Raymond Gubbay: A spectacular return

As he prepares Carmen in the round for the Royal Albert Hall, Raymond Gubbay reveals to Michael Church why his Savoy Opera company dramatically flopped last year

Monday 24 January 2005 01:00

When David Freeman's in-the-round production of Carmen returns to the Royal Albert Hall in February, another return will happen simultaneously: that of the promoter Raymond Gubbay. Battered and bloodied after his Savoy Opera debacle last summer, he is once more firing on all cylinders.

When David Freeman's in-the-round production of Carmen returns to the Royal Albert Hall in February, another return will happen simultaneously: that of the promoter Raymond Gubbay. Battered and bloodied after his Savoy Opera debacle last summer, he is once more firing on all cylinders.

For a full six months after the Savoy affair - which he has airbrushed from his website and, to a certain extent, from his memory as well - he wouldn't say a word to the press. Since he now feels secure enough to speak, this seems the moment for a post-mortem.

Savoy Opera was the conclusion of a process going back decades. Gubbay's first foray into opera was his succession of "spectaculars" at Wembley - popular successes marred initially by bog-standard amplification. But, gradually, he refined both that and his production style, bringing in singers and directors of a high calibre. Yet his nickname "Mr Grubby" stuck, as did the snobbery of the musical establishment: he replied with increasingly sharp criticism of how that establishment ran its affairs.

With Savoy Opera he hoped finally to turn London's operatic scene into a three-horse race, and in a manner which spelt danger for ENO, since both his theatre and his modus operandi suggested a viable alternative to the set-up which had brought ENO to the verge of bankruptcy. The Savoy was a West End theatre, and he would charge West End prices - £49.50 top whack, undercutting Covent Garden by a large amount, and even ENO - "the people's opera house" - by a sizeable margin.

And his chosen theatre was beautiful: the fire which destroyed it in the early Nineties had acted as a spur to replicate the Art Nouveau original in exquisite detail. Moreover, with perfect acoustics and 1,000 seats - as opposed to ENO's 2,300 - the Savoy didn't demand singers with mega-powerful lungs. It could employ young performers at the start of their careers, who were therefore cheap to hire. As Gubbay doesn't enjoy public subsidy, this detail was crucial. He would run The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro back-to-back for a 12-week run, and then go on to mount new productions. Press interest rose to fever pitch, editorials predicting that this "democratisation" of the genre would give Covent Garden and the Coliseum a bloody nose.

But when the curtain rose on the opening show, the public and critical response fell some way short of rapture. In contrast to the opulence of the auditorium, the white plasterboard sets were tackily parish-hall while the direction suggested a bunch of students wanting to cram in as many Monty Python gags as possible.

So when did Gubbay realise the whole thing was going to flop? "When people didn't buy tickets." Were the bad reviews to blame? "The press was by no means all negative, and the public response was strong - people were writing in saying, 'Please continue, don't give up', but that didn't manifest itself in sales. And if you don't sell tickets, you can't carry on."

Has he learned lessons from that experience? "You always learn lessons - it would be foolish to deny that." What are they? "It was an ambitious project which could have worked, but I don't work comfortably with committees. My style has always been very individual and hands-on, and I find it hard to be hidebound by direction which I don't agree with, and we had three artistic directors, none of whom I would wish to criticise publicly."

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Looking back at that triumvirate's bold "message" in the programme, one can see how Gubbay must have winced: "Savoy Opera is about the essence of opera... it should not be a lavish entertainment...'

Presumably he had problems with those terrible sets. "Yes." Then, in a pained voice, he adds: "They weren't like that because we couldn't afford better, they were what the committee chose to have. No, me and artistic directors don't hit it off that well. And then there was the question of repertoire." He thinks the opening works were the wrong choice, and that it was a mistake to present them in nightly alternation: he'd rather have established one for six weeks, and then moved on to the other.

Would he have had a better chance of success with starrier singers? "No, but you'd be surprised what was starting to come out of the woodwork, at the big names who were beginning to show serious interest, who we would have used later on." Revealingly, he can't remember the shows they were going to do after their first 12 brilliant weeks.

'But there's no point crying over spilt milk. I'm not making excuses - and I don't have any regrets. You pick yourself up, and go on to the next thing. There's a huge amount of public goodwill out there for us.' Would he attempt a similar enterprise again? "Never say never, but I'm not exactly rushing into it."

But is there not still a gap in London's opera provision? "It would be presumptuous of me, after the last year, to say how things should be done differently. Did I find that gap? No I didn't, I failed miserably. But the Royal Opera plays to a certain type of audience which is still very narrow, despite all their talk about outreach. ENO gets a lot of public subsidy, but it's not getting to the audiences it should. And the way they produce things suggests they haven't learned by their mistakes. Despite all the money that's been lavished on their theatre, they still go back to the old methods, using huge amounts of crew and money to bolster a shrinking number of performances of a shrinking number of productions."

With their Gilbert and Sullivan, and their now-projected musicals - ENO is not, in his view, fulfilling its proper remit. "If I were a West End producer of musicals, I might get pretty upset at the unfair competition." He turns his gaze north: "And look what's happened with Scottish Opera, at the disgrace of Scotland not being able to sustain its own opera company, leaving aside the mistakes the company itself may have made in hastening its own downfall."

But his Albert Hall spectaculars - with their amplification problems now brilliantly sorted out - remain a perfect riposte to the big national companies, and this Carmen should be no exception. This time round, the title role will be shared by Imelda Drumm and Victoria Simmonds, for whom this represents a big coming-out. ENO regulars are familiar with Simmonds's excellence in medium-sized roles, and with her protean dramatic abilities. Now we shall see what she makes of the role which she says it has always been her dream to sing.

In the gigantic studio of one of those secret hi-tech worlds in London's dockland wastes, the show is taking shape, and Gubbay is purring.

'Carmen', Royal Albert Hall, London SW7 ( www.royalalberthall.com; 020-7838 3100) 17 February to 5 March

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