Tony Hall: Taking high culture to the mass market

The Business Interview: He has to broaden the Royal Opera House's audience while also facing down spending cuts. Sarah Arnott meets him

Tony Hall has quite a challenge on his hands. The chief executive of the Royal Opera House (ROH) is on a mission to bring the most notoriously elitist art form to the masses. And he is doing it in the face of public spending cuts that would have made Mrs Thatcher blush.

It is a radical departure for the highest of high culture. "We have to keep looking for ways of reaching people," Mr Hall says with the fervour of the evangelist. "But we have to reach out to where people are. We can't just be passive and ask them to come to us."

Mr Hall's nine-year stint at the ROH has already changed the face of British arts. The former director of news at the BBC – who counts the launch of Radio 5 Live and BBC News Online among his successes – was the fifth brave soul in as many years to take on what was once dubbed "the dirtiest job in the arts". But during the subsequent decade, he turned the ROH from a dysfunctional, loss-making basket case into one of the world's top opera houses and an enterprise with an annual turnover of more than £100m.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a former editor of the Nine O'Clock News, Mr Hall talks like a man in a hurry. His words and sentences run into and over each other, as if they can't keep up with his thoughts. But on the subject of the opera house, he has the shining eyes of a man in love. "I love this place," he admits. "I find walking in the door every day exciting."

It is that passion that Mr Hall is desperate to spread to the wider, non-opera-going world. There is no denying that Covent Garden can be an expensive habit: the best tickets can set you back upwards of £180 each, and if you want a box, you must buy four of them. But there are also swathes of cheaper options higher up in the 2,200-seat auditorium. And while the ROH's two artistic directors labour to ensure the opera house remains a draw for the world's great talents – Placido Domingo's recent run in Verdi's Simon Boccanegra is a case in point – Mr Hall's job is to work out how to make it open to all. The worst economic downturn since the 1930s might seem a tricky time to be pitching opera and ballet as money well spent. The ROH has held up remarkably well so far. Audiences were running at around 95 per cent capacity last year, bringing in £35.5m through the box office. And although commercial sponsorship has been harder to come by, the number of individual donations is on the rise.

"Our supporters are a family," Mr Hall says. "I don't want to overstretch the analogy, but I really do want them to feel they are part of the organisation."

But the family feeling is about to be severely tested. Last year, the ROH received slightly more than £27m from the state. But the Arts Council has already slashed its own budget by £23m this year, with some £142,000 to come from the ROH's slice. And although Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Culture, has insisted that the arts are not a soft target, there is little expectation of anything but grim news from the full departmental spending review this October. "The £142,000 we will cope with. I'd rather we didn't have to, but we will cope," Mr Hall says. "But things are not looking good."

The Government's plan to turn to philanthropists to plug the gap is not as outlandish as it sounds. But it will not be achieved merely by asking, and it cannot be done overnight, Mr Hall warns. Arts organisations will need enough time to adapt, and the Government will also have to do its bit. "It will mean giving more tax incentives for people to give, and finding ways to encourage people to give over a longer period of time."

Whatever happens, Mr Hall says the quality at Covent Garden – and Britain's other cultural icons – must not be sacrificed to the spreadsheet, particularly not in the run-up to the London Olympics in 2012. "I really do believe there is a sense that arts are worthwhile for society, and they are something we are really, very good at," Mr Hall says. "We don't want all the good work of the last decade disrupted just when we should be showcasing to the world how good we are."

At such a time, it is even more important to reach out to the largest possible audience. There have been notable successes, such as the Don Giovanni promotion in The Sun that drew in an audience where nine in 10 said they had never been to the opera before. But careful pricing strategies are not the only option.

The real opportunity lies in new technology. Selected Covent Garden performances are already beamed to outdoor screens from Aberdeen to Swindon. And ROH's Opus Arte production company produces DVDs and also brings live performances from opera houses around the world into UK cinemas.

Still, that is just the beginning. Following a trip to see the 3D Hollywood film Bolt with his daughter, Mr Hall set up a pioneering partnership with RealD in California, and this autumn the world's first 3D opera – Carmen with Christine Rice – will be screened in cinemas around the world.

"I sat watching Bolt, with all the people eating popcorn, and I thought this could be a really big deal for opera and ballet," he says. "With a normal film you are in the best seat in the house, but with 3D you're on a flying carpet above the orchestra."

The next big thing will be video-on-demand. "In three years' time, you'll be able to sit at home and watch what is on at Covent Garden, or La Scala or the New York Met."

In economic terms, grand opera remains an egregious luxury, and ROH's commercial sidelines as yet yield next to nothing in comparison with the immense staging costs. But they will provide vital future revenue streams. And they help to drum up public support for the subsidy without which the ROH cannot survive.

"The most important thing is that we become part of what is available to people wherever they happen to be," Mr Hall says. "If we are taking money from the public, then it is absolutely right that we try to reach as many people as want us."

That argument will be tested to destruction in the months ahead.

The CV: Tony Hall

* Tony Hall took over as chief executive of the Royal Opera House in 2001 after a 28-year career in the BBC.

* He joined the BBC in 1973. By 1987 he was news and current affairs editor, and by 1996 the chief executive of BBC News. He was beaten to the director-general's job by Greg Dyke in 1999.

* Mr Hall is still a news junkie, and says the launch of BBC News Online is one of his proudest achievements.

* His favourite opera is Verdi's Don Carlo. "It is dark and intensely dramatic," he says. The council scene in Simon Boccanegra and the end of Act One in Othello also rank highly.

Voices
A Russian hunter at the Medved bear-hunting lodge in Siberia
Save the tigerWildlife charities turn to those who kill animals to help save them
News
Davis says: 'My career has been about filling a niche - there were fewer short actors and fewer roles – but now I'm being offered all kinds of things'
PeopleWarwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
News
i100
Sport
Frank Lampard will pass Billy Wright and equal Bobby Charton’s caps tally of 106 caps against
sportFormer Chelsea midfielder in Etihad stopgap before New York contract
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The first film introduced Daniel Radcliffe to our screens, pictured here as he prepares to board the train to Hogwarts for the first time.
booksHow reading Harry Potter helps children grow up to be gay-friendly
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Aladdin is performed at the Tony Awards in New York in June
theatreBrit producer Lythgoe makes kids' musical comedy a Los Angeles hit
Sport
Usain Bolt of Jamaica smiles and shakes hands with a competitor after Jamaica won their first heat in the men's 4x100m relay
sport
News
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
Life and Style
A small bag of the drug Ecstasy
Health
Life and Style
Floral-print swim shorts, £26, by Topman, topman.com; sunglasses, £215, by Paul Smith, mpaulsmith.co.uk
FashionBag yourself the perfect pair
News
news
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
Extras
indybest
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Financial Analyst - Forecasting - Yorkshire

£300 - £350 per day: Orgtel: Financial Analyst, Forecasting, Halifax, Banking,...

Business Architect - Bristol - £500 per day

£500 per day: Orgtel: Business Architect - Banking - Bristol - £500 per day A...

Regulatory Reporting-MI-Bank-Cardiff-£300/day

£200 - £500 per day + competitive: Orgtel: I am currently working on a large p...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Real Staffing

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Real Staffing are currently lo...

Day In a Page

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
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
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
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable