Cover image for Covent Garden : the untold story : dispatches from the English culture war, 1945-2000
Covent Garden : the untold story : dispatches from the English culture war, 1945-2000
Lebrecht, Norman, 1948-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Boston : Northeastern University Press, 2001.

Physical Description:
580 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
ML1731.8.L72 C63 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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From 1732 until World War II, London's privately owned and operated Royal Opera House (ROH) at Covent Garden was reflective of the country it served -- the rich and noble enjoyed performances in the luxury of the theater and concert hall while the rest of the classes viewed the shows from the dimly-lit top gallery. In 1945, with Britain in financial crisis, its cities in ruins, and its citizens living on strict food and fuel rations, Covent Garden was reborn as a public company after economist Maynard Keynes called for state money to support an Arts Council and Royal Opera House, under his own chairmanship, that would resurrect the nation's fortunes and spirit through the preservation of English culture and performing arts. From that point on, says Norman Lebrecht, ROH, with its Royal Opera and Royal Ballet companies, purported to conduct this postwar national mission while attaching itself to the social elite, creating a recipe for disaster that finally exploded half a century later when the world-class Covent Garden was pushed to the brink of bankruptcy.

In this comprehensive and unvarnished history, Lebrecht explains the astonishing failure of an institution that was designed to define a nation. Four chief executives came and went in eighteen months, and the off-stage dramas, catastrophes, misadventures, and infighting became comic fodder for the press and Parliament. Lebrecht's illuminating account of the rise, decline, and fall of the ROH during the second half of the twentieth century is situated within the broader context of upheavals and changes in English cultural life that have eroded the very notion of "Englishness" and transformed the country from heroic poverty to heartless wealth.

With unprecedented access to private archives and key players, Lebrecht recounts an intriguing tale of special relationships between internal management and successive governments and arts councils, hidden public cash, corruption, anti-semitism, and campaigns against homosexuals. He also provides colorful details about the many celebrated performers and personalities, including Maria Callas, Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn, Georg Solti, and Kiri te Kanawa, who helped shape Covent Garden's storied traditions.

Lebrecht concludes by offering thoughts on what the future holds for this notable institution, arguing that Covent Garden should be privatized along the same lines as the Metropolitan Opera.

Author Notes

Norman Lebrecht is the author of nine books on music, including The Maestro Myth and The Companion to Twentieth-Century Music. He lives in London with his family.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

Lebrecht (The Maestro Myth and Who Killed Classical Music?), music critic for the Daily Telegraph in London, is one of the liveliest writers on music today, although occasionally he seems to enjoy whipping up a controversy or a scandal for its own sake, and cannot resist a wittily salacious line (a male ballet dancer is said to have "his privates on parade"). What he has accomplished in this account of the past 50-odd years in the life of the Royal Opera House (and its companion the Royal Ballet) is extraordinarily valuable. It is no less than a detailed scrutiny of the relationship between politics and the arts, between private patronage and state support, and of the drastically altered notions of class and taste created by a developing British social landscape. Lebrecht has been admirably thorough in digging up obscure documents, interviewing survivors from the ROH's early postwar years, and accomplishing a fly-on-the-wall act at dozens of key meetings that embroiled the successive embattled directors of the establishment (four in the past couple of years alone). The modern ROH was essentially the creation of the late George Maynard Keynes, who supported its ballet branch for the sake of his dancer wife, and who set in motion the remarkable tightrope walk between state funding and commercial enterprise on which it has teetered ever since. Lebrecht has applied a similar scrutiny to the entire postwar era and not neglected to add plenty of spicy detail about conductors, composers and divas ranging from Callas to Solti to Sutherland, from Fonteyn to Ashton, Britten to Tippet. This is a triumph of social and musical history. Pictures not seen by PW. (Oct. 26). (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Table of Contents

1 Come into the Garden, Awed The place of the Royal Opera House on the map of Englandp. 1
2 Drinks at the Bar, 6.45 (1945 European time) England at war's end: how Maynard Keynes put culture ahead of our daily breadp. 11
3 Enter the Leader (1946-47) A shopkeeper as chief executive, a bomb-shelter for chairman and a dynamo in charge of the balletp. 48
4 Overture and Beginners (1947-51) Tuning up with crabby Rankl, blooming Fonteyn and the dangerously young Peter Brookp. 87
5 First Act, Forbidden Acts (1951-59) The gay traumas of David Webster and Benjamin Britten; the blinding aura of Maria Callasp. 129
6 Short Interval: Champagne, Canapes and Nature Calls (1959-60) Earls in ermine, coups in Panama and a blood-stained frockp. 192
7 Act Two, Enter the Jew (1961-70) Georg Solti and Arnold Goodman awaken English racism and a Tatar adds sauce to the balletp. 213
8 The Long Interval: Propping Up the Crush Bar (1971-87) 'The management of decline' as practised in the Cabinet Office and Covent Gardenp. 283
9 Act Three, On a Spree (1987-96) Jeremy Isaacs presides as television turns Covent Garden into soap opera and closure loomsp. 359
10 Act Four, Where's the Door? (January to August 1997) The brief, enigmatic reign of Genista McIntoshp. 409
11 Coming Up for Eyre (September 1997 to November 1998) An official investigation, a parliamentary tribunal, and two more chief executives come and gop. 424
12 And So to Bed (December 1998 to December 1999) Michael Kaiser settles the panic and reopens the housep. 464
13 Lie Back and Think of England (2000, or 2100 European Time) What the future holds--for opera in a soundbite society, for Englishness in a multicultural universe, for the stubborn urge to create art against overwhelming oddsp. 479
Notesp. 497
Bibliographyp. 529
Indexp. 537