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.

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