Raymond Gubbay: Maria Callas and my dream team
Sunday 15 December 2002
Raymond Gubbay, 56, is one of Britain's most successful promoters of music and dance productions. He has worked with stars including Pavarotti and Te Kanawa and his "classical spectaculars" are now an annual feature at the Royal Albert Hall.
Impresario: it's such a great word. Did you always want to be one and what was your first production?
I didn't set out to be an "impresario" (a word I never use) and my late mother always hoped I'd get a proper job. My very first promotion was a Gilbert and Sullivan evening at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds in October 1966. It was the tragic day of the Aberfan disaster so it is not a date I'm ever likely to forget.
This Christmas you're staging Peter Pan at the Festival Hall. What is your favourite special effect?
It has to be the flying. Peter Pan without flying is like Snow White without the dwarfs. It's essential and it has to be spectacular. I hope the audience will be impressed as what we are doing is really rather special.
The costumes are by Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen. Colourful choice...
Our co-producers at Imagination suggested him and we all agreed that he would be really good. He's hugely talented and can be relied on to bring a new and interesting focus to the costume designs.
You are also staging Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore. Why do you think this duo's work has been so enduring?
They are beautifully crafted – the perfect marriage between words and music – and the humour remains topical. Pinafore in particular, which is an early work, has a freshness and vitality which comes up sparkling every time.
You are famous for staging ballet and opera at the Albert Hall. Many critics sneer at these shows because they think the venue is bad for music and the direction unimaginative. What's your response?
The audiences vote with their feet and support these productions in huge numbers. In any case the perception of what the critics say is not true – in recent years the productions have had very good reviews. especially Madame Butterfly which returns in February.
Some people sniffed when it was reported in 2000 that you had applied to be director of the Royal Opera House. What plans did you have? Has it improved?
The ROH has had a very chequered recent history, but at least the opera is now happily going through a much more stable period. Personally, I would have run it in an entirely different way with much less dependence on public money and with a revised policy for scheduling. I would have separated the opera and ballet seasons and I would have encouraged both opera and ballet to undertake UK touring so that taxpayers outside London could see how their money was being spent.
English National Opera is looking for a new director. Would you be interested?
No thanks. I think the day job pays rather better.
You seem to favour music from the past. Do you admire any living composers? And do you commission new work?
I have worked with a number of living composers – Howard Blake (I presented the first live performances of The Snowman), Carl Davis and George Stiles who has written the music for Peter Pan. I co-produced Stephen Sondheim's Follies in the summer. As for contemporary commissions, I'll leave that to my subsidised colleagues who are funded to do just that.
If you could stage your fantasy production, what show would you choose and which stars – alive or dead – would you cast as leads?
I was lucky enough as a teenager to see Maria Callas sing Tosca. That was in the early 1960s. I would like to go back 10 years earlier when her voice was at its peak and to have her sing Violetta in La Traviata with Jussi Bjorling (greater than any of the three tenors) as Alfredo and Tito Gobbi as Germont. Then I'd cast some of the marvellous singers I was privileged to know in my early years – Monica Sinclair as Flora, William Dickie as the Baron and Ian Wallace as the Doctor. And if Serafin could conduct with Visconti directing, we'd be in business.
'Peter Pan': Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 (020 7960 4242), from Thursday to 12 Jan. 'HMS Pinafore': Savoy Theatre, London WC2 (020 7836 8888), to 1 March
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