18 November 2011 at 11.12am | 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.
How do you balance risk-taking with projects such as Anna Nicole and the more conservative aspects of running an institution such as this?
It's a really good question. First of all, the schedule has to reflect the many different audiences you're dealing with. We're running La traviata at the moment and were slightly worried about how many performances there were. Actually that's playing awfully well but you don't want to make all your money from one work. So getting the balance right is absolutely key.
With Anna Nicole and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, they both opened within 10 days of each other and there were huge risks involved, but we were talking about them for at least three years from moment of inception. People often think that you take a risk and follow your hunch but that's not how it happened at all.
For young people in the arts, already working in the sector and hoping to lead organisations in the future, how important do you think it is to have experience outside the arts in order to lead successfully?
I don't think you need to go outside. I think attitude and energy matters. you will all know that from working with people yourselves. I think you need to be able to look at yourself from the outside but that doesn't mean you have to leave the arts.
I also think the media is an important part of the arts now. We're all becoming broadcasters and the impact of media on what we can do and the audiences we can reach is crucial.
How is the opera house dealing with the cuts to funding?
When it was clear we were all being asked for a 15% cut, I felt strongly we should accept it and not argue. This is tough but I thought it was right that we share some of the burden of ensuring some of the smaller less well funded companies survive and grow.
What have you done then to absorb that?
Our turnover is £106 million a year. We can't look to make up the shortfall by raising prices. Although ballet is selling out, the top prices for opera are proving harder to sell than they were 2/3 years ago and we want people to be able to afford to come here.
We've looked at efficiencies. We've saved a couple million over the last couple of years, by looking at things like producing our programmes much more cheaply. There's all sorts of little things we can do in order to save money.
We've then looked at how we can make money out of this place. So we set up an organisation called ROH Enterprises - bringing together DVDs, cinemas, catering - and saying, "OK, we want to get a return from that".
Then there's fundraising. We are blessed with a lot of people who give us small amounts of money and some big donors as well. When I came we were bringing in £6.7 million a year and we're now bringing £22 million. Everybody in this place contributes to that, when you walk in this building, the glory of this place is that everybody here cares about what they do.
What do you think is going to be the biggest challenge the arts leaders of the future will face?
The biggest challenge must be to keep whatever you're doing exciting. And that sounds naff but it's not. If you can't create a buzz and energy around what you're doing then you're not doing your job properly.
The thing which has worried me most about the 15% cut is that you suddenly play safe, that you make compromises. Then people suspect that and audiences don't come. The most important thing is to keep the place exciting. This is what we are trying to do and it's what you are all going to have to do in your jobs. I think we had a glorious 15 years where funding was steady in the arts, and you see that now because we've got the best arts and culture in the world. We've now got to get used to a very different funding model, it's going to be much tougher but the importance of what we all do is bigger than ever.
If you work or have worked in the arts, what advice would you give?