Making a mint

Opera - Tom Rosenthal on how the Belgians have struck gold on a modest budget

Imagine what it must be like running an opera house with a governing body of 13, six of whom are by statute Flemish-speaking, six Francophone and one German. On top of that, when you perform Mozart in Italian or German, you have to provide surtitles in both French and Flemish. And, as if that were not enough, local political correctness dictates that if you start, for Act I, with the French surtitles on the left of the proscenium and the Flemish on the right, you have to reverse that for Act II, in case either language group could read any political significance into the positioning. (I don't know what they do with a long one-act opera such as Salome.)

And then there's the house union agreement with the chorus. Because German is one of the three legal, official languages of the country in question - Belgium - they get no premium for singing Wagner or Weber. They do, however, get paid a premium for Italian; and for a really difficult opera, such as Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District in Russian, they get a well-deserved double premium.

In case this all sounds too Ruritanian, one should also recognise that Belgium supports two other, separate, opera companies: De Vlaamse Opera for the Flemish burghers of Ghent and Antwerp, and the Opera Royal de Wallonie for the French speakers of Liege. That's what operatic federalism means in Belgium, without taking into account a single aspect of the European Union and the remaining faint whiff of asbestos in the Berlaymont.

La Monnaie/de Munt (so-called because it was built on the site of the old Belgian Royal Mint) was founded in 1699. The theatre was pulled down and a new building erected in 1819, but that burned down in 1855. The present building was put up in 1856 and, with its gilt and its lush baroque ceiling paintings, it is a jewel among European houses. The only discordant visual note is on the ceiling of the main ground floor foyer, a fairly recent addition in the form of an abstract painting by the American Sam Francis.

It was between 1981 and 1992 that La Monnaie really became an international force. During that time, it was run by the brilliant Gerard Mortier, who appointed the English conductor John Pritchard as one of his musical directors and employed eminent stage directors such as Peter Stein, Patrice Chereau and Jean-Luc Bondy, before leaving to run the Salzburg Festival. His successor, Bernard Foccroulle, is less flamboyant, but no less effective. While I have reservations about the recent Onegin, all the other Monnaie productions I have seen in the past few years have been world class, including Christof Loy's Seraglio, Stephane Braunschweig's Makropulos Affair (with the great Anja Silja) and Stein Winge's inventive Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Most outstanding was David McVicar's revolutionary version of Handel's Agrippina, which revealed it as a political as well as musical masterpiece.

La Monnaie has more than its fair share of top international singers. Apart from Silja, I have heard, even in my few visits, Donald McIntyre, Nadine Secunde, Rosemary Joshua, Anna Caterina Antonacci, Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Peter Mattei. When I asked Foccroulle if he had ever lured Domingo or Pavarotti or the Gheorgiu/Alagna team to Belgium, I got a firm but friendly "no". "They are simply too expensive for us, so we hardly ever ask them."

This is in itself interesting, if depressing. Apparently, Domingo costs around £10,000 to appear at Covent Garden in London and at the other big houses in Milan, Paris, New York and Vienna.

Opera is about so many things other than just music theatre. It embraces corporatism, elitism, snobbism and, above all, money. Which is where La Monnaie is so remarkable. It seats a mere 1,152 people, about half of the capacity of the Royal Opera House. Its top price is just over £50, compared to £150 at Covent Garden. The revenue for a full house in Brussels is about one-sixth of that for the equivalent at Covent Garden. It follows that the high standards and success of La Monnaie are a salutary lesson in how to manage a national opera house. While it's true that La Monnaie has not had to suffer a damaging closure, Foccroulle would actually like to build a new house to seat a 2,000-plus audience, while retaining La Monnaie for more small-scale and intimate works.

Recognising that, even in the heart of the European Union, this is something of a pipe dream, Foccroulle has instead, for the time being at least, managed to make do with the purchase of the building behind La Monnaie, which he has brilliantly refurbished to create new and enlarged rehearsal spaces and the Salle Malibran. (The great 19th-century Spanish mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran was a regular favourite in Brussels.) The Malibran is an elegant studio space, seating about 400, and it serves as the equivalent of the Royal Opera House's Linbury Studio Theatre. While I was listening to Onegin, the Malibran audience was hearing the world premiere of Luci Mie Traditrici by the contemporary Sicilian composer Salvatore Sciarrino.

Under Foccroulle, La Monnaie aims to mount one or two world premieres a year and will occasionally commission a work from scratch, such as the Sciarrino or John Casken's God's Liar, which, although commissioned by La Monnaie, was premiered at the Almeida Opera Festival in London this June. La Monnaie also recently put on a chamber opera by Peter Maxwell Davies, The Lighthouse, about the mysterious disappearance of the three keepers of a Hebridean lighthouse.

Foccroulle does not run a repertory system, so he doesn't regularly have to dust down an old Tosca or Carmen to bring the punters in. This is partly because it's not his taste, and partly, most blessedly, because he doesn't need to either be populist or pander to the demands of corporate entertaining.

Even for something as challenging as the Shostakovich, he hardly ever has an empty seat. This is, paradoxically, his one reservation. The theatre operates on a more or less permanent subscription system, not unlike Wimbledon or the Albert Hall, with patrons who are virtually debenture holders. This means that, for every performance, about 80 per cent of seats are sold in advance, with only 200 or so tickets available to the public. Recognising that the subscription system can produce social elitism, Foccroulle does his best to circumvent this by putting on extra performances so that more of Brussels' citizens beyond the old established families can fill his house.

Unlike his predecessor, who trained as a lawyer and journalist before becoming an opera administrator, Foccroulle is a practising musician (as an organist, he has made Bach recordings) and composer. He has also published works of music criticism and been a professor of musical analysis. He has presided benevolently over a team that includes Antonio Pappano as musical director (who will shortly take over the same role at Covent Garden), and he has recently appointed the young Kazushi Ono from Japan to succeed Pappano next year.

Foccroulle, a lean, slightly greying but essentially youthful 47, is no ivory-towered intellectual with his mind always straying to Buxtehude, although he would obviously, and reasonably enough, like to devote more time to music-making and composing. Instead, he has to wrestle with budgets and meet a payroll of 525, including chorus and orchestra, which soaks up 65 per cent of his available money, leaving the remainder for productions.

His total annual budget is about £23.3m. His subsidy from the Belgian federal government was about £17.4m last year. From the City of Brussels, he gets an additional £83,000, and from the EU, perhaps surprisingly, nothing at all, although it did put up about £50,000 to support a superb exhibition on art and opera in the newly converted back building last year. In fact, his subsidies total between 70 and 75 per cent of his budget, which is surely a healthy situation; it leaves only a quarter to come from ticket sales, bar takings and a particularly good opera shop, which is always packed before performances and during intervals.

Foccroulle and his young team run what seems to be a model operation, with high standards, a particularly beautiful and sumptuous bar area, impressive programme booklets and highly satisfied, regular, non-corporate audiences. They should be an inspiration to us all. Perhaps Neil Kinnock and Chris Patten should make a special study of La Monnaie while they are serving in Brussels and send a report back to the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell. It could, if it is not immediately shelved, teach us a lot.