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The show must go on

18 December 2020

Alex Beard CBE, Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House and Alexander Gilman, Director of the LGT Young Soloists

The devastating impact on the performing arts industry has been well-documented and, at times, the subject of controversy. What we have seen, however, is the incredible resilience of the arts industry and a sheer determination to reach audiences in new ways. We speak to Alex Beard CBE, Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House (ROH), and Alexander Gilman, Director of the LGT Young Soloists, on what the future looks like. 

The depth of the crisis

Alex Beard CBE (AB): The Royal Opera House's season began on 16 September 2019 and was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic on 16 March 2020. Since then we haven’t been able to perform to live audiences other than very occasionally, under huge constraints and only to a small fraction of our usual public. Like theatres up and down the country, this has been a huge blow to our finances. We have lost well over 60% of our budget, plus we’ve had no income from the shops, bar and restaurants. This is a massive financial challenge, the biggest in our history.

In order to get through it, we have had to develop a four-part recovery plan: a combination of reducing costs, looking to our assets, fundraising, and bridging finance from the Government.

We’ve made a number of very painful redundancies – saying goodbye to well over a fifth of our staff. We sold our wonderful David Hockney painting of my predecessor Sir David Webster at auction. We’ve launched a major fundraising effort from our audiences and supporters. We worked for months to make sure the numbers stacked up before applying for a Government loan. Since it’ll be repaid over 20 years, we didn’t want to put obligations on our successors that they can’t meet. Taken together, this plan will support our core team of artists and craftspeople through the crisis, ensure we can look after the heritage buildings in our care, and enable us to create new opportunities to connect to audiences beyond the theatre.

Alexander Gilman (AG): Although we've seen a lot about how the big concert halls and theatres are closed, it is also important to remember the freelance musicians, who live from gig to gig, who have really been hit hard by this. From my own experience, those who suffer most are the young musicians. Picture this: this year's graduating musicians, who have been learning their instruments from as young as four, performed their final recital, the culmination of their studies, at home in front of their laptop. When they finished, there was a silent, empty room.

Innovation and creativity

AG: When the first concert halls were shutting down, we quickly saw the proliferation of online concerts. It has been polarising amongst musicians - there are some who believe they must stay visible, but also those who say that this is not an alternative, we cannot get used to this. But technology quickly became the only way to keep your name out there. The LGT Young Soloists have done a number of virtual performances and, overall, it has been a great experience for the musicians involved. But it is not without its difficulties - especially as an orchestra, filming 20 musicians in 20 different countries. Ultimately, though, it is not a replacement for a real, live performance.

I told my students from the very beginning that you will never have as much time as you do now - use this time to perfect pieces and work on developing technical skills. They have been listening to music genres they've never listened to before and reading biographies of musicians and composers. They have used this time productively and, when things return to 'normal', they can reap the rewards of their dedication.

AB: At the Royal Opera House, we have an obligation to give respite and delight to the public, particularly so in such difficult and challenging times. Our mantra throughout has been 'we will do whatever we can, whenever we safely can'. We adapted fast, and while staff from technical and production made scrubs and PPE equipment for the NHS, we announced a free programme of curated online broadcasts, musical masterclasses, behind-the-scenes content and cultural insights which became the hugely popular #OurHouseToYourHouse campaign.

Throughout the spring-summer lockdown, the ROH presented full-length performance streams, livestreamed socially distanced concerts, mini-documentaries and interactive activities for children and families. Our ambition was to reach every home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the first lockdown eased, six venues around the UK hosted ROH Luna drive-in cinema screenings of opera and ballet, attracting thousands to experience our work from the safety of their cars. The ROH Autumn Season featured 4/4 and New Dark Age, two brand-new works from The Royal Opera. In September, we welcomed live audiences once more to dazzling live opera and ballet concerts. We are particularly proud to present the world’s first original opera in hyper reality: Current, Rising, an artistic virtual reality experiment bringing together historic stagecraft and cutting-edge technology, developed by a female-led creative team. 

An uncertain future

AB: With continuing global uncertainty, the inevitable long-term economic impact of COVID-19, and the unviability of socially-distanced performances, the road ahead will be challenging.  However, whatever the challenges before us, we are determined to continue creating new and exciting ways to showcase our artists, make outstanding and imaginative work and connect with our audiences and communities as we move forward.

AG: The biggest problem we have in classical music specifically is that we have an older audience. Although there is hope about the vaccine and a return to 'normal', there remains a big question mark as to whether the 'high risk' will feel safe to go out and sit in a concert hall – or if they would prefer to stay home. I expect that the biggest challenges will be in the coming months, to find creative ways to interact with and attract younger audiences. With COVID-19, we realised we had to be creative and I think this creativity will continue – to ensure the arts reach out to all ages and all groups of listeners.

A message from The Royal Opera House: supporting the Recovery Campaign

We would be tremendously grateful if you would please consider supporting us with a donationto the Royal Opera House Recovery Campaign. In doing so, you will be part of the recovery of the arts now and play an important role in the survival of one of the world’s greatest cultural organisations. With your backing, the performing arts, classical music and dance ecologies can be sustained through this, the worst hit in their history.  

For information on how to make a donation please visit: https://www.roh.org.uk/donate-now


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