The Sunday Times Culture Section, 20th September 1998
It has cost £214m to rebuild, but is it worth it? Hugh Pearman is the first to visit, and he says yes

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The House that the jackpot built

There's a new expression you see on the faces of visitors to London at the moment - heads craning upwards, jaws dropping downwards. The tourists who come to Covent Garden for the cafes and craft stalls and clothes shops find themselves cheek by jowl with the biggest and by far the most contentious of the lottery-funded cultural rebuilding projects. And they stand and stare at it. Rightly: this one is going to be good.

It feels like Mitterrand's Paris in the 1980s. Surely, they must think, some great royal or governmental edict is taking effect? A huge new opera house, value £214m, is taking shape. The long-missing corner of the Covent Garden arcade is finally being completed as part of the process. A colossal new fly tower has shot skywards. A Victorian cast-iron glasshouse has been restored and moved alongside the familiar portico. Mysterious modernist stone-clad buildings have sprung up to fill the surrounding streetscape.

It is just possible now, picking your way through the huge clanging shipyard that the opera house project resembles, to get a feel for the place when it opens in December 1999. The wraps are starting to come off, the scale is becoming apparent. I duck in under the portico with Jeremy Dixon and Ed Jones, the architects whose firm, Dixon Jones BDP, has worked on the scheme for a soberingly long time (the original competition for the project was back in 1984). The old entrance hall and grand stair are still there, but now you have the option of stepping out off the half-landing into the enormous new foyer in the revamped conservatory made from bits of the old Floral Hall. This was previously a scenery store that has been moved and given back the barrel-vaulted roof it lost in a fire in 1956. If you come in from the other side, via a new entrance in the restored corner of the Covent Garden Piazza, you'll find yourself here, too.

The Floral Hall foyer is big enough for an entire audience to mill around with ease, but they will have other options. From here you can descend to the new 400-seat subterranean Studio Theatre, or rise up escalators behind a glass wall to the equally new, high-level amphitheatre foyer above. Those up in the "gods" used to be third-class citizens, but not any more. The amphitheatre now opens onto an open rooftop loggia, running round the corner of the piazza, that makes it, if anything, more desirable than the traditionally coveted seats down below in the stalls.

We arrive in the top of the auditorium, where protective cloths have just been removed from the familiar saucer-dome of the ceiling, now pristine again. The plaster angels are being regilded, the seating re-angled for a better view. The boxes - previously skewed towards the audience - will be turned towards the stage. This is relatively subtle stuff: everyone agrees that while E M Barry's 1858 theatre is at best a journeyman piece of classicism, it has a fine and resonant auditorium that needs the lightest of modernising touches. But elsewhere - behind, alongside, above and below Barry's sacred space - most of what you see is new, even if it doesn't seem to be.

Take the tall fly tower - raw concrete at the moment, but soon to be given a sub-Barry treatment at the insistence of the heritage lobby. Previously, there was a stumpy apology for a fly tower, so low that it severely restricted the shows that could be put on. The backstage areas, formerly cramped, are now gargantuan and can swallow entire fully assembled sets with ease. There's a whole new private fiefdom of ballet rehearsal pavilions up on the roof, one of which will double as a public performance space. Getting round all this takes a while. It is a complete arts township.

How many of the gawping tourists realise that this large and confident building complex is happening almost in spite of the managerial chaos that has engulfed the Royal Opera? Here's the rub: the new House will be able to do far more than its resident companies can now afford to attempt. It is designed to allow up to 157% more opera and ballet performances than previously in the main auditorium, plus 100 extra performances each year in the Studio Theatre. But as the world now knows, this will not happen. The ROH chairman, Sir Colin Southgate, has announced that, among much else, he must open the luxurious new House in 1999 with one-third fewer performances than were previously put on under extremely difficult circumstances in the old place. The Studio Theatre may be mothballed. For this, they have paid £214m? This paradox will no doubt exercise the mind of the executive director appointed last week, Michael Kaiser of the American Ballet Theatre.

But, chin up. London is not alone in having problems with the opera. Amsterdam had full-scale street riots over the building of its new house, which is still popularly known as the "Stopera7quot;, after the name of the campaign that tried, and failed, to halt it. Paris has had trouble learning to love the new, weakly postmodern Opéra Bastille - not least because most Parisians understandably prefer the old and glorious belle époque Opéra Garnier. But in London, in a typical and probably correct case of nostalgic British compromise, we are not abandoning the old place to build the new one - though this did not prevent a succession of planning rows and redesigns. It all culminated in a successful lottery bid for £78.5m - a third of the total - in 1995, and final planning permission in 1996.

And lo! Once money and permission were granted, the new House sprang from the ground as fast as rhubarb in Wakefield. It is on time and on budget. It is supremely ironic that this magically efficient process has taken place at the very same time that the management of the House and the organisation of its operating finances have been in a state of near-total meltdown.

Touring the House today, you realise the magnitude of the task. This is design on an industrial scale. The opera house, when finished, will be effectively a factory. It will employ up to a thousand people, manufacturing exquisite forms of performance art. The opera and ballet companies and orchestra will rehearse in new rooms on site - one of them capable of taking a full-sized set that can then glide onto the main stage. And the Royal Ballet will for the first time live there. Down below, many complete, fully assembled sets will be stored and shuffled to and fro invisibly on mechanised trolleys, like an aircraft production line. The equipment accounts for one-fifth of the entire budget.

To build the new ROH is a logistical exercise requiring military standards of forward planning and execution - which, against the odds, it has received. Dixon and Jones, as they scramble round the site, now seem almost incidental to the process they have instigated.

What gets them most excited after all these years is their modern contribution on the far side of the restored Floral Hall foyer, where the aesthetic shifts into cool 1990s modernism. "Hey, look," says Dixon with glee. "They're putting the glass in!" And they go and coo over the glass like boys with a new toy. Back in the 1980s, the pair had at least one toe in the postmodern camp, and the drawings from that period show it: but the toe has been withdrawn. Their designs have been stripped down, almost to the point of austerity, and they are the better for it. This is no simplistic modern design, however: there seem to be endless little short cuts and back doubles through the building that retain plenty of the eccentricity of the original.

The new Royal Opera House is better than all right. It shows all the signs of being very good indeed. This may be no comfort to those who want to find even more ammunition to fire at the hapless ROH board, but for the rest of us it is good news. They may be having problems with the software, but the hardware is spot-on.