Tony Hall: The man with a front row seat in our arts establishment

From the Royal Opera House to C4 and the Cultural Olympiad, Tony Hall discusses his rewarding roles with Ian Burrell

Another day at the Royal Opera House. Emma Bell's soprano resounds around the carpeted corridor of the pit lobby from the theatre stage where she is rehearsing for Miss Fortune, the new Judith Weir production that begins this evening.

In the backstage area, the puppet of the Cheshire Cat lies in a casket recently arrived from the ROH's workshop in Thurrock in readiness for the ballet Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Tony Hall, chief executive for the past 11 years, is walking his turf. At the lift he greets the heavily pregnant Mara Galeazzi, principal dancer with the Royal Ballet. "She's inspirational," he comments.

Then he darts into the prop shop, where the chief prop maker, Anthony Barnett, is overseeing the production of an extraordinary metallic structure crafted from cannons, rifles, revolvers and giant cogs. "This place produces such extraordinary things," says Hall. It's a prop for The Trojans, a summer spectacular chosen to coincide with the London Olympics.

He marches onwards and Leanne Benjamin, another prima ballerina, waves to him through the window of a dance studio and male dancer Philip Mosley, the original inspiration for Billy Elliot, calls out a greeting.

Hall, 61, continues to chatter. "This is like Doctor Who's Tardis," he says. "You walk past Covent Garden and you have no idea of the craft skills going on."

Tony Hall, Lord Hall of Birkenhead, sits at the very centre of the network that is the British Arts Establishment. He is the chairman of the Cultural Olympiad, which culminates in June with the London 2012 Festival. The previous evening he had been making grand cultural plans with the likes of Sir Nicholas Serota, of the Tate, Sir Nicholas Kenyon, of the Barbican, and Vikki Heywood, of the Royal Shakespeare Company. And, as if Tony Hall did not have enough going on, he has taken the role of deputy chairman of Channel 4, succeeding Lord Puttnam.

He is a seasoned media executive (a former director of news at the BBC) who has shown an aptitude for making money from the arts. Since he inherited the Royal Opera House in 2001, he has increased annual turnover from £45m to £110m, while cutting the proportion of income from public funds down to 25 per cent from 40 per cent.

Hall has achieved this by opening up Covent Garden to new audiences, which he plans to do more of by engaging with the latest media technology.

Among his latest initiatives is an iPad app, The Show Must Go On, in which the opera fan can play at being an impresario and be rewarded with bouquets of flowers for a successful production. But the game does not allow for the possibility of audience booing, something which happened at Covent Garden in real life last month when cat calls broke out at the opening night of Dvorak's Rusalka. Hall laughs out loud at the idea of virtual booing. "There were boos on the opening night," he concedes, "but on the nights I have been there has been nothing but applause. You want a response from people and sometimes that's boos. That's all right, it's live theatre."

He was at his local cinema to watch Madame Butterfly in 3D from Covent Garden. "I wanted to see what it felt like out there and it was packed." Hall has invested a lot of energy in cinema productions, which are managed by a commercial company, ROH Enterprises, because "we can't afford to divert money from the stage to do that".

He is conscious of the international demand for such material – "You realise the power of what you have in Covent Garden and that we can be a global brand" – and recognises that the Royal Opera House is in competition with other world leaders, such as Milan's La Scala, the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Bolshoi Ballet. He thinks online viewing offers great opportunity to the ROH for developing its filmed content. "The challenge for the next decade is to look at the way the broadcasting market is changing."

For 18 months, he has been attempting to do the "almost impossible job" of replacing Monica Mason as director of the Royal Ballet when she retires in July. He finally decided on one of her assistants, Kevin O'Hare.

The chief executive has faced criticism for his £390,000 pay package. He denies claims that he is "embarrassed" by the scale of his reward, though he goes to great lengths to say he will not be taking a pay rise in the near future. "When my salary was discussed I offered to take a pay cut and the conversation with the chairman led to us both agreeing that I would take a pay freeze."

He acknowledges the difficult economic times and, though a stalls ticket for Romeo and Juliet costs £106, says he is fighting hard to keep prices down. The new season, to be unveiled on Wednesday, will feature Harrison Birtwistle's The Minotaur at £65 and a cut-price Tosca.

Hall frequently returns to the theme of "engaging new audiences". The ROH is signed up to the Arts Council's Bridge project to work closely with schools. Its workshop in Thurrock is helping to revitalise an unglamorous corner of Essex.

When the Olympics cultural festival opens on 21 June, the public will have a chance to "get" British arts. "We have the best opportunity of any nation on earth to put culture and art absolutely at the heart of the Games," says Hall. "Frankly we are a creative nation and, this sounds a bit pompous, but this is an opportunity to make that part of the brand of what the UK stands for."

Tony Hall: A life in brief

Born: 3 March 1951, Birkenhead, Merseyside. Married, two children.

 

Education: King Edward's School, Birmingham; Birkenhead School; Keble College, Oxford (PPE).

 

Career: Joined BBC as a graduate trainee, 1973. Director of news and current affairs, television, 1990; director of news (TV and radio), 1993; chief executive, BBC news, 1996-2001. Royal Opera House executive director (later chief executive), April 2001 to date.

 

Honours: Appointed CBE, 2006; created Baron Hall of Birkenhead, 2010.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

    Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

    In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
    Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

    How has your club fared in summer sales?

    Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
    Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

    'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

    Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
    The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

    The best swim shorts for men

    Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup