As the Royal Opera House prepares to let the public into its redeveloped spaces, chief executive Alex Beard tells George Hall why he is passionate about welcoming in those who are new to opera and ballet
September 21 is a red-letter day for the Royal Opera House. The fruits of the long-planned Open Up project – hidden behind boards on Bow Street for the last two and a half years – will finally be revealed.
Throughout a preview of the entirely new, or re-conceived, spaces at the opera house, chief executive Alex Beard can barely contain his excitement about what has been achieved during that time. In many ways, he says, Open Up will transform people’s experience of the UK’s most important venue for opera and ballet.
Entirely rebuilt is what is now to be called the Linbury Theatre, a 400-seat, below street-level venue designed for smaller-scale performances by both the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet, as well as visiting companies. In addition, there are major improvements to the foyers and other spaces linking various parts of the theatre.
A major investment has been made, but the results look spectacular and seem likely to benefit artists, patrons and – Beard feels certain – new audiences, too.
The idea for the upgrade goes back to 2011, the year before Beard – previously deputy director of the Tate – was appointed. “The architectural competition was in 2012, just before I came along,” he says. “When I joined, it was obvious that part of the reason for them thinking about me was that I’d done a number of building projects.
“There were a couple of things that needed to be done. One was to upgrade the old Linbury Studio Theatre. It was clear to me that the artistic ambition of the companies was far outstripping the capabilities of the space to respond to them. That needed to be sorted out.”
The second task was to make “significant changes” to the whole building. “Not just on the ground floor and the Linbury, but connections to the Paul Hamlyn Hall, the under-theatre levels and how the terraces worked,” he says.
They wanted to create “more breathing space to make a better audience experience, but also a suite of spaces that would be inviting and welcoming for people visiting outside performances, for them to be able to get a sense of what this space is about.” A new bar, cafe and restaurant were included in the plans.
His predecessors at the opera house had appointed Stanton Williams architects to oversee the changes, a decision Beard was fully on board with. “I admire them hugely for the subtle and honest use of materials. For me they had the right sensibility to think about the grandeur and elegance of the historic spaces and how they could be reflected in 21st-century language.”
We were clear that this couldn’t be a project that drew on public or Lottery funding
The question of finance was vital. “From the outset we were clear that this couldn’t be a project that drew on public or Lottery funding,” he says, “so it would have to be raised from a small number of people who are utterly passionate about this place.”
During this time, the necessary work has been carried out without disrupting the schedule of the main house – though obviously with the Linbury closed, parts of its programme had to be transferred to other venues.
Beard and his colleagues’ ambitions for the Linbury Theatre was to make it a space of equivalent importance to the main stage – though much more intimate – and for that to be architecturally evident in the way that it connects to the foyer. “We’ve taken it to a level where we can hopefully say proudly: ‘One ROH, two world-class companies, an amazing orchestra and two world-class theatres.’ ”
There’s also been an upgrade to the smaller Clore Studio. During the day it’s a studio for the Royal Ballet, used intensively in rehearsals, but, Beard explains, “increasingly it’s used in the evenings as a space for small-scale performance and education events and also for what we call ‘Insights’.”
This is an extensive programme of events illuminating the history of the companies, the art forms and what’s coming up on stage. They involve the creative team, the musical team, interested academics and performers talking about the processes they’re going through.
“What we’ve done with the Linbury and the Clore is to put in an infrastructure that enables us to more easily record and stream the activity that goes on there, not just for 400 people, or 130 people, but for tens of thousands of people through the web and cinema programmes.”
Open Up’s significance is obvious in a physical sense, in the new look and feel of the building, which is partly about space and light and accessibility.
However, says Beard, “it’s also about a philosophy. There’s something poetic about art forms that started off as closed entertainments for enlightened courts, which over hundreds of years have opened up through opera houses, and since the 1920s through broadcasts and now into cinemas. We’re taking that to the next level.”
According to Beard, the opera house wants to be open not just to audiences, but for members of the public to come in and get a taste of opera and ballet to further their interest. “The great thing about buildings when the hoardings are up is that it’s a catalyst for change,” Beard says. “So I hope that label goes much more deeply. Architectural symbols are hugely important.” So the Linbury is not merely a new theatre, “it’s also important for its visibility to be expressed in the architecture, with the window on Bow Street visible from the street”.
There’s a perception that we’re a closed world. But the window on to the street says ‘Come in, you’re welcome’
He continues: “Sometimes there’s a perception – mostly held by people who haven’t had the opportunity to engage with us – that we’re a closed world. That window on to the street says: ‘You’re welcome, come in, it’s part of your cultural fabric.’ ”
At the other end of the spectrum, Beard stresses the importance of having a dedicated cloakroom for the amphitheatre, “so that at the end of a performance, you’re not at the back end of the queue downstairs”.
While he’s happy to pick out highlights, “the whole is what is important – it’s a transformation of the experience of coming to the opera house and its relationship with the city”.
The project has been brought in on time and budget, Beard says. He praises the project team, led by the “absolutely outstanding” Sarah Younger, and the construction and project managers. “We’ve also got trustees who really know a thing or two.”
But while the practicalities have been vital in achieving Open Up’s goals, it is clear Beard’s passion for the art forms remain undiminished and he wants to bring more into the fold. “I speak as a punter here, not as a chief exec, but these art forms are extraordinary because they bring forces together to connect to the essence of what it is to live in a way that no other art forms do.
“There’s an intensity and immediacy to them that is so special that we have a profound obligation to open that up and encourage as many people as possible to have the opportunity to connect with them. That could be five minutes nipping in and seeing that big-screen projection and thinking, ‘Crikey, what is that?’. It might be leaving them with that transcendental experience at the end of Parsifal. Or it could just be getting the wiring right to connect these works to people outside the auditorium, in cinemas, or online, or whatever. That’s is what it’s all about.”
Total cost: £50.7 million
Total fundraised privately: £50.7 million
• 23 different trade contracts
• 283,758 hours or 35,469 days worked
• More than 288,000 metres of cable used
• 853 performances since construction began (no cancellations)
• 183 items discovered (including a ticket from the 1940s)
Visit roh.org.uk for more details