The Tesco of classical music, Raymond Gubbay Ltd stacks them high and sells them low

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On 30 September 1791, the Freyhaustheater in Vienna presented the first night of a new work. It appeared on the playbill as "A Grand Opera in Two Acts by Emanuel Schikaneder", though the long arbitration of posterity has reassigned the credit. It is now conventional to refer to The Magic Flute as an opera "by Mozart". At first history didn't deal very kindly with Schikaneder - one of the early accounts of his involvement with Mozart (detailed in 1791, HC Robbins Landon's account of the composer's last year) held that he was driven solely by financial need, and imagined his entrepreneurial pitch in the following way: "Write an opera for me, entirely in the taste of the present Viennese public; you can surely satisfy not only the connoisseurs but also your own reputation, but see to it that you cater primarily to the lowest common denominator of all classes." In other words, it is a fantasy of mercenary instincts transformed by sanctified genius, more so as the anecdote has Mozart working for free in return for copyright and then being ripped off by his partner.

These days we are inclined to be warmer to Schikaneder (and more accurate) - indeed he represents one type of the heroic impresario, midwife to a masterpiece, a man of ebullient theatricality and noisy good cheer. He was played by Simon Callow in the film Amadeus, which is a compliment of sorts and a premonitory piece of casting, given Callow's later forays into direction. But however good hearted and intimate his relations with Mozart, Schikaneder wasn't above maximising his profits, even by the 18th-century equivalent of spin-off merchandising. The playbill points out that "the word-books of the opera, which include two engravings, where Herr Schikaneder has been engraved in the role of Papageno with the actual costume, will be sold at the box-office for 30 kr." Given that a visitor seven years later noted the prices in the pit as 17 kreuzer, it's clear that the overpriced souvenir booklet isn't a modern invention.

There are other historical models for the impresario-as-hero, most notably Diaghilev (currently the subject of an exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery), whose energetic promotion of Russian art and music have given him a status as virtual co-creator of several 20th-century masterpieces. Looking around the contemporary scene, though, things are much thinner. It seems a long-shot to me, but posterity may yet hallow the opening nights of Les Miserables and Cats. If so, Cameron Mackintosh will fit the bill rather well as a cultural Midas. In the meantime, though, we will simply have to make do with Raymond Gubbay.

To listen to some people talk about Mr Gubbay (to listen to Mr Gubbay himself on occasion), you would think that there was no bathos involved here. The Tesco of classical music, Raymond Gubbay Limited stacks them high and sells them low, and all, so it is said, without the defiling touch of state subsidy. Indeed Mr Gubbay, whose cast-of-hundreds centenary production of La Boheme opened in the Royal Albert Hall this week, even took it upon himself to give the Royal Opera a brisk lecture about theatrical economy. His top-price tickets, he noted, were only pounds 37 and if he could do it, so could they.

If they were actually engaged in the same business, there might be some weight to this challenge. But they are not. With a house of only 2,000 seats, the Royal Opera has to maintain productions of the highest quality and also unveil new work (they don't wait 100 years so they can guarantee the box-office popularity of the work they present). What's more, without the Royal Opera house and its "elitist" consumption of public funds, it is difficult to believe that enterprises like Mr Gubbay's would even be feasible.

The abiding fantasy about subsidy is that it can be hermetically sealed within one building, that its effects never leak out beyond the privileged coterie who have, in the lazy mythology, fed their effete habit with the stolen pennies of the working man. Even the most passionate adherents of trickle-down economics (when it comes to social welfare, that is) refuse to recognise the fluid nature of arts funding in practice, the way it seeps far beyond its notional container. In truth, traces of subsidy could be detected at every level in Mr Gubbay's La Boheme, from the training and experience of the singers to the tastes of the market he serves. However much he hates the idea, he's dependent on the drug. And in this he does share something with Schikaneder: Mozart is listed on that first playbill as "Kapellmeister and present Imp. Roy. Chamber Composer", an acknowledgement that his life and development as a composer was inseparable from patronage.

The difference with Schikaneder is that he took a risk with the new, just as Diaghilev did, too, in his day. And that's what makes a truly heroic impresario, not just a canny eye for the packaging of the classics.