By Norman Lebrecht
6 June 2001 - The
learning curve was bound to be vertical. Tony Hall, head of news at
the BBC, had never worked in lyric theatre. He reckoned it would take
him three months to get to grips with his next job, as executive
director of the Royal Opera House. But art, like news, stands still
for no man and Hall this morning finds himself having to launch a
season before he is fully au fait with its particulars.
is an air of interregnum at Covent Garden. The incoming Royal Ballet
director, Ross Stretton, has yet to arrive and the new music director,
Antonio Pappano, is not due for another 15 months. So Hall flies
alone, the fifth boss in as many years, struggling to convince the
world and its Nutcracker-loving aunt that Covent Garden has
finally stabilised and is safe for family bookings.
has not had an easy run-in. In his first week, two months ago, his
father suffered a stroke, the stage-hands voted to strike over the
sacking of a union steward and the Culture Department published a
Green Paper promising increased state interference. Hall's father died
a fortnight ago and the loss is visible and raw. His
first executive act, announced today, is to appoint the dancer Deborah
Bull as artistic director of the two smaller theatres, the Linbury and
the Clore, with a brief to develop new attractions. "Those two
stages are very important to our future," Hall explains. "The
audiences there are already different from the main house - younger,
noisier, multi-ethnic. I want Deborah to work with outside talent and
with our own artists - opera, ballet, members of the orchestra - to use
those spaces to bring in new audiences."
defused the other tensions, however, with a minimum of fuss. The stage
union, Bectu, accepted an Acas head-cooling deal; Whitehall and the
Arts Council responded to stroking; and his study tour of every part
of the opera house had a restorative effect on rock-bottom staff
"I find it a place very similar to the BBC,"
says Hall, "in the sense that people are phenomenally committed
and buzzing with ideas in all areas of the organisation. They have
been through quite a bashing, but I really admire and value what they
have to give."
Bull, a sleek performer who sits
adroitly on the fast-sinking South Bank Board and bureaucratised
will make an ideal foil and ally.
second initiative has been to tinker with ticket prices, offering some
opera seats for as little as £3 to avert the panicked
half-emptiness that faced Henze's Boulevard Solitude this season. More
than half the seats in the house will cost less than £50 for opera;
there will be 900 seats for £11 or less at every ballet, except
galas. Some prices will rise, but none by more than £5.
balance the books, Hall aims to cut production costs by giving each show
a longer run. Overheads are also under scrutiny. His predecessor's plan
to expand the £4 million orchestra to 140 players from its present
103 has been put on ice. Hall claims to have found an imbalance in the
current budget, but the season should close with a small surplus and he
categorically insists that he will not be seeking any increase in public
funding, which has stalled at £20 million since the house reopened
in December 1999.
getting a large grant from government," says Hall pragmatically, "for
which we must say thank you very much, and make people feel that they
are a part of what we do. That's the challenge for the coming years."
though flourishing a mission statement of consumer choice and value for
money, Hall has produced a schedule that is by far the richest since
Georg Solti's opening season in 1961.
There are 10 new opera
productions, including Haydn's L'anima del Filosofo for
Cecilia Bartoli to make a
better-late-than-never ROH debut; a new Parsifal, conducted by
Simon Rattle; a Puccini Rondine for Roberto
Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu; and a pairing of early-modern
masterpieces, Bartok's Duke Bluebeard's Castle and Schoenberg's
The Royal Ballet, under its Australian
director, will broaden its faith in the canon of Ashton and MacMillan to
embrace work that other British and ROH choreographers were obliged to
make abroad. John Cranko's Stuttgart Onegin, Antony Tudor's ABT
The Leaves are Falling and
Don Quixote - made for Vienna in 1966 when he was Covent Garden's
star - are summits of a season of renewal. Stretton will teach Quixote
to the cast at the end of this month, his way of taking hands-on control
of the ensemble.
But the most striking aspect of the new season
is the speed of its return to a semblance of normal service. Two years
ago, under threat of insolvency, output was reduced to 220 nights a year
and salaries were cut to fit. Next year, there will be 131 Royal Opera
and 142 Royal Ballet performances, which Hall reckons amounts to a
restoration of full power.
It is at this point that the haste
of his immersion pierces the polished veneer of managerial
professionalism. "We are back to a full season," proclaims
Hall but, when pressed, he is unsure whether this amounts to 46 or 47
weeks and what happens the rest of the time.
In fact, the
Royal Opera House was supposed to stay open 364 nights a year. The past
two summers have been booked commercially by the Hochhausers for the
Kirov Opera and Ballet, but there is no booking for summer 2002 - or for
most Sunday nights when the house is dark.
A request by the
Icelandic pop singer Bjork to book the main stage has had to be declined
because the Royal Opera House cannot provide adequate time and space for
rehearsal. Hall remains keen to attract rock gigs, both for rental
revenue and as a means of drawing a different public into the gilded
premises. "I'm still learning," he says winningly, "and I
have got a lot more learning to do."
He speaks with all
the shibboleths of New Labour, his delivery an eerie simulacrum of
Blair's, replete with frequent "y'knows" and pressed
fingertips. Hall is a political animal who has spent all his career in a
giant public corporation. Survival at the BBC had bred evolutionary
skills that were lacking in some of his short-lived Royal Opera House
He answers to a state-appointed board, whose
chairman, Sir Colin Southgate, is due be replaced once he has merged the
maze of ROH trusts and funds. Hall will need to win public and staff
support to stay in the saddle. He will also need to raise £8
million pounds this year from private and corporate sources in order to
An unexpected gift has come from former deputy
chairman Dame Vivien Duffield who, ousted by Southgate in an ugly
putsch, has now pledged to maintain funding for schools matinees for the
next three years. The Cuban-American
philanthropist Alberto Vilar is pumping funds into training young
artists and installing seat-back text screens, the first of which will
appear in the stalls circle in September.
As the financial
position improves, dependence on public funds will decline and Hall will
be required to redefine Covent Garden's priorities in an increasingly
privatised environment. "We must be about excellence on the main
stage - that's the sine qua non," he declares. "We must
provide performances that are as good as the world's best. If we can
stand for excellence of international quality, improve access to our
performances and buildings, and nurture young talents, then we will have
renewed our purpose."
It is a convincing credo. More
convincing still, on playback, is the realisation that this is my first
conversation with an Royal Opera House boss in more than a decade in
which the word "crisis" has not arisen once.
Lebrecht is a columnist for London's Daily Telegraph and the author of
several books on culture. His most recent book, Covent Garden, The
Untold Story: Dispatches From The English Cultural War, 1945-2000, was
published by Simon & Schuster.