BBC’s Chief Honed Skills Saving Covent Garden: Commentary

Tony Hall
Tony Hall, chief executive of the Royal Opera House. He arrived at the Royal Opera in 2001 facing the task of making the company an artistic and financial success. He is now moving back to the BBC, where he began his career. Photographer: Johan Persson/ROH via Bloomberg

It’s fitting that the new director general of the British Broadcasting Corp. comes from an opera world familiar with tales of lust, vengeance and heads on the block.

Baron Hall of Birkenhead, 61, a friendly and straightforward man usually addressed as Tony, is leaving his position as chief executive of the Royal Opera House which he has held since 2001.

He’s the man to fix the mess as he returns to the BBC, where he started as an intern in 1973 and worked his way up to director of news.

Police are investigating claims that Jimmy Savile, a popular BBC presenter, had sexually abused dozens of underage girls over a period of decades on BBC premises and elsewhere. Savile died last year.

The bad handling and faulty reporting of this crisis have also revealed decades of mismanagement at the monolithic and unwieldy corporation.

Unsurprisingly, there’s the usual tiresome talk of scrapping the annual BBC license fee of 145.50 pounds ($233) that must be paid by every householder in the U.K. who uses a working television to watch live broadcasts.

Hall’s track record at Covent Garden, where he presided over both the opera and ballet companies, is impressive.

The theater is in sterling shape. During his time, revenue increased by 113 percent, while the reliance on government subsidy decreased by 35 percent. Attendance increased by 3.4 percent. The books are fully balanced. (All figures from the most recent ROH Annual Review, 2010/11).

Top Standards

The Royal Opera, which has a current total unrestricted income of 109.5 million pounds (the government subsidy of 27.9 million pounds roughly accounts for just a quarter of it) now ranks among the top companies in the world for its artistic standards, and attracts the best singers and conductors.

Much of this is thanks to Hall.

When he arrived, the theater was slowly recovering from years of disastrous management with the reopening of a refurbished theater and the brilliantly shimmering Floral Hall.

The American manager, Michael Kaiser, had started the process of sorting out the finances but left surprisingly soon for the Kennedy Center in Washington. D.C.

It was left to Hall to steer the company into the future and he did so with quiet aplomb, building on goodwill and hiring the galvanizing conductor Antonio Pappano to lead the opera house.

ENO Mistakes

Any mistake at that time would have been disastrous. A few years later, the English National Opera’s own refurbishment and re-opening failed to build on similar goodwill for the troubled company.

Hall capitalized on the precarious stability, and then did the spade-work of making the books balance year on year and keeping confidence high.

There were many triumphs. During his tenure, the Royal Opera took a huge gamble on the world premiere of “Anna Nicole,” about the sad, trashy celebrity of the same name. It was a major hit, both comical and moving. There’s been a new Ring Cycle, too, which is a huge achievement.

Hall also oversaw the purchase of DVD label OpusArte in 2007 for 5.7 million pounds, so that the Royal Opera House uniquely now has its own DVD production and distribution arm. Taking a lead from the Metropolitan Opera, the company broadcasts directly into cinemas too. The program reached 230,000 people last year.

Ticket Prices

If top price tickets are high, at about the 200-pound mark, Hall has kept 30 percent of tickets at a more manageable 30 pounds or less. I don’t hear grumbling about it like there was 10 years ago, and it clearly doesn’t dampen box office receipts too badly. The Royal Opera House plays to a healthy 92 percent capacity.

The Royal Ballet (also under Hall’s command), despite strong competition from the more technically assured Russians, still holds a high place internationally.

I met Hall several times during his tenure, and always found him cheerful and unflappable. He once told me that running the house was similar to running a newsroom: everything must be focused either toward the curtain-up, which is like the “on air” signal of a studio. It was a question of prioritizing, and keeping everyone working towards the same goal.

George Entwistle, the previous BBC director general, lasted just 54 days in the job before he was forced to resign for allowing an innocent man to be indirectly accused of pedophilia on a television program.

Payoff Criticism

The chairman of the BBC trust, Christopher Patten, also faced widespread criticism for allowing Entwistle to walk away with a full year’s salary (450,000 pounds), which was double his entitlement.

Entwistle was rewarded for his mistakes. It doesn’t bring credit to Patten, Entwistle, or the whole rickety structure of the BBC.

Hall will need every one of the skills he previously learned in the newsroom, and which he has subsequently honed at the Royal Opera, to put the BBC back in harmony again.

Perhaps he’ll recall Figaro’s aria while he’s doing it. “Pronto prontissimo, son come il fulmine” sings the clever factotum. Faster and faster, I’m like a thunderbolt.

Quite a few things need blasting at the Beeb, if it’s to regain public confidence.

Muse highlights include John Mariani on wine, Mark Beech on music and Scott Reyburn on the art market.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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