Portraits of excellence, Covid-19, In the Eye of

Portraits of Excellence – Interview with Alex Beard, Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House

  • 06 April 2021

Reading time: 7 minutes

The old-fashioned (and politically incorrect) American expression “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings” is a very apt description for the way in which the world of live opera is waiting anxiously for the end of the Covid-19 pandemic. Opera houses across the world have been shuttered for the last year and the divas – large or small - have not been performing any arias except in their kitchens and gardens.

Opera and ballet are the most extraordinary arts forms. You bring together, in the moment, 300 people at the top of their game to perform the near-impossible. It’s unbelievably complicated.

Alex Beard, Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House

The true centre of excellence not just for classic, big stage opera in the UK but also ballet (it is home to the Royal Ballet) is the Royal Opera House, in Covent Garden, London. The opera house has been around in various forms since 1732. But for the last twelve months it has been eerily quiet since the performance of La Traviata was pulled at the last minute on 15th of March 2020.

While top-flight football and some other sports have continued thanks to the lucrative television rights contracts (and which are therefore not dependent on ticket-paying crowds), the pandemic has been a disaster for The Opera House which has annual running costs of around £135 million and approximately 55% of its revenues come from audience ticket and ancillary sales.


Covid has meant tough decisions

CEO Alex Beard has had many tough decisions to make to ensure his organisation’s long-term survival. A quarter of his staff have been made redundant and he was forced to sell one of its most valuable assets, a portrait by David Hockney which went for £11.25 million. Fortunately, the opera house chairman David Ross - net worth £642 million in 2020 according to The Sunday Times Rich List - stepped in to buy the artwork and has lent it back to the Royal Opera House. 

“We had about £4 million in reserves,’ says Beard. “But you can’t really hold financial reserves if you're an organisation like us. We turn over £135 million annually and those numbers have always been tight - we cannot exist to accumulate a surplus - our mission is to delight audiences. That’s what we do.”

“Our sector has been badly hit,” he continues. “The Met cancelled everything in New York. In Paris, opera houses are more heavily subsidized than us but overall, it has been very difficult for everyone. So yes, it’s been grim, but we have a plan. We will be back we hope in the autumn. We follow the progress of the vaccination programme very carefully and it might even be possible to produce some work with a socially distanced audience before then. We will do whatever we can safely whenever we can safely. In the meantime, we are streaming many classic performances from our archive.” 

Beard is concerned about inward-bound tourism to the UK: “We know that our most confident and hungriest audience members will buy up tickets as soon as we put them on sale. For example, The Nutcracker always sells out within hours, but tourism which accounts for roughly 15% of our audience may well take longer to recover.” 

Any medium, never mind long-term planning is very hard as lockdowns come and go. One cannot just decide to put an operatic performance or ballet on like the flick of a switch. Typically, operatic productions are planned 3-4 years ahead – top-flight singers have the busiest of diaries and avaricious agents - and ballet, despite having the full-time members of the corps de ballet, is two years in the making. 

Beard has been a victim of his own success in that, following government and public pressure, the Royal Opera House has succeeded in recent years in upping the proportion of its income? it derives from private sponsorship and donations. “After staff cuts and reducing non-core assets the third leg of the plan was a major fundraising effort from our donor base. When we are dark and not producing any work that may sound difficult, but they have been amazingly generous.”

It’s not a job for performers, it’s a dimension of your being. Not being able to perform to an audience has no upside whatsoever. The dancers come in every day. If they don’t remain in condition, they will wither. They think through movement.

Alex Beard, Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House

The UK government has provided a loan

And, finally, Beard has had to go, cap in hand to the UK government who have lent him nearly £21 million interest free over 16 years with no repayment required for the first four years. 

Beard has been the boss of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden since August 2013. He first visited the “Upper Slips” [the cheapest seats] aged 11 with his mother and it is his dream job, but he’s still best known in this world for his time as Sir Nicholas Serota’s Number Two at the Tate. The daring £260-million extension to the Tate Modern which opened three years ago was Beard and Serota’s baby. Excellence has become second nature to him. The Tate is the pre-eminent arts success story in the UK of the last forty years and the Royal Opera House is in the top five of its type in the world. “Opera and ballet are the most extraordinary arts forms,” he says.” You bring together, in the moment, 300 people at the top of their game to perform the near-impossible. It’s unbelievably complicated.”

The Royal Opera House is a substantial operation. There were 1200 people in the organisation pre-Covid when you add the opera to the ballet and the whole cast of wig makers, stage hands and administrators. Its assets are sweated hard – forty one shows each year and a total of 500 performances made it the most intensely-used theatre in Europe pre-2020. It consistently achieves 97% seat occupancy, a figure Ryanair would be proud of.

This is not a job for performers – It’s a dimension of your being

Alex Beard
Convening extraordinary artists with exceptional talent to bring all their artistry to bear on works that shine a light on the essence of being alive – love, hate, fear, hope – in ways that captivate an audience and set imaginations free. And restlessly striving for new people, new approaches and new techniques to do that with ever greater insight and force.
© Harry Borden

They have only suffered one death from Covid-19 but the human cost to Beard’s people is huge. “It’s not a job for performers, it’s a dimension of your being,” he says. “Not being able to perform to an audience has no upside whatsoever - it’s a homebound hamster wheel existence. The dancers come in every day. If they don’t remain in condition – match fit, if you like – they will wither. They think through movement.” 

Among the dark clouds there are, however, also some upsides to Covid-19. “We now hold a remote video-linked event for  our members of staff every 3-4 weeks,’ explains Beard. “That was not the case before the pandemic. I think the frequency and depth of the way we communicate with everyone has got better. Of course, 3D and in person is always preferable to 2D online but it’s been impressive that we've adopted tech very fast and effectively. Likewise, we have connected with new audiences via social media and the streaming of events. Our musical director Antonio Pappano does a Facebook From My House To Your House in which he plays the piano and explains composer’s ideas every Friday and it’s great.”

On a personal level, Beard has been able to lose a few kilos as he does not have to consume drinks and canapes with sponsors each night before and during the interval of performances. “I have to look on the bright side,” he says. “I’ve even taken up yoga.”