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.

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