15 November 2011 at 10.10am | Comment on this article
Last week we invited members of Young People in the Arts (YPIA) into the Royal Opera House to witness a ballet rehearsal of Asphodel Meadows with the talented young choreographer Liam Scarlett. YPIA is a forum for young professionals in the industry to meet informally and swap ideas.
Before the rehearsal started we were joined by Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House, Tony Hall. I spoke to him about his career to date, what it takes to successfully lead an arts organisation and the future for opera and ballet.
You joined the Royal Opera House after working for many years at the BBC. What was it that gave you the impetus to make that leap?
A bit of chance really. The Royal Opera House had been through five Chief Executives in about four years. It had then been reopened brilliantly by Michael Kaiser, but he had returned to Washington so they had interviews for a successor. I didn’t think for one minute they’d go for me but they did - it was one of those glorious chances, which I was very happy to take.
Funnily enough, when you go for that sort of interview, you think there are lots of things that are different between running an arts venue and a broadcasting company. And of course there are, but there are also lots of similarities.
Risk-taking is one - not being able to define with absolute certainty when it’s working well and when it’s not. Defining what is good in the art that you’re doing is as difficult as programme-making at the BBC.
Another similarity is dealing with very devolved ways of working where you depend on teams delivering things. I remember spending some time at management school when I was in the BBC. The American view of leadership is that it’s all about leaders: that they do incredible things and work endless hours. Actually I think it’s quite the reverse in broadcasting and in this place. You depend absolutely on teams doing things. The conductor Edward Downes, who I met in my first few weeks, said “It’s all about teams”. I then recalled my first week at the BBC when I was told, “Remember, for you to be successful it depends entirely on a whole load of people to make the programme you want to make”.
The differences on the other hand are obvious. You confront your audiences here at the Royal Opera House, whereas in broadcasting, you hope you don’t.
It’s all very well having a great team, but what leadership is needed to nurture that?
Well, here we’re lucky. We have Antonio Pappano who’s outstanding as a musical director and Monica Mason leading The Royal Ballet. Beyond that, one of the things I thought about when I came here was that the conversation on the street and in the press was not about the art and it needed to be. It was about the troubles with reopening and battles on the board and difficult times. I felt that we needed to get over that and stress what this place is brilliant at: what people come to see on stage. It is also absolutely crucial to look outwards and see how you’re perceived from the outside.
So it’s about people, it’s about strategy and it’s about knowing where you’re going. The other thing is creating an environment where people can say what went wrong and talk about it without wanting to hide anything.
How do you facilitate that?
I think by being as open as you can about things that you’re not doing right or perceive to be wrong and having a conversation about it.
How do you balance the differing artistic requirements of opera, ballet and ROH2? It can’t all be smooth sailing can it?
I’d be telling a whopper if I said it was all smooth sailing. Of course it’s not. What I think has happened over the last decade is that we’ve got to know each other as a team. The whole thing is built around the schedule - everything is booked five years in advance for singers whereas the ballet schedule can turn on a sixpence. Kevin O’Hare is coming in [as Director, The Royal Ballet], we’ve got some great ideas for the 12/13 season and we can change things. Making sure that the ballet gets fair slots in the schedule is key and the only way to do that is to get everyone in a room to talk about it.
The next stage is to get ROH2 much more integrated into the main stage planning. We’ve got some fantastic ideas for 2013 with the anniversaries of Wagner, Verdi and Britten and how this building can come together and make big bold statements.
We now talk about 360 degree planning, a broadcasting phrase, and I think this is absolutely core. You look at all the resources you’ve got and once you’ve made your artistic decision you want to bring in all these things around it. We now plot exhibitions, online, cinema, big screens and TV so you get the whole panoply around what we’re going to do.
One of the things that struck me about the Cultural Olympiad, which I’m chairing, has been how many conversations are now going on between people that have not happened before. One of the things I did was to bring together arts leaders, the BBC, the Mayor’s office and the Arts Council – it’s meant that the conversations have started to happen and we can build things. I’m sure you feel this - we all get stuck in our various silos because this place is compelling and you could look inwards all the time. But you’ve got to look outwards.
There’s a wonderful event next summer inspired by the Titian happening at the National Gallery. We’ve got seven choreographers working with three Turner Prize winners, working with the National Gallery and three composers. It’s a wonderful statement about risk-taking; putting the artists at the heart of things and we’re joining up with another organisation we’ve never worked with before.