Royal Opera House chief Tony Hall to the BBC - now what? | Dance reviews, news & interviews
Royal Opera House chief Tony Hall to the BBC - now what?
Hall the healer is needed at the BBC - but Covent Garden needs a tougher champion now
So Tony Hall moves from heading the Royal Opera House to taking over the BBC as its new Director-General. I can't for a moment imagine a rerun of that crucial mini-conversation between Helen Boaden and George Entwistle over the Jimmy Savile programming (if you can remember all the way back to mid-October through the cannonfire since) taking anything like a similar course had it been Tony Hall rather than Entwistle.
Entwistle prided himself, even congratulated himself on not asking a single question about why Newsnight's investigation into Savile should have any relevance to his programming of tribute programmes, which was why he appeared so dim and inadequate to normal people outside, who could not grasp any virtue in remaining wilfully ignorant. The moral philosophers backed up the position that if you don’t know, you can’t influence, but for any pavement-hitting reporter it was excruciating to see a man who called himself a career journalist showing no natural curiosity about the big news under his nose.
Hall, though, is a man who loves knowing everything. He was the BBC's own head of news (pictured right) when he was recruited to the Royal Opera House in 2001, and he has a journalist's nose, he's in every corner, curious to see rehearsals, chatting to conductors, checking marketing and media, good mates with the dancers, at total ease with patrons and press alike, finding spare time to run Olympic committees and other sundry extra-curriculars. He is outstandingly congenial, and that too will be just the tonic the BBC needs.
But is it what the Royal Opera House needs from his successor, who'll take over next March?
Hall has been widely praised for getting the ROH down off its marble pedestal, busting the blockades on broadcasting by developing a smart new interaction with the public far beyond WC2 via big screens, cinema relays, YouTube and social media. The perception of the Royal Opera House as closed to all but the rich and the knowledgeable has started changing, helped by some astuter focus on ticket pricing and booking.
This willingness to learn and react has surely protected the ROH from the worst effects of the government’s cuts to arts subsidies (of which the ROH is the greatest beneficiary) because it's simultaneously shown itself reaching out to the street and also tweaked its appeal to its private patrons. Electronically you can support the ROH or access some of its offerings from anywhere in the world; half a century ago Covent Garden meant, largely, Covent Garden and its WC2 postbox.
With two artforms to accommodate, the Royal Opera House has allowed itself to prioritise new life in one and fossilise old life in the other
But hand in hand with that has come a less welcome artistic change, markedly on view on the ballet front. With two artforms to accommodate, the Royal Opera House has allowed itself to prioritise new life in one and fossilise old life in the other. Innovation is always a risk in either artform, but ballet has been allowed to become a static bore over the last few years, focusing far too hard on 19th-century classics and box-office favourites. Creativity has shrunk, not just in opportunity but in scope. It's M&S at the ballet these days, with a super event like the Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 collaboration with the National Gallery a brief, risk-averse one-off.
Any glance at what the Royal Ballet was doing in even the mid-1990s shows a sharp brake in productions since then (and I shake my head sadly over my own naivety as I remember the savaging I used to give the ballet director Anthony Dowell over his lack of innovation). Go back further to artistic leaders like Britain's own Marie Rambert and Constant Lambert, the Ballets Russes' Serge Diaghilev, and the St Petersburg Imperial Theatres chief of Tchaikovsky's day, Ivan Vzevolozhsky, and one sees how vastly more can be achieved with dance as a crucible for lyrical and visual arts by people who see their mission as creating in the public a constant expectation of imagination.
I think having a generalist manager like Tony Hall at the ROH has concreted this process of canalisation - thanks to his own confessed ignorance about dance and his almost childlike pleasure in basics. His own taste has, by a kind of unwitting osmosis in reactionary social times, prevailed. What the public now has is a constant expectation of familiarity - it’s to the opera where the intelligent go for contemporary stories and artistic updates, and well done Hall for that. But when was the last scandal about a new ballet at Covent Garden? Not since Kenneth MacMillan's last, probably - 20 years ago.
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