Notebook - Rosie Millard

"Are you telling me that The Bartered Bride is not a popular opera?" gasps Jeremy Isaacs

To the Royal Opera House and Mozart's Figaro, about which nothing could have been bettered - apart from the audience, about which nothing has changed. It's not that they don't love what they are watching; it's just I'm not sure that Covent Garden can keep on justifying its subsidy when the audience looks (at least it did the night I was there) as if it could cope very well, thank you, without the Arts Council's annual £23.1m. Covent Garden is popular, but certainly not universal.

Opera people simply don't get this. The next day I have an engagement with Jeremy Isaacs, who took a break from his wildly successful career in television for a rather less glittering stab at running the Royal Opera House (1988-97). Ostensibly we are discussing his new broadcasting memoir, Look Me in the Eye, but the chance to talk about Covent Garden is just too tempting.

"Opera is what the people want to see," he says. I remind him that most people in Britain have never been to the Royal Opera House. "I strongly believe that if you give children an opportunity to hear music, they will come to love opera. The idea that it is confined to an elite is baloney. What about Raymond Gubbay?" he asks, citing the commercial producer who offers a cycle of about six warhorses per decade at the Royal Albert Hall. "He gets 10,000 people to see La Boheme."

This is irrelevant and Isaacs knows it. Gubbay's production of Figaro at the Savoy Opera folded a few weeks after opening. And it is impossible that Gubbay would risk his box-office-dependent neck with, say, Smetana's Bartered Bride, which has just finished at Covent Garden.

"Are you telling me that The Bartered Bride is not a popular opera?" gasps Isaacs. Well, yes. And so would Gubbay. "Well, Raymond Gubbay knows nothing about opera. The Bartered Bride!" he splutters, as if I have just sworn at him. "Good gracious. Anyway, let's get back to television." Which is a real shame, because talking about cultural popularity with someone who thinks Smetana is a household name is such fun.

Of course, Isaacs did eventually achieve his aim of bringing opera to the people. He agreed to participate in The House, Michael Waldman's car-crash series that enabled millions to watch Covent Garden go into meltdown under Sir Jeremy's flag. Phones were slammed down, deficits loomed, horses appeared on stage and Isaacs was seen attempting to tame a bow tie. "No one else would have done it," he storms. "When someone asked me to let the cameras into the Royal Opera House, I thought, well, they pay our wages - why not? I thought if viewers could see how hard everybody worked, they would come to love us."

Isaacs clearly thought that what was on the cards was opera as Open University. What he got was opera as Casualty. "I completely misjudged what he might do. He didn't tell the public things I thought they were entitled to be told. Namely that we balanced the books. Sometimes."

In 1997, the Commons culture select committee, citing a "financially irresponsible management system", stated that Covent Garden was at "the lowest point in its long and distinguished history". Isaacs won't have it. "Do I think I cocked up? Not at all. I am hugely proud of what I did at the Opera House, and enjoyed it enormously." That's all right, then.

Rosie Millard was previously Arts Editor for the NS and a Theatre Critic. She was the Arts Correspondent for BBC News for 10 years and is now a broadsheet columnist. She lives in London with heaps of small children, which may partially explain her love of going to the theatre.

This article first appeared in the 20 March 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the reckoning