In his interview with Nick Higham, the BBC's Media and Arts Correspondent, Tony Hall committed himself to eventual parity in the number of annual performances by the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet. This is a virtually word for word transcript.
Nick Higham: Covent Garden has been described as a bed of nails, why did you want to be Chief Executive?
Tony Hall: I was approached by a headhunter who said, “Would you consider putting your name forward for this? And I thought – what a wonderful challenge it would be. As a consumer and a member of the audience I thought it was a fantastic building doing some absolutely wonderful work. I thought to lead that organisation would not only be exciting, but a huge privilege. When you get inside Covent Garden and work inside the Royal Opera House, you meet a huge number of very committed people, who only want to do the very best work for the public and also to get that work out to even more people than currently go to it. It is a really great organisation. The rows you talk about are well behind Covent Garden, and the reputation is lagging where the place is actually now. It is in very good shape and has just recorded its third minor small but nonetheless financial surplus. Some of what we are doing is absolutely wonderful, and the coming season will be brilliant. So it is in good shape.
Higham: What is exactly you do? You have an interventionist chairman, two artistic directors. Where do you fit in?
Hall: Colin Southgate has not, in the time since I arrived, been interventionist at all. He and the board are very keen to make it clear that they are a board of non-executives, much as you would have running any major institution. My job then is to bring together the executive team, the Director of the Royal Ballet, the Director of Music, the Director of Opera, the Director of Opera, all these other people and ensure we have a very clear strategy for where we are going and what we want to do with the ROH and the wonderful things in it, and to ensure we have a strategy, a budget that makes sense, a marketing plan that makes sense, and all our plans across the institution are co-ordinated and right for the Opera House. In a way I am the lynchpin that I hope will make the whole House function well. One of the things about the ROH, as about the BBC, is that “joining up” the various parts is one of the biggest challenges. They are wonderful people at the Opera House and one of my jobs is to ensure they come together and do their very best for the place.
Higham: What is your favourite opera?
Hall: Probably Verdi’s Othello. I also like the Ring Cycle enormously. We will do another one in two or three years time. There’s Rigoletto and I would pick Peter Grimes.
Higham: Of ten new productions in this coming season, most are co-productions and only three exclusive to Covent Garden. Is that an inevitable sign of the times?
Hall: I see them as ten new productions. It is not a problem if you are sharing the costs with other opera houses. It is an issue that opera is an extraordinarily expensive art form. You want to keep producing new productions because that keeps our audiences happy. But you have to look for all sorts of imaginative ways of sharing costs. The fact that some of them have been co-productions, I’m not bothered about. The key thing is that they are new to Covent Garden. Some of them are also being made by Covent Garden. What matters is that the audience here are getting new productions and I am really pleased that half of the opera productions this season are new, and we have plans we are finalising with Ross Stretton, the new director of the Royal Ballet, to do some new choreography in the coming year, Mats Ek’s Carmen for example, but also some new commissions and some new productions of some old classic works. Part of our job is to keep giving new productions of old classics, but also commission new things as well.
Higham: Deborah Bull has a brief to be risk-taking and innovative. What do you want her to do?
Hall: I went to a production that Deborah had pulled together, collaboration between the Royal Ballet and Random Dance. Not only were the three pieces in the programme wonderfully exciting, but also the audience at the Linbury that night were younger, multi-ethnic, noisy, and appreciative. It felt really good. What I have asked Deborah to do, is to see if we can build on that sort of event in the Linbury and the Clore and in other parts of the House too, to bring in a younger audience, people who might not otherwise come through the doors of the Royal Opera House. The Linbury and Clore is part of that. Just before the summer, we also did tea dances in the Floral Hall which brought in an older audience which had not actually been into the Opera House before. They actually loved it. Some of the Orchestra got together a small band and did the tea dances over 6-7 weeks. We will also do some pop concerts in the coming year. Bjork will – if all goes well – be here in December and others will follow. Why? Because it gets a different kind of audience into the Opera House to enjoy the wonderful building, and because at the back of our mind always are the finances of the place. We are bringing in cash and a new audience. You win on both hands.
Higham: What do you think of the tie-up between Barbie and ENB? Would you consider similar arrangements at the ROH if you were tempted by a few hundred thousand pounds?
Hall: Well, we’re always looking for appropriate sponsors. We’re always looking for appropriate sponsors. I say to ENB, “Well done, good luck to you. You’ve pulled off something that’s really good for you”.
Higham: There’s a very direct connection between the production and the sponsor. Would you consider that here?
Hall: It depends entirely on the production and the sponsor. The most important thing is that you keep your artistic independence. You have got to do the work you want to do, not the work the sponsor wants you to do. On the other hand, you know that the work you want to do will attract sponsorship.
Higham: Will the Royal Opera sing more opera in English?
Hall: No. ENO are brilliant at it. What we are about is doing operas in the language in which they were written and that is our USP.
Higham: Will the ROH commission new full-scale operas for the main stage?
Hall: Yes we will. Two are in the pipeline. Commissioning new work in opera and ballet is something we have to stand for. We have to stand for classics in revival and new productions, and also ensuring that the art form moves on. I hope we can do that on the main stage and in the Linbury and Clore. You constantly try to balance between bringing in audiences (and therefore money) and the things that are more difficult, the risks of new commissions that a Royal Opera House must take. It is a tightrope you must run.
Higham: There are five operas and one ballet in the opening season this year. That is a great imbalance. Will this be remedied in the remainder of the season?
Hall: Absolutely. We start off with Don Q. As the season goes on the balance will be restored.
Higham: Michael Kaiser, your predecessor, sought to maintain parity of ballet and opera. Can you do that?
Hall: Yes, in fact this morning looking at the number of performances of ballet and opera for 2002-3 and 2003-4, ballet is somewhat down and I have asked for that to be rectified. I hope we can get a lot more ballet performances out. I am committed to parity between the two companies.
Higham: How far do you get involved with the artistic directors in artistic policy?
Hall: Their call is absolutely paramount for whatever we do in opera and ballet. On the other hand, everything you do knocks on to the running of the whole place. I’m having long conversations with the Director of Music and with Ross Stretton about what we can afford to do, and what we should be doing. At the end of the day, my job is to give them the resource to make it happen. We are a business in one sense turning over £53 million a year, with over 800 people. Running that is a fulltime job. Ensuring that the artistic side can concentrate on the art is so important. That is what I must ensure happens.
Higham: Can Opera ever be successful enough not to require government handouts?
Hall: Opera and ballet will always require public funding. I think the question is: how much we can raise from fundraising, sponsorship, ticket prices, and commercially exploiting what we do. My view is we will always need the grant we get from the public purse. That is a good thing, because if you do accept public money, then you have to deliver as much of that back as you can, in good exciting productions, reaching as many people as you can. I want us to be self-sufficient financially and not look to others for support. But I also want us to be committed to getting to as many people as we can.
Higham:Could the ROH be vulnerable to a change in government or in the political or economic environment?
Hall: If you depend for £10 million on sponsorship, you are always vulnerable to the economic situation. We also get £21 million from the government – so yes we are vulnerable. The best thing that has happened to the arts in the last while is three year funding. You now have a three-year planning horizon. My predecessors had little certainty until a new financial year was upon them. You cannot run any operation like that if you want to give people the confidence to do bold exciting things. If you are waiting to hear what your grant is until just before the new financial year, you will not do the bold exciting things, you do the stuff you know is safe. Three year funding means we can take some creative risks and that is exciting.
Higham: Should arts funding be directed away from the ROH to smaller companies?
Hall: The answer is that more money for opera full stop. I would like to find some way of getting a part of what the opera house does into more parts of the UK and away from London.
Higham: There is a perception that opera is elitist. Doesn’t this boil down to the price of tickets?
Hall: It’s partly to do with the price of tickets. In my first few weeks I had to confront a decision about pricing – whether to put up prices a lot, somewhat, or not at all. You are trying to make ends meet. But I want to encourage people to come to the ROH. So what we did was to freeze 50% of the seats in the House at £50 or less. We have seats from £5-£6 up to £50 and my aim is to do as much as I can to hold these prices and if possible to cut some prices. It’s not merely seat prices, it’s about access, and it’s about online, through television and radio. And making the ROH a beautiful building to which people will want to come. It is making the work in the smaller spaces more accessible, it is holding pop concerts. There are lots of things about access that I am really committed to. That is where I want to make a big difference in the next few years.
Higham: Would televising more make a difference?
Hall: The BBC 2 deal gives us access to people who could never afford to come here. I would love to extend that and get more productions on the air.
Higham: The BBC is talking about a BBC 4 channel?
Hall: I would be delighted to do a lot for BBC4. Please write to Roly Keating, BBC4’s Controller and demand more!
Higham: How do you take a highbrow product and make it relevant to – say – new audiences like young Asians?
Hall: I’m not sure I know the answer to that yet. I think in part it is with newer and younger audiences. In my first weeks at the ROH I went to see a ROH supported production at a school in Southall. A lot of Asian kids and black kids who put on a production of Turandot, called Turandotji. It was very funny, vibrant, chaotic but with terrific energy. That’s one way of making opera and ballet relevant – starting in schools and establishing long term relations with children.
Higham: Two points. All the best seats are bought up by fat cats – it’s a scandal. Also might you restore subscription packages?
Hall: I don’t recognise the fat cat tag. I do see people from various corporations who buy seats in advance and support what the ROH does. To a person they have been good operagoers as well. I take the point. You have to open up the ROH seating to as many people as possible. That’s why this autumn we took full page in some papers – and on Thursday we opened up online booking. At one point, 10.30 220 were using the online service. The subscription idea we are looking at.
Higham: Last question. What is your vision for the Opera House in five years time?
Hall:I want the ROH in five years time to stand absolutely for excellence in what it does. It should be available to as many people who want to go there. I want to open up the brilliant things that there are to as many as possible. The third thing is I want the ROH to be associated with developing the art forms of ballet and opera and mixing the two. I want a place devoted to excellence, people feel they can go there and see wonderful things, and know that the Royal Opera House is creating the next generation of artists in opera and ballet.
Higham: Thank you