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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

We stand for excellence says Tony Hall

By Norman Lebrecht / June 6, 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.

There 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.

He 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.

He 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 morale.

"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."

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."

Bull, a sleek performer who sits adroitly on the fast-sinking South Bank Board and bureaucratised Arts Council, will make an ideal foil and ally.

Hall's 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.

To 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.

"We're 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."

As 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 Erwartung.

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 Rudolf Nureyev's 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 ROH 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 ROH 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 ROH forbears.

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 stay solvent.

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 ROH boss in more than a decade in which the word "crisis" has not arisen once.

23 May 2001: A new future for opera? [interview with Alberto Vilar]
12 January 2001: [UK News] Head of BBC News takes Royal Opera job
15 March 2000: 'I think the Royal Ballet needs revitalising - and remotivating' [interview with Ross Stretton]
4 March 2000: On the edge of my seat - for all the wrong reasons [article by Deborah Bull]
23 November 1999: The House that Vivien built [interview with Vivien Duffield]
10 February 1999: The Garden would be lucky to get him [interview with Antonio Pappano]
11 July 1998: Bull's eye for quality [article about Deborah Bull]

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999