Toyal Opera House: Turning opera and ballet into Facebook friends

Tony Hall tells Ciar Byrne why, as chief executive, he's keen to put the Royal Opera House on to the virtual map
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The Independent Online

If you type "Royal Opera House" into YouTube, the video-sharing website comes up with trailers of the latest productions from Covent Garden Pinocchio, The Nutcracker, La Cenerentola as well as a classic clip of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev dancing Romeo and Juliet in 1966.

It is just one of the ways in which the Royal Opera House is exploiting new media to shatter the impression that it only caters to an lite audience and to get its message out to as many of the taxpayers whose money goes to fund it as possible.

As a former head of BBC News, Tony Hall oversaw the beginning of the digital revolution at the corporation. The ROH chief executive since 2001, he is therefore perfectly placed to bring his media expertise to what has traditionally been seen as a rather august arts institution.

On its website, the ROH offers podcasts that enhance enjoyment of its productions: Rory Bremner introducing Tosca; Bryn Terfel discussing his role in Gianni Schicci; Simon Callow reading from the letters of Richard Wagner about the creation of the Ring cycle; Deborah Bull discussing the magic of Sleeping Beauty.

The ROH even has its own Facebook site, including pictures of current productions and comments on what is coming up.

Taking this process to the next level, the ROH recently bought a DVD company, Opus Arte, for 5.7m, which will allow it to record the work of the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet and make it available to a wider audience either on DVD, as downloads or in high-definition cinema screenings.

The acquisition will also allow the ROH to benefit from Opus Arte's back catalogue, and to strike deals with other opera houses around the world to record their productions.

This week, the ROH will announce that after 18 months of negotiations, it has struck a deal with the Musician's Union that allows it to record 14 productions a year for commercial exploitation, 12 of which can be shown in cinemas.

In addition, live relays of Covent Garden productions are frequently shown on outdoor big screens around the country, and this Christmas, Romeo and Juliet, Carmen, La Fille du Rgiment and The Tales of Beatrix Potter will all be shown on the BBC.

Hall explains: "If you take money from people up and down the country, you've got to make every effort to get out there. Technology enables you to reach parts of the UK you wouldn't otherwise be able to reach."

The ROH receives an annual Arts Council subsidy of about 25.5m, which makes up about 30 per cent of its income. A further 40 per cent comes from ticket sales, around 15 per cent from fundraising, and the rest from commercial activities a proportion that Hall hopes to increase. "I went through this revolution six years ago at the BBC, so I could see when I came here what was going to happen," he says. "In the multimedia world we're in, you've got to get out and meet people where they are, and not expect them to come here."

Hall has no doubt that the demand is there. Three years ago, when the ROH did its Travelex 10 Mondays, a database of more than 30,000 people signed up for cheap seats. There are also some 14,000 students registered for the ROH 10 student standby service, which sends email alerts allowing students to purchase returns at a fraction of the price.

"We are elitist in one respect, and I make no apology for it: we want to have the very best work that there is going on in the world of opera and ballet here on this stage. But we do not ever, ever, ever want to be elitist in terms of not reaching out to as many people as we can to come here," insists Hall.

The ROH chief executive has not lost touch with the world of media. He keeps a close eye on the BBC, where he spent almost all of his working life prior to joining the ROH, beginning his career as a trainee in the newsroom in Belfast in the 1970s and working his way up to chief executive of BBC News, working under Sir John Birt. In 1997, he oversaw the launch of BBC News 24 and BBC News Online, but three years later, he lost out to Greg Dyke in the battle to succeed Birt as Director General. Today, he approves of what Dyke's successor Mark Thompson is doing at the BBC, streamlining the corporation and aiming to make fewer programmes of better quality.

"As long as the debate is about programmes, I think Mark will win through, and deserves to," he says. He has words of warning, though, for his particular area of expertise, news. Hall began the process of merging television and radio news, which he says "went back a bit under Greg". The current head of news, Peter Horrocks, is now busy creating a truly multimedia newsroom. "My worry is that in a multi-channel environment, there'll be fewer people who invest in first-hand reporting and the sort of investigations that require a lot of time, legal work and a large organisation to back up that programme if things start going wrong. I think that's a very big role for the BBC."

Hall is now a non-executive director of Channel 4, where earlier this year he was called in to conduct an internal investigation into the Celebrity Big Brother racism row. "The beginning of the year for Channel 4 was extremely rough," he admits. "The key thing in life is resilience, and Channel 4 has shown, in my view, real resilience. The fact that we're now looking at a vision for the next 25 years on Channel 4 is first rate."

The channel, which has just celebrated its first quarter-century, is currently undergoing a process of creative renewal. Hall is concerned that it should continue to make "programmes that are edgy and take risks".

As for Big Brother, he is diplomatic, saying that it is up to the director of television, Kevin Lygo, and the head of programming, Julian Bellamy, to decide its future.

"My own view is that, for any programme, you've always got to know with what you're going to replace it, when, eventually, the audience gets rather fed up," he says.

Earlier this year, Hall was brought in by the Ministry of Defence to investigate its handling of the media after 15 Royal Navy personnel were taken hostage by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and some later sold their stories to the press. He concluded that so many people knew about it and failed to stop it happening that it would be unfair to single out any one individual for blame. But, he adds: "The MoD has been meticulous about responding to the points I raised. My own belief is strongly that no one should accept payment for their stories while they are serving in the armed forces. If I did anything, it was to reinforce that belief."

For now, Birkenhead-born Hall's focus is on using the digital revolution to spread the word about the Royal Opera House, "so people feel really proud of the work that's done here, whether they're living just over the Piazza there, or in the North-west, where I come from".