Raymond Gubbay: Populist showman who likes the sound of success

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The origins of the great war between Raymond Gubbay, showman of operatic production, and the publicly-financed opera establishment can be traced to his lavish and disastrous Wembley Arena production of Turandot in 1991.

That opening night was festive, even if two-thirds of the 8,000 seats were empty, and he still smiles wryly at the crassness of having a champagne bar insisted on by the Royal Opera marketing department next to the one selling the more familiar Wembley fare of crisps and lager.

It was, Gubbay believed, supposed to be an experimental co-production with the Royal Opera which would lead to a series of large-scale, relatively low-cost offerings. La Traviata was lined up to follow.

"Just before we opened,'' he recalled five years later, "I went to see Jeremy Isaacs [then general director of the Royal Opera House]. He shook me warmly by the hand and said, 'Good luck with your project'. My project! No question of our project, of partnership.'' Gubbay had fondly imagined that "co-production'' meant shared risk but to his cost he found that the Royal Opera was not in the business of risk-taking co-productions. It turned out that he was merely hiring the show.

The cost was a few pence short of £1m lost on the venture, entirely borne by Raymond Gubbay Productions, and with it went any serious regard Gubbay had had for the running of subsidised opera in this country. "They should privatise Covent Garden, give the subsidy to all the great little companies popping up now to make new work,'' he said. "Then the opera house would quickly find out how to run a national company commercially."

All he ever wants, he has said, is to put on "a good show", and everything is levelled to that judgement. He is the eternal populist, the putter-on of "good shows" no matter how august the subject matter might be perceived by sniffy critics.

So it comes as no surprise that Gubbay is to stand toe-to-toe against the opera establishment of the Royal Opera and English National Opera, by turning to the Savoy, a few yards away from both their houses on which he has flung his sometimes genial curses, sometimes less so.

He will start off next spring - in partnership with the Savoy Theatre Group - with the perpetual crowd-pleasers, Figaro's story as told in the operas of Mozart and Rossini, with a triumvirate of artistic directors in the highly regarded Steven Pimlott, David Parry and Sarah Playfair, There are rumours that Deborah Warner and David Freeman will direct a production each. This is not the provocative Gubbay who once threatened to buy the Royal Opera House to show how it should be run, this is the impresario who has built a personal fortune which enables him to have a flat on the Left Bank in Paris and a villa on the Côte d'Azur as well as a house crammed with his collection of antique furniture and clocks not far from his Barnet offices.

"Raymond reminds me of one of those stuffed dolls that you try to cram into a box, and when you think you've got the top firmly fastened, he pops out at the back looking just the same as before,'' said one old friend and business associate. "He's fun to be with, but he's also very, very shrewd.''

Gubbay is a pragmatist. "You need to go out and give people the message that what they're going to see is above all good,'' Gubbay said, and the message isn't just for the opera-house-going élite. And he speaks as one whose own musical attainment, despite his CBE and his honorary music degrees, amounts to failing Grade One piano at seven.

Raymond Gubbay was born 57 years ago in Cricklewood, north-west London, and grew up in a comfortable middle-class Jewish household of a fairly prosperous accountant. He left school at 16 to follow his father's profession, and lasted eight weeks before realising he was six weeks behind on the correspondence course and would never catch up.

He went to work for Pathé News, "holding the lamps outside No 10", and then met the music producer Victor Hochhauser, for whom he was able to answer the three most important questions adequately - are you a Jewish boy? Where did you go to school? Can you start on Monday?

That was not a success either and Gubbay counts precisely 10 months, 28 days and 12 hours as a Hochhauser gofer before, aged 20, he left to set up on his own account, or at least with £50 borrowed from his father, promoting touring choirs. He, Hochhauser and Harvey Goldsmith now stand as the three most formidably populist music promoters, or as he likes to put it, "the kosher nostra". While Hochhauser stuck with his Russian dancers and conductors and Goldsmith went for pop music, Gubbay practically invented the phrase "popular classics'' with his Classical Spectacular tours which found a natural home at the Royal Albert Hall.

In 1982, having toured the site in a hard hat in the months before the opening, he in effect programmed the new Barbican Centre's music offering single-handedly.

The London Symphony Orchestra - whose survival in 1982 looked unlikely - is now pre-eminent and, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, more or less fills the Barbican Hall these days. Gubbay's association has never ceased and each Christmas he gives his fortnight of family concerts. This year everything from The Snowman to The Mikado, from Beethoven's Ninth to Glenn Miller.

"The main message that comes back to me,'' he said, "is that audiences want tunes they can hum, and that's what I give them. I did tell the director at another London venue that I had a problem with the programming there, told him that I liked tunes that people can hum. It didn't go down very well, but I know this is what my audiences want.

"When my concerts are on at Christmas I will be doing what a promoter can most usefully do - mingling with the audience before, after and during the interval and getting their opinions. I also talk to the box office staff and the stewards. They are the front line and know what people enjoy seeing. The main message that comes back to me is that people like tunes they can hum. They also like spectacle''. Expect nothing different at the Savoy.

He has also brought a touch of marketing magic to the South Bank. Last year he produced Sondheim's Follies for the Royal Festival Hall to help fill the gap left by English National Ballet's shift to Sadler's Wells, and it was moderately successful. This summer he tried again, bringing in a show he found at the Leicester Haymarket, Adam Cooper's version of the Rogers and Hart musical On Your Toes, written with Fred Astaire in mind.

"It's a show that wouldn't have got a look-in in the West End'' according to Michael Lynch, the South Bank's chief executive, "but it's found an audience here that is not a music audience and not tourists, they are just people who want to be entertained.'' Its five-week run ended on 6 September, having sold 66,000 tickets worth nearly £1.8m, almost double the Follies box office.

Raymond Gubbay Limited may go into production partnerships, but it finances its own shows without recourse to shareholders. A life-long devotee of light opera (his grandmother used to take him to see D'Oyly Carte shows at the Golders Green Hippodrome), Gubbay committed several million in an attempt to revive Gilbert and Sullivan operas at this same Savoy that had been created for them by Richard D'Oyly Carte, and they failed to take off.

But he was also aware that grand opera was a good show, hence his sobering first experience at Wembley, a venue he came to see was clearly too large for crowd-pleasers. The Royal Albert Hall, with a little more than half of the seats, was a better risk. And the hall is unsubsidised so the then chief executive, Patrick Deuchar, happily went into a genuine co-production partnership which saw, first, English National Ballet's Swan Lake become a box office success, then Romeo and Juliet and Sleeping Beauty.

Critics, however, were not enchanted and were no more welcoming when he brought opera into the Albert Hall in 1996. Audiences were more prepared to be convinced, though, and filled the hall again a year later for Carmen. In 1998 Madame Butterfly sold 80,000 tickets, and this year the show was back again for a third time with no discernibly diminishing interest from audiences and increasing respect from the critics.

He had made arena opera stick, but the Albert Hall success still brought resentment at Covent Garden. When he was doing Carmen, he was summoned to a meeting with the Royal Opera and told that in future they would be doing Carmen. "The attitude was that because they are Covent Garden they can do what they like. It's protectionism, and why should I kowtow to it?'' he said.

Well, he didn't, and when the job of executive director came up a couple of years ago he did what you might expect. He applied, on behalf of "Raymond Gubbay Limited". "I think the whole of the staff here thought they were going to be at the interview'', but he was not called.

Instead he sent a very serious 12- point manifesto, which neatly outlines his own policy about opera that will no doubt manifest itself in The Strand in April. There should be no "friends" of the opera house, which mean that up to 80 per cent of seats never reach the box office, there should be no shirking promises to get and keep prices low, staffing should be kept to a sensible minimum. And as a seasoned publicist, he sent a copy to the press.

His Savoy project may seem to be a startlingly quixotic way of getting back at the Royal Opera House, but you should never underestimate an entrepreneur who has built a business turning over £18m a year, said Graham Sheffield, artistic director at the Barbican. He has worked with Gubbay both there and at the Royal Festival Hall.

"Raymond is very good company and he has very strong opinions, but has a profound understanding of the business,'' he said. "If he is putting this forward as a serious business proposition, which he seems to be, you can be sure he has very good business reasons for doing so.''


Born: Raymond Jonathan Gubbay, 2 April 1946 in Cricklewood, north-west London, to David and Ida Gubbay

Family: Married Johanna Quirke 1972 (marriage dissolved 1988); two daughters

Education: University College School, Hampstead; Failed Grade One piano exam

Career: Concert promoter since 1966. Regular series of concerts at major London concert halls including the Royal Festival Hall, the Royal Albert Hall and the Barbican

Productions: The Metropolitan Mikado (1985); Turandot (1991); La Boheme (1996); Carmen (1997); Swan Lake (1997 and 1999); Madam Butterfly (1998 and 2000); Romeo and Juliet (1998); Tosca (1999); Sleeping Beauty (2000); Aida (2001)

Recreation: Gardening

He says: "A lot of people are attracted to classical music because they enjoy the tunes, but they don't like the formality of the concert hall."

"Classical concert promotion is not a genteel business, and never has been."

They say: "The word Gubbay is a brand-name in classical music, just as Marks and Spencer is to convenience food." - Graham Sheffield, artistic director of the Barbican

"It would be like asking the Grim Reaper to run an old people's home." - anonymous music critic, on Gubbay's offer to run the Royal Opera House