HC Deb 01 July 1991 vol 194 cc12-3
27. Mr. Fraser

To ask the Minister for the Arts if he will consider funding the building of a new opera house in London.

The Minister for the Arts (Mr. Tim Renton)

London already has two large-scale opera houses and an increasing range of other places in which opera is performed. Much as I might personally welcome it, I see no need for a further opera house.

Mr. Fraser

Although one would not expect a Tory Government to emulate a French socialist President, will the Minister confirm that Covent Garden's subsidy averages about £40 per seat per performance? Nevertheless, when great stars appear at Covent Garden, few ordinary people can see their performances because of business subscriptions and the prior claim to seats that many other people have. Does the Minister agree that there is a case to be made for staging productions with world-famous stars at a much bigger auditorium, so that the benefits of subsidy can be enjoyed by a much larger number of people?

Mr. Renton

Despite the fact that the French have just built a new opera house, there are many more opera performances in London than in Paris. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is a need to present opera to a wider audience, which is why I am happy that a number of groups, such as Opera 80, Opera Factory, and Mecklenburgh Opera, perform in small theatres throughout London. The Royal Opera house has reduced the proportion of its income that is derived from subsidy from 53 per cent. five years ago to 37 per cent. now. It also plans to stage at Kenwood and in the piazza outside Covent Garden popular productions that will be seen by many thousands of people.

Mr. Dicks

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that as no one would attend the opera unless it was subsidised from the public purse, even contemplating the building of a new opera house would place another millstone around the taxpayers' neck?

Mr. Renton

I am bound to remind my hon. Friend that when the Royal Opera house stages and records "Carmen" in the open air in the piazza, there will be no direct cost to the taxpayer. I hope that my hon. Friend himself will take the opportunity to sample the delights of "Carmen".

Mr. Fisher

Most right hon. and hon. Members, although perhaps not all, will have been disappointed by the Minister's reply to the original question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser). Will the Minister consider two related points? First, English National Opera's lease on the London Coliseum expires in 1996, when it will be the only national company without a permanent home. Secondly, the London Coliseum and other great cultural buildings incur high maintenance costs. The Minister will know that the Tate, for example, has holes in its roof and needs to spend £27 million, and that the national gallery, where the new Sainsbury wing is to open tomorrow, needs £20 million spent on it. Is not that an appalling indictment of 12 years of Government incompetence and neglect? Does the Minister have a policy, and what does he intend to do about the English National Opera's lease and our great cultural buildings?

Mr. Renton

I am well aware that English National Opera's lease expires in 1996. The Arts Council, others and I are in negotiation with the owners of the lease to find out on what terms it might he continued so that ENO can continue the great run of successes that it has had at the Coliseum. As regards the wider question raised by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) Labour's arts policy on such difficult issues has the size and originality of a postage stamp. I wrote an article in Saturday's The Daily Telegraph about encouraging business sponsorship of the arts. What do I find? Most of my arguments were repeated by the hon. Gentleman in The Mail on Sunday yesterday, bringing to mind the old saying of Tom Lehrer, Plagiarise, plagiarise, let nothing evade your eyes.

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