Hall of the House to Auntie’s Rescue

The Royal Opera House’s chief executive is returning to the BBC after a dozen successful years

Norman Lebrecht

When Tony Hall entered Covent Garden in April 2001, he was paid twice as much as the previous chief executiveçand that was still some way short of his BBC package of £240,000 plus pension, or so I was assured by his chairman at the time. 

The pay gap was illuminating for, while the arts demanded sacrifice and offered a modest wage, the BBC in the age of John Birt — to whom Hall was a loyal lieutenant as head of news — preached market values and pegged the pay of its executives to the going rate in commercial media. That profound betrayal of its public service ethos lies now at the heart of many of the troubles that are dispatching Tony Hall — ennobled as Lord Hall of Birkenhead — back to the BBC as a last-ditch saviour.

There is much for him to save. When we read, in Nick Pollard’s report on the Jimmy Savile calamity, that Roly Keating, a former BBC2 boss demoted to backroom duties, was waved off to his next job at the British Library with a £375,000 BBC parting gift; when we see Lord Hall hiring a former Labour Culture Secretary, James Purnell, to return to the BBC at twice his ministerial emolument, the gorge rises at the oligarch-like money-grabbing that has been going on for two decades in the boardroom of a corporation that is paid for by householders who struggle to meet their mortgages. 

Meanwhile, down in the creative galleys, thousands work selflessly day and night for pitiful pay to maintain a miraculous Reithian standard of public broadcasting. Lord Hall’s last published earnings at the Royal Opera House amounted to £390,000, roughly ten times the salary of a BBC radio producer. The gulf between top and toil is almost beyond comprehension. The BBC needs above all to speak peace unto itself.

However, at Covent Garden Tony Hall was worth every penny of his wage. Five chief executives had come and gone through the revolving doors in as many years before his arrival and, although the American Michael Kaiser brought a veneer of stability, the cracks showed through at the slightest stress test — of which, in an opera house, there are many every day. Hall, with no prior experience in arts management and no practice in dealing with combustible artists, turned out to have perfect pitch for opera.

As a newsman, he had a nose for incipient trouble. In an opera house, that knack is worth two good mezzos and a ballerina any day of the week. Of Covent Garden’s first administrator, the Liverpool department store manager David Webster, it was said that he would turn up backstage exactly two minutes before a crisis broke. Hall has something of that intuitive talent. Below decks, he came to seem omniscient. 

The house calmed down, the media storms died out. A leaky staffer was promoted above her point of access to journalists, then quietly fired. Disgruntled commentators were lunched into submission. The Arts Council was expelled from board meetings — a bold and unconstitutional move that eliminated a pervasive anti-elitist whine and allowed stage directors to go about their business without worrying whether they had read the latest directives on social inclusion and disability rights. 

The board members and chairmen whom Hall recruited are low-key types who contributed in specific areas of expertise and did not meddle beyond, as had been the habit in the past. The board’s main role was made clear: to raise money. Hall’s stated aim was for personal and corporate donations to the ROH to outstrip its state subsidy, reversing a public-private partnership into a private-public one and blazing the path towards a Met-like autonomy. 

Quelling tabloid sneers, Hall struck a deal with Rupert Murdoch’s Sun to offer Christmas ballet outings for as little as £20 for a family of four. At new operas, the top seat was £65, within popular reach.

Several of these novelties won popular acclaim. Thomas Ades’s Tempest went on to rock the Met. Harrison Birtwistle’s Minotaur, as tough as any opera the craggy old Lancastrian has written, sold out its entire run on revival. Mark Turnage’s Anna Nicole was an overnight media sensation. All are writing more for the ROH.

Hall was fortunate in having the hardest-working music director on earth and, beyond that, the most collegial. Sir Antonio Pappano set ego aside, deferring often to the Royal Ballet and to the demands of other artists without compromising his authority or integrity. No music director has been better liked. Pappano was supposed to be leaving at the end of the present Britten-Verdi-Wagner season, but he has put himself down for so many productions in years to come that he may never go away. Both companies have installed clearsighted creative directors in Kevin O’Hare and Kasper Holten; the Dane recently rolled out his plans all the way up to the year 2020.

In this rising curve of constant progress, Tony Hall’s greatest contribution has been to restore artistic primacy to artists and restrict management to general policy and administration. In doing so, he has redefined the role of opera house chief executive for the 21st century.

In opera, it is the boss’s traditional perk (one of them, anyway) to have first and final say on casting and repertoire. Most “intendants” — the title used in Europe  — have early experience as singers or stage directors and consider themselves qualified to make artistic judgments. Even the Met’s buttoned-up Peter Gelb is a failed movie director who likes to show artists their best angle. 

Setting aside that directorial prerogative, Tony Hall brought a new sanity to the art of running an opera house. His formula consisted of 24/7 commitment, a dose of common sense, a capacity to delegate and an extensive knowledge of management theory, of which he became a bit of a wonk under John Birt’s tutelage. To general acclaim, it worked. There were no major disasters on his watch and the ROH is healthier now in every department than when he arrived. 

These are lessons that need to be learned at La Scala where, as I write, a premiere has been postponed because the anarchic stage crew could not safely erect a set; in Barcelona, where economic crisis almost shut the Liceo; in Paris, where style reigns as substance wanes; indeed, everywhere that opera is performed. Running an opera house is not about singing and dancing. It’s about getting all your ducks in a row and letting them bob in harmony. Opera needs dispassionate, professional management. Now set that to music.

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