Alex Beard 2019
- Aiden O'Brien
- Alex Beard
- Cathy Marston
- Claire Calvert
- Francesca Hayward
- Freya Wilkinson
- Isabella Gasparini
- Laura Morera
- Lauren Cuthbertson
- Liam Boswell
- Marcelino Sambe
- Marianela Nunez
- Matthew Ball
- Ricardo Cervera
- Romany Pajdak
- Samira Saidi
- Sophie Alnatt
Chief Executive, The Royal Opera House
Interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, March 06 2019
After David’s welcome, Alex gave us a potted history of his background. He comes from a very medical family, with only his mother being a musician (a flautist). He was determined not to follow a medical career and this influenced his decision to study classics, which he thought would make it more difficult to be a doctor. He lost his father quite young which caused him to behave not very well (it was what his mother described as a dark decade), he ran away to sea, ran up debts on credit cards which eventually had to be paid off. The only member of the family with any money at all was his grandfather, a rather serious character who said he would only pay off Alex’s debts if he got a proper job. His definition of this was either a medic, a lawyer, an accountant or an actuary. The path of least resistance seemed to be an accountant, so he applied for and got an accountancy job which only lasted ten months, Alex resigning on passing his immersion course, not the final exams expected by his grandfather. He came back to London where he needed to find another job and, after two failed temp posts, saw an advert for a role in the accounts department of the Arts Council, which he thought might be interesting as he loved music. Alex was taken on and, having been a feckless runaway and a great disappointment to everyone, for the first time he found something he could believe in and worked very hard at it.
The Arts Council was a flawed institution and as such went through regular restructuring, leading to opportunities for promotion and new roles. In 1991 after he’d been there five years Alex was Head of Finance and Business Assessment and secretary to a commissioned enquiry, the Warnock Review, into the Royal Opera House (ROH). Alex’s focus was to assess if there was a real case for redevelopment. One thing that came out of the report was that the back stage conditions were appalling and something had to be done for that great institution. Alex reignited his love for the place. His first experience of the Opera House had been at the age of 11 while the family were living in Manchester, when his mother had got a ticket for opening night of a revival of Die Walkure and, after finding she also unexpectedly had to have her son in tow, managed to secure a place for Alex too, possibly through the good offices of Sgt Martin, and he recalled listening to hours of glorious music and thinking the place itself was unbelievably wonderful, with the sensation of being enveloped by music in such an extraordinary atmosphere.
The process of being on the review meant he met some very special people including Dennis now Lord Stevenson who asked how long he’d been doing his job and when told it was five years, thumped the table and said sternly “you need to DO something”. Thinking he was right Alex applied for jobs, being offered the position of Finance Director at Scottish Opera in Glasgow which at the time was the job of his dreams. But this coincided with meeting his future wife, Kate, who was firmly based in London and not a particular fan of opera, and he wondered what to do. Then the Tate job came up - Kate loves art - so he went for it and after six interviews got the job. During the final interview he was asked if he got it what would be his dream? Alex said he’d “love to be a Jeremy Isaacs figure of the 21st century at Covent Garden”.
After an extraordinary journey of 19 years at the Tate, Nick Serota asked if he knew Tony Hall was leaving the ROH and, given what he’d said at his interview, perhaps he should throw his hat in the ring. During his time at the Tate both he and his wife had a Damascene conversion to ballet and felt he had to go for it. After several interviews they took a chance with him for which he was hugely grateful.
Ballet wasn’t part of Alex's life growing up, though his mother was doing delicate things in the orchestra pit as a flautist
There are a lot of connections between Alex and Covent Garden but asked to describe the ballet connection, he said ballet wasn’t part of his life growing up though his mother was doing delicate things in the orchestra pit as a flautist. At the Tate contemporary art was key and there’s a link between that and contemporary dance but he still didn’t understand ballet. BP supported the Tate and they would often ask Alex to attend events at Covent Garden. If it was opera, that was great, but he always counted on a couple of stand-ins if it was ballet until one day in 2005 neither was available so reluctantly he and Kate had to go. It was Alina Cojocaru dancing Manon and within five minutes of the curtain going up he wondered what on earth he’d been doing for the last several years, who was Kenneth Macmillan and how did they manage to communicate a story without words? Kate felt exactly the same and that led to many more ballet performances together, but it still wasn’t till 2013 that he saw Nutcracker for the first time. Then after he got the job he and his brother, whose common interests had previously been in cricket and cooking, fell passionately in love with ballet and meeting Marianela Nunez and the Royal Ballet on stage and being photographed with her, and the kids, was an amazing experience.
David asked Alex to give an insight into his job. He said first, that everything is always ultimately his fault! His number one priority is to create an environment in which the two companies and their extraordinary artists can thrive. You take the story that connects the two institutions and work out how that story goes forward into the future (he dislikes the militaristic word ‘strategy’). The second thing is to make it happen, which means having the right people around with the right support - the right level of bureaucracy that is inevitably needed to coordinate more than 150 people working together - taking the temperature, arbitrating in decision-making and depending on how things are going that can take 35%-45% of his time. The third thing is building relationships with those who can make a difference in their support for ROH, whether as funders or advocates. A bit of wisdom which another of his mentors John Botts told him, and which Alex tries to stick to as far as possible, is only do the things that only you can do as otherwise you can be wasting time or meddling. Fundraising is central to any chief executive’s responsibilities.
The Board is non-executive. There’s a clear distinction between the Board holding the Executive to account and hiring the Executive, and the Executive which is about proposing strategy and making it happen. They determine strategy on the basis of advice from the Executive, hire and fire and hold it to account, making sure it’s up to snuff and not second guessing. To support and in equal measure to challenge, to advise and give perspective, financial support if they can, and to be critical and frank.
Relationship with Kevin O’Hare. Alex doesn’t meddle – Kevin is the Director of the Royal Ballet and all programming decisions are left to him. However, he does spend time making sure they all, including the Board, have a mutual understanding of what we want the Royal Ballet to be famous for, what is distinctive about it, which its characteristics should be regarded to be. They’re about to do a review of the long-term plans since it’s about three years since the last one. Alex is also there to support Kevin and make sure he has the resources in terms of funds, people, access to schedule etc. As Alex was seen as an opera man and came late to ballet at the age of 43, it is super-important that he should be seen to be even-handed with the two art forms. In days gone by, the ballet company weren’t seen as part of the Opera House, they were out in Baron’s Court and there was a sense that they were admitted into the House rather than being of it. Alex feels he’s on a very privileged journey, discovering in very great detail a wonderful art form which must get its space. But we do need to be rigorous and self-critical so that when a show happens, they take notes of performances and what’s happening in the studio, and together check on achievements and what else needs to be done.
The Warnock commission was followed by the redevelopment of the House after which as Chief Executive came first Michael Kaiser from the USA and then Tony Hall. When Alex took over what were the initial challenges? First, he had to get the measure of the place with its strong history and deep culture. On one level there are similarities between the Tate and ROH as both institutions are trying to create a platform for remarkable artists and there is never enough money. But the intensity at ROH is extraordinary: you have about 300 people coming together each day on-stage, back-stage and in the pit to put on a performance for an audience with very high expectations. Understanding how schedules have to work when there are 40+ productions in what is a very intense operation so as to get the right numbers of performances. He shared his interview presentation with the team and the Board, and said they would review it together once he’d got to grips with the system.
A huge concern for Alex was that the ROH funding should be preserved as much as possible
A huge concern for Alex was that the ROH funding should be preserved as much as possible, the costume centre in Thurrock was just being proposed as he came on board so they had to work out how to engage with the local community who would then be aware of what the Opera House was about, the challenge of demonstrating and growing public accessibility to the House. He felt very much that the cinema programme should be expanded and the number of opera/ballet showings should be equal, roughly 12 a year in total, and no-one in the UK should be further than 30 miles away from a live relay. Then you have to get the money right and balance your obligations to the art forms – we are the beneficiaries in the ballet’s case of hundreds of years of experiment and innovation and we have to do our bit to preserve it and develop new works. There are fine margins in money terms of box office achievements and use of stage time which have to be respected. If you breach your trust with funders, either individuals or government agencies, you are in real trouble so getting the money right is key. Another initial challenge was education: there’s a decline in the quality of specialist teaching, particularly in primary schools, and what should the ROH do to inspire teachers and kids about the art forms? We are the only institution that has a brand, reputation and footprint of sufficient strength to attract the attention of teachers across the country and to inspire them to engage in dramatic singing, dance, theatre craft or composition. So developing national programmes were very high on Alex’ agenda to find ways of doing that in schools. Despite economic challenges we have to treat people well and he is a passionate supporter of the London minimum wage which he said originally should be implemented at the Opera House and it’s taken longer than hoped but is now in place at all levels.
How did the Open Up programme come about? The first thoughts, in the building sense, go back to 2010 when Deborah Bull had a conversation about it with Tony Hall. The Linbury was a wonderful resource but invisible to the general public, uncomfortable with bad acoustics and needed to be updated. That gave rise to thoughts of how the House could engage with the wider city. The feasibility study was complete and at that stage it was a £25 million project with a refurbished studio theatre and changes to the front of the house. With the encouragement of the Board they decided to be much more ambitious, as with two world class companies they should have two world-class stages at the highest level on an epic scale and the highest level on an intimate scale. They planned a complete transformation of the Linbury with an architectural resonance between it and the main stage, while retaining some flexibility. They wanted to make sure that every level of the house would benefit from the transformation. They needed more room to breathe and have a drink, with access to terraces, and make it roomier. Refining the original plan they set out to do four things: make it a good experience for the audience; open up the brilliant theatre which has been at the heart of London’s theatre-land for generations making it part of our shared culture and in the process inspire people to connect with the art forms; create spaces that are properly fit for artists to create great works; and make some money by encouraging people to come in for refreshments etc. This is still a work in progress. In Alex’ experience when you embark on an ambitious project on Day One you will do very well to get more than 70% of your wish list and it’s important not to pretend otherwise. At Tate Modern it was easier as no-one had expectations whereas at ROH everyone has not only expectations but very clear ideas of what it should be. The Tate took five years to reach their goal. Would it be less for the ROH? He feels they’ve made not a bad start. One question always asked is where is the Box Office? At the expense of a certain amount of inconvenience they decided to allow themselves time to get it right. There will be a Box Office within the ROH, and the choice is narrowed down to two possible locations. (Here David said it was important for us as an Association to have somewhere for our leaflets to be displayed since our membership had dropped during the refurbishment and Alex committed to enabling that to happen)
Comments on the new appearance. It had been said on coming into the new entrance it looked like any other cafeteria with little to suggest you were in an Opera House. Alex said over Christmas there were decorations from Hansel and Gretel leading to Nutcracker. They will try things out in different configurations to see what works and get the right balance. There will be displays to commemorate Fonteyn’s centenary. The furniture lay-out has been, and will continue to be, tweaked. They want to ensure there are glimpses and references to show that the building is a theatre. There is the Swan Lake display upstairs, and displays showing the history of the House with models of the auditoria. He can’t pretend it will be to everyone’s taste but there will be changes. On the subject of the Amphi corridor which had had the same exhibition for years, Alex said there will be change within the next two to six weeks, depending on the budget.
Security: it seems to be hit or miss whether or not bags are checked and it’s also been possible to get into the auditorium without showing a ticket. Alex said security is taken very seriously. They consulted all the specialist security agencies and have a CCTV system covering the whole House with a controller in radio contact with people on the ground so problems should be picked up and dealt with speedily. They’re fairly confident the approach to security is stronger than before. A cursory bag check isn’t particularly effective and by not searching everyone it prevents queues forming outside the building which presents its own dangers. Staff are alert to people trying it on and spot checks carried out. Any bag more than A3 size should be deposited in the cloakroom. The doors are a nightmare which hadn’t been completely solved though the revolving doors’ sensors seem to be fixed at the moment. It’s a whole new facility for staff and audience and things will surely not be 100% at the beginning but the new team are being trained up and learning as they go. Recently there was a power failure during Cosiwhich took out the lighting on stage, in the pit and the surtitles but the staff did an amazing job of getting people out and back again. For once the post-bag afterwards was almost universally positive, despite the disruption, but it is a work in progress so feedback is always welcome.
Linbury – the sound has improved but sight-lines in two locations are worse. Alex said it was a mistake not to identify the upper circle seats as restricted view (a couple have practically no view at all) but that and the pricing has now changed and they will make it clearer about which those seats are. We need to let the character of the theatre perform and there is now flexibility in that you can adjust the seating according to the demands of performance, make the auditorium in the round and, by digging down, there is now a more flexible orchestra pit.
Marketing strategy – the professional analyses and quotes in the press from Head of Marketing. Alex said he took responsibility rather than any other individual but the particularly divisive quotes were taken out of context. It isn’t the ROH goal and they have no objective to encourage regulars to attend less frequently. Latest audience research shows there is no change in audience attendance. Half the audience are coming for the first time or once a year, a quarter 2-5 times, and a quarter 6 or more times. However, they have significant economic pressures and at the same time an obligation for accessible pricing. They’ve moved from a seat map which had basically the same price bands for all shows, to one which is set by each individual production. The effect of that is not to increase seat prices – the average rise in seat prices for the ballet over the past five years is 2.7 percent, ie below inflation, last year it increased by1.1 per cent. There are seats which have increased significantly more than that as they’ve moved from one price band to another – one rise last year had been from £10 to £25 for Nutcracker. Some have gone down from £59 to £35 but the price increase year on year for amphitheatre seats is almost negative. Seat prices have gone down for the less popular shows, and up for the more popular. Alex’ mantra when appointed, and which he has stuck to, is we would keep to 45 percent of seats costing £50 or less for the main stage. This was in the 2012/3 annual report and that is the same for 2019. David said that the reason some of the seats are very popular is because the regular audience sits in them night on night. He understands about bringing prices down for some amphi seats - it was strange that you could sit in a seat costing about £20 next to someone who had paid £60. But some restricted view seats had gone up significantly for some productions. It strikes him that no-one in the House has sat in some of these seats during a performance since the camera view on the website doesn’t take account of peoples’ heads being in the way. Alex appreciated that some seats had gone up as some had gone down but subsidy is decreasing and we must sustain what goes on the stage and the investment in the company to keep it going so we had to optimise income from the box office. He didn’t want to go the way of the West End where minimum seat prices are £25. The Society of London Theatre’s annual statistics show the ROH has the most expensive and the cheapest prices. On the back of price changes, the financial capacities achieved for 2013/4 in Booking Period 1 were 87%, and it’s now 92% which is because there is a balance between what they’re charging and what people are prepared to pay and there is no evidence that the regulars are attending less often. The ROH is not just an institution supported by 900 staff, including some highly skilled technicians, nor Patrons and Friends but people who come year in, year out and commit to a passionate association with the House. The Arts Council grant was £27 million and this year it’s £24 million. Adjusting for inflation it’s an £8 million cut - we don’t want blanket increases to price some people out but while you can’t say there will be no impact, looking forward those challenges may become less.
Changes to the website are still a work in progress and to redesign it is a very complicated job - it can be done in one go if you have a multi million pound budget available, but otherwise it has to take a bit of time
Booking: Kevin has explained why the cast isn’t published in the magazine because it is printed too far in advance. For the triple bills the website seems incapable of distinguishing the casts for the different ballets. Alex said it does depend how you arrive at the page and they are in the process of fixing that problem. Changes to the website are still a work in progress and to redesign it is a very complicated job - it can be done in one go if you have a multi million pound budget available, but otherwise it has to take a bit of time. They had to make significant changes on the existing technical infrastructure which was eight years old and it will continue to improve so the expectation is that it will be good for the next five years. Seventy percent of people are using mobile devices as a primary way of accessing the site. All the changes couldn’t be made at once but things are improving and access to casts, ticketing etc should be better by the end of this year. David mentioned the cost of exchanging tickets has gone up to £4 and because upper slips tickets can be £6 people don’t think it worth exchanging so seats are empty for otherwise sold-out performances. Alex said he would look into it.
Resale of tickets through agencies: Alex said people had paid £100+ through Viagogo and were ripped off which is outrageous. Viagogo is being taken to court. The ROH know the bad ticket agencies, who charge commission and booking fees, and will continue to do what they can to stop people being ripped off. There should extend the ban on secondary ticket sales, as with football and as happened for the Olympics.
Cast sheets and synopses: the synopsis isn’t always on cast sheets and cast change sheets are now only available to view at the desks. Alex said it was a money saving device as it’s very expensive to print copies and by not doing so they can save six figure sums but reduced format/legibility has received negative feedback so they’ve gone back on that. They can get smarter about how they supply information, eg on line, and by the end of the year we should see improvements including information on casts of previous performances. They are getting better at presenting information on the day. Programmes make money, are desirable, have a stamp of authority, and extend information on both companies, while raising extra revenue from advertising so have a different set of drivers. Cast changes are showing on the screen in the cafe but are not particularly easy to see. Putting them on line is one answer. (There was a lot of comment from the audience on this.) There are big challenges re finance as subsidy is going down and the exchange rate depressed but costs of artists’ fees, pointe shoes etc are increasing. They have to find ways of saving money and using it more effectively.
In conclusion Alex said do approach him for a chat in the House and offer feedback as long as it’s not physical! We have a common cause as we all love the institution, the companies and the artists, and the experience of coming into the beautiful auditorium. Alex also said a big thank you to BA for the £500 donation towards the International Draft Works programmes, and individual donations for the pointe shoes appeal etc. Any contribution of any size makes a huge difference and is gratefully received.
Report written by Liz Bouttell, edited by Alex Beard and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2019