Q&A: Tony Hall, Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House

Tony Hall, 59, has been chief executive of the Royal Opera House (ROH), Covent Garden, since 2001. He is the highest paid arts organisation chief in Britain, and is also chair of the Cultural Olympiad, the series of cultural events being organised to coincide with the 2012 London Olympics.

During his tenure he set up ROH2, the opera house’s initiative for new talent and fresh audiences, and has been an outspoken advocate of cheap tickets.

What is the biggest change you have seen during your time at the ROH?

When I started our turnover was £45m annually, it is now £106m. Equally when I came in, the Government grant was over 40 per cent of our turnover, that has been reduced to 26 per cent.

Our fundraising was £6.5m, that figure has now been increased to £23m a year. Our commercial operation is much more set up to bring in money. The scale of it is very different. Creatively I think [musical director] Antonio Pappano and [artistic director] Monica Mason’s direction on opera and ballet has been fantastic. The world of ballet is now absolutely part of the zeitgeist. Tony’s impact on the orchestra has meant it is on fantastic form. It is something the reviewers talk about. Our chorus is one of the best in the world and that’s superb.

Additionally, we have made use of the building in a way we didn’t 10 years ago. The impact of studio theatre, in ambition and scale, and I’m talking about the work we do at the Linbury and ROH2 [the opera’s new work development programme]. That work is so important to us because we have given people an opportunity to do new things.

Equally, we value the partnerships we have with the likes of [up-and-coming ballet company] Ballet Black, who come here and use this building as a base camp. Or with Music Theatre Wales, who we commission and they use this building as a London base then go off around Wales and England. We are one of the top three ballet companies and opera houses in the world so judge us on how we appear internationally.

The building can be off-putting for some people. It’s important for us to bring new people in. And then there’s the digital work we are doing. Getting the word out there through cinemas. Through cinemas and through Facebook we can now reach people directly. We don’t need to rely just on broadcasters. This means there is an audience around the world. When we were in Japan in the summer, it was clear that people there know our companies.

Explain more how your organisation will increase its support of smaller institutions over the next 12 months.

One of the good things about the Arts Council taking funding applications back to square one is that organisations have to ask themselves fundamental questions about who they are. This place is best when it is putting on new things. Equally when we are working with people who think like we do, you get an artistic buzz through those collaborations. How can we do things which help others in our world of opera and ballet to do what they do well? There are advantages to being big company like us. We have six weeks or so to sort out those questions.

Jeremy Hunt has unveiled some ways of helping funding. It’s a bit of a move. We want to improve the way other organisations fundraise. How can we use our expertise in that area. Successful fundraising depends on passion from the people involved. We can help other organisations train, mentor, advise, be good colleagues to others. But in the end you have to have people who are arguing on their own behalf.

Do you think Jeremy Hunt’s £80m match-funding announcement was enough of a statement?

Fundraising takes time and it cannot be a substitute for a grant. We have a fantastic funding model in this country, which is neither the American model where you depend wholly on fundraising, or the European model where you depend wholly on grants. Being between the two makes us more independent. If you pull down the grant and fill it with fundraising, the problem is, donors don’t like filling holes left by grants. Furthermore, it is hard to get people to fund your core costs. It is harder if you are small and doing things on a tight budget. Outside London, there are not so many people with wealth who want to invest. Can we work with people over five years? The time scale is something like that. You need to engage with people and win their trust and passion. What I love about the people who support our organisation is that they are friends.

That said, I think there is an awful lot more to do it. It was a start. Jeremy Hunt was right to focus on fundraising. But fundamentally we have got to look at changes in tax arrangements to help people to see the advantage of giving. I am completely behind anything that helps fundraising become easy. It will only work fundamentally if the Treasury is on board. There is going to be a review but we need some very hard ideas that can work and will work. It was a start.

For example, it has taken a decade for us to go from 40 percent to over a quarter coming from Government. To work with that has taken a decade. Relationships take time.

What would you do to encourage philanthropy?

We need to encourage people to give over two or three years. To know you have funding coming in from someone means you can plan ahead. Whether there’s an incentive for that needs to be looked at, I don’t know. Legacies are also important. I rather like the North American scheme whereby there is a legacy and it is legally binding and there are benefits from that in your own lifetime. We should look at the benefits people get from giving which are quite circumscribed at the moment in tax terms and see whether that can be improved.

It is amazing how many people on lower incomes give. It’s a real tribute to people in this country. Anything that encourages across the board giving is good, and the more longer term, the better.

How do you foster a state of cooperation between institutions when, increasingly, they will be competing for the same pots of money?

It won’t come from here. I am conscious the Opera House has to justify itself along with every other organisation and we will do that. I don’t want bun-fights with anyone. I do want to be supportive of other organisations. There is an awful lot of unity at the top level which is all of us working in opera believing in it passionately. Ballet is going through an amazing patch. I really want to look at ways we can collaborate with everyone passionate about arts and ballet.

Will your productions reflect a more urgent need to attract audiences?

What you can’t do in difficult times is compromise on quality or excitement of the new. Some people might say we are going through tough times so we should run loads of Toscas and Swan Lakes, but you can’t do that. Our audiences are clever and passionate and will see that as being cynical. It wouldn’t work and we wouldn’t want to do it. I am thrilled that in February we have the premiere of the story of Anna Nicole Smith followed by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland from the Royal Ballet. You have got to keep the stage bright and keep exciting things happening.

The life-blood of a creative organisation is putting on new things. Putting on the best revivals is important. You can’t compromise on quality. On the other hand there is a fantastic buzz when you have something brand new. I think any creative organisation has got to pay true tribute to the reputation you inherit and you need to continue to ask how you engage with audiences.

Can you continue to support cut-price tickets in the current climate?

In terms of ticket prices, £50 is a lot not compared with football, and we are constantly looking at comparisons with the West End. On the performances where we charge over £200 we use the higher prices to subsidise the lower ones. At the moment I am looking at all our pricing every couple of months. I am not publishing our prices for the entire year because I am trying to get a feel for how things are selling. If I could wave a wand and have a top price akin to a top opera house in Europe I would be happy but that’s not the world we live in. I know price is a very sensitive issue. I am doing all I can to keep seats as a low as I can. But it’s hard. I am looking at prices going forward with more prices going down.

We have had some new operas where the top price is £50. The new £50 seats might be £60 or £70 which is a decade on from when that £50 price was first introduced. But I am not looking at putting up prices on the whole.

How can opera assert its importance at a time when students are rioting on the streets?

I spent Monday night at Purfleet in the Thames Gateway where we were working with the community, trying to put on new productions. You could ask, ‘What is there linking the Thames Gateway and right here in this part of London?’ and the answer was there: creating an opera from scratch, the story of Purfleet, this is what people were proud of and it was expressed through dance. One woman said to me that she thought that was what social cohesion was all about. You are helping us to define who we are and to make a community that values itself and that is something phenomenal to be able to support. I was damn near in tears at the end of this piece. For young people this can help define what they want to do with their lives. It is an area where we can really help people deal with what is going on.

How do you justify your high salary, which is an order of magnitude higher than officials in similar roles at similar institutions?

I don’t set my salary. I came here from a different world, and I took a pay cut to come here, and the board determine what I get paid. I don’t ask for pay rises. The board looks at international comparisons, and in the US and mainland Europe people in my position are paid roughly what I am paid. My pension is rolled up into it as well, and I make charitable donations to things I believe in.

What will be the chief legacy of the Olympiad after 2012?

There is some more to be done. But people now understand what our festival is. People will know it will be an amazing year in 2012. On the basis of what we announced this week we can have one amazing year artistically and culturally and that’s my ambition alongside the sport. What this country is brilliant at, among other things, is arts and culture. We should reinforce that to the world.

I was founder of the Creative & Cultural Skills Council and I will be looking at how we can attach young people to all the projects so that people can put it on their CV. That can be transforming. There’s a lot more to come and that needs to feel part of what’s hot and what’s interesting. Things will change. Some things are more baked than others. What we have announced, in terms of the large number of artists involved, is something to demonstrate the scale of the events that will be on offer.

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