Raymond Gubbay: 'It's bums on seats' - a 'Nutcracker' to make the establishment's eyes water

Cheap sets, operas sung in English ... the purists are blocking their ears. The impresario tells Abigail Townsend why he's in the business of culture for the masses
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The Independent Online

This Christmas, try walking though a Tube station, or around any regional town centre, and avoiding Raymond Gubbay.

Adverts for the plethora of festive shows the promoter is putting on are everywhere. And, as you would expect from a man with a reputation for bucking the status quo and bringing culture to the masses - even if they don't always fancy it that much - the range is exhausting.

His offerings include a Classical Spectacular, a selection of popular pieces complete with laser light show, in Manchester; Messiah by Candlelight in Eastbourne, performed by an orchestra decked out in 18th- century garb; Make the Yuletide Gay, from the London Gay Men's Chorus, at the Barbican; carols at the Royal Albert Hall; and the Moscow Stanislavsky Ballet, which starts a four-week run of The Nutcracker and Don Quixote at the South Bank Centre on Wednesday - to name but a few.

Gubbay is not just for Christmas, though, and once the season is over he will be throwing himself into Bizet's Carmen at the Royal Albert Hall - a revival of the "in the round" show-stopper first performed in 2002.

He is, to put it mildly, a busy man. But it is shows such as Carmen, and not the endless festive offerings, that pitch Gubbay against the established order. Candlelit carol services are one thing, but this is opera, and people take it very seriously indeed. Not for him the constant moaning about funding that characterises places such as the English National Opera or the Royal Ballet. This is business.

Carmen was a hit with audiences last time round - but not necessarily critics. Gubbay upsets traditionalists by insisting operas are sung in English, putting on classics on a scale more in keeping with a West End show and amplifying voices.

He, however, holds no truck with such complaints: "We want people to see an opera like they would a musical, albeit with better music. They have to be able to understand it and, if they are distracted by surtitles, they are taken out of the drama.

"Technology has also moved on, so we use sound enhancement. We're open and honest about what we do. We want to attract a new audience and a lot of people going into concert halls will find the quality of the sound different from what they are used to.

"So I'm not sure we can blindly carry on with the purity argument. Whether you think it's a good or bad thing, you can't ignore this. That's a controversial view and won't curry favour with many people I'm sure."

Indeed. When his much-trumpeted attempt to bring cheap opera to the West End, launched in 2003, came to a premature halt earlier this year, not everyone was sympathetic.

The premise had been to offer tickets priced up to £50 - around £100 cheaper than the Royal Opera House's top seats - in a West End location - in this case, the Savoy Theatre, just across the road from Chicago. He chose the populist operas of Gilbert and Sullivan (the two debuted their operas at the theatre, so there is a long history) but audiences did not bite.

"It was a huge disappointment that it didn't take off. But I have no regrets," insists Gubbay. "There are people in the opera establishment who like to condemn any new venture and say 'I told you so'. Well let them say it. I'm proud of what we did. The press was reasonable throughout. The audience feedback was good. But the size of audience for opera in the West End just wasn't there.

"I couldn't break the mould. It would have been nice if I had but it was not to be. As a promoter, I have had to accept that. We're running a commercial operation here. There's no fairy godmother in the shape of the Arts Council doling out millions of pounds to us."

The use - or more accurately, misuse - of public money riles Gubbay. Four years ago, he got so annoyed with the way the heavily subsidised Royal Opera House was being run that he made a public application to run it himself.

The move, he says, was tongue in cheek, about proving a point. As he concedes: "The day job here pays rather better and I think I will stick with it." He had worked with the Opera House before - putting on a production of Turandot at Wembley in 1991 - but the experience was never repeated. "They took and we gave. It could have been a sort of relationship for life but the powers that be lacked the foresight to develop that."

Gubbay, who got his first break looking after a Russian dance troupe for impresario Victor Hochhauser, set up on his own at the age of 20, despite famously failing grade one piano and initially - albeit half-heartedly - pursuing a career in accountancy for eight months.

Over the years, the business has received various takeover approaches and he admits to getting "close" to agreeing a deal with Clear Channel, the US entertainment and advertising group. But ultimately he believes the company has succeeded because it has stayed independent.

"It's a specialist business. It's bums on seats but is also something more. You don't run a business like this by numbers alone. The bottom line is hugely important but it's also hugely important that we understand our audience and keep coming up with fresh ideas.

"We would lose something if we were not doing it this way. We might gain money in the back pocket but that's not really what it's all about."

The company recently moved from Barnet in north London to new headquarters at Dickens House in Tooks Court - which features in Bleak House - in the City. It is also looking to expand overseas, with Australia and the US currently the main areas under consideration.

Gubbay, 58, eventually aims to take a back seat and already has a succession plan in place. He quips that, with a new house in Covent Garden, two homes in France and six grandchildren, it's not an unappealing prospect. But in the meantime, he is happy carrying on as he his.

Over the years, Gubbay, the north London boy who did good, has developed a particular reputation. He's known as a generally shrewd promoter who turned his back on established mores, and is a passionate believer in bringing the arts to the masses in a way they can understand. He is also not afraid to speak his mind, or to hit out at his rivals.

Yet for all that, something about him fails to match the reputation. Quietly spoken, polite, accommodating, charming even, he appears no different from anyone else who has spent a lifetime cosseted in the highbrow, sedate world of the arts. Which, when it comes down to it, is exactly what he has done.


Raymond Gubbay

Born: 2 April 1946.

Career (1962): articled to his father, a chartered accountant.

1963: Pathé Newsreel trainee.

1964: escorted a troupe of Russian folk artists touring the UK.

1966: set up on his own.

1968: began promoting concerts at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Royal Festival Hall.

1970s: started promoting at the Royal Albert Hall.

1982: started promoting at the newly opened Barbican.

2000: application to run Royal Opera House rejected.

2003-2004: launched, then closed the Savoy Opera Company.

Other positions: honorary fellow of the Royal Academy of Music; honorary fellow of Trinity College of Music. Awarded CBE in 2001.