BOOKS - THE HOUSE THAT JEREMY BUILT - Never Mind the Moon, Jeremy Isaacs, Bantam Press £20. After reading this fascinating book, critics of Jeremy Isaacs may well find themselves reviewing their opinion of him, says Colin Tweedy.
When Jeremy Isaacs was appointed general director of the Royal Opera House, the composer Alexander Goehr told him: 'It is impossible, you know.
You'll never achieve anything here.' After reading Isaacs' personal account of his time at The Royal Opera House - Never Mind the Moon - I do not agree.
After the endless attacks that the Royal Opera House in general and Isaacs in particular have endured over the past few years I expected Isaacs' book to be both defensive and unconvincing. But I found it to be an important record of an end of an era, written with passion and conviction. It is, as Isaacs says, very much a personal testimony, not an official history.
I had thought the news that Isaacs was to succeed John Tooley curious, made more bizarre by the fact that the Opera House's board held the job open for him while he was being considered as director-general of the BBC. I have always believed that the crowning achievement of his career was as the founding chief executive of Channel 4. However, Never Mind the Moon shows that Isaacs clearly takes a different view. His love of opera in particular and the arts in general, was a driving passion from his Glasgow school days. But at times I feel Isaacs' enthusiasm gets the better of him, and he rattles off names of singers and dancers a little too obsessively.
The book, for opera and ballet fans, is a good read, well written in Isaacs' characteristically ebullient style, telling the story of life behind the red-and-gold curtains, with its drama queens, divas and deadlines.
But it also reveals the near-impossible balancing act of managing one of the world's most important theatres. Isaacs sums up the dilemma well: 'Management's role is to say 'no' to excess at all times. Well yes, but the trouble is that anyone who is any good in the arts wants to do the very best that can be done always, and will not easily settle for less.' 'The very best' for many in arts management means running up deficits and hoping that someone else will come forward and pick up the tab.
Isaacs tried and failed ultimately to face down the unions. In the end he could not make ends meet, when both state and private funding fell at the same time. Though Isaacs is proud of his achievements, he is honest about his failures - giving the BBC2 team behind The House too much rope, for example.
Isaacs is loyal about his board, or rather, his boards. He admires them for the vast number of hours these unpaid trustees gave. Isaacs obviously will not criticise them, but surely there were too many committees, too many minutes to be prepared, that distracted the management from doing its job. Arts management in Britain is in a parlous state; the Royal Opera House is not alone in its difficulties. The combination of well-intentioned amateurs on the boards and over-stretched and under-resourced management staff is a heady mixture. The book's image of a manager trying to do his best is worth the reports of a thousand management consultants.
Isaacs is unapologetic over the PR disaster of the House's £78.5 million lottery grant or for the farce over plans for closure during the redevelopment.
The blame is laid very clearly at the Arts Council's door. In his reply to the secretary of state's call for 'people's opera', Isaacs tells the Select Committee: 'You cannot have a people's opera unless the people are prepared to pay for it.' The true horrors only started when Isaacs left. It is amazing to realise that there were four chief executives in two years, when there had been only three in the previous 51 years. The pantomime exits and entrances and the Select Committee and its chairman Gerald Kaufman are too briefly described.
The Royal Opera House is about to reopen on time with £90 million raised privately, no deficit and an endowment. Some will say that it has been done with no thanks to Isaacs. This book proves them wrong.