Raymond Gubbay celebrates 40 years as a concert promoter this autumn. He was born in North-West London in 1946. In 1966 he started on his own, presenting concerts with three or four singers and a pianist at small halls and theatres around the country. He began promoting in London in 1968, first on South Bank (at the newly opened Queen Elizabeth Hall) and later at the Royal Festival Hall, and from the early 1970s on at the Royal Albert Hall.
The opening of the Barbican in 1982 allowed him to significantly expand the number of London concerts and he is regarded as having greatly helped the Barbican to establish itself at a difficult time after the opening. Among the large number of well-known names he has worked with at the Barbican are Pavarotti, Kiri Te Kanawa, James Galway, Victor Borge, Ray Charles, Henry Mancini, Yehudi Menuhin, and all four London symphony orchestras. His Teddy Bears concerts introduced thousands of young children to the concert hall in an informal and light-hearted way. At the Royal Festival Hall, he has presented hundreds of concerts including the four-concert Fiftieth Birthday series by violin virtuoso, Itzhak Perlman.
At the Royal Albert Hall, Classical Spectacular has enjoyed huge success with regular runs of six performances at a time and over one hundred and fifty sold-out performances during the last few years. Abroad, Classical Spectacular has twice played Australia with a third visit to Melbourne and Sydney in 2006. This autumn, a German tour of major arenas in Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt and a half a dozen other cities will be followed in 2006 by performances in Vienna, Munich, Leipzig and return visits including Hamburg and Zurich.
In December 1991 he presented the Royal Opera production of Turandot at Wembley Arena which proved a huge success. More recently he has successfully co-presented in-the-round opera and ballet productions at the Royal Albert Hall including La Boheme, Carmen, Madam Butterfly, Tosca, Cavalleria Rusticana, Pagliacci and Aida and with English National Ballet, Swan Lake, Romeo And Juliet and The Sleeping Beauty.
In the West End, his productions include The Ratepayers Iolanthe and The Metropolitan Mikado, Ute Lemper in seasons at the Queens Theatre and the Savoy Theatre, Circus Oz and Bejart Ballet at Sadlers Wells, the Bolshoi Ballet at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company in several seasons of Gilbert and Sullivan at the Savoy Theatre and Peter Pan, The Marriage of Figaro and The Barber of Seville at the Savoy. At the Royal Festival Hall he has presented seasons of Peter Pan, A Christmas Carol, Stanislavsky Ballet, Follies, On Your Toes and Circus Oz.
Gubbay is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music and Trinity College of Music London and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He was awarded a CBE in June 2001 for services to music.
What's the first stage production you recall seeing?
I was brought up in Golders Green and we had a wonderful theatre in those days called the Golders Green Hippodrome, which was one of the last of the suburban London theatres. It did pre West End and post West End runs and pantomimes. I was very lucky at an early age to be taken there because we lived within walking distance so when I was quite young, four or five, I went to pantomimes and then to musicals; my grandmother was a great fan of musicals and she often took me on Saturday afternoons up to the gods, which were two and sixpence in those days - 12 and a half pence - to go and sit on wooden benches. I don’t know what I saw but I’ve got visions in my mind of musicals and dancing and God knows what. I know I saw at some point a touring production of The Merry Widow, I certainly saw the D’Oyly Carte from quite an early age, I think I must have been about six when I was taken to The Mikado, to a matinee, and thereafter I went fairly regularly with my parents and my grandmother and later on my own as I grew up. In my teens I went there quite a lot because there were so many good things on. I saw Marlene Dietrich, I saw Fonteyn and Nureyev, I saw Peggy Ashcroft in Arsenic and Old Lace. I remember Vanessa Redgrave starred there later on; I saw Arnold Wesker’s Chips with Everything, and so on. As a youngster pre-teens I saw loads of stuff there, including the old opera. My dad used to go and see the Italian touring companies that came there then. I know I got taken to the opera at Saddlers Wells, and even to the Royal Opera House; I remember a production of Carmen, I must have only been about nine or ten, where these Spanish ladies were standing on these balconies and it was all rather shaky scenery, and it just sort of stuck in my mind.
At what point did you decide to become a producer?
Never! At that stage never. It was a forbidden thought I suppose in a post war middle class family growing up in London. My father was an accountant and I was destined to follow him. I left school about three days before my 16th birthday and I went to work for him as an accountant. I lasted about eight months, it was horrible, I hated it, couldn’t bear it. But he started a thing called the Mozart Opera Lovers’ Society because he was passionate about Mozart and he staged a concert performance of Cosi Fan Tutte in the Rudolph Steiner Hall and then he did a production of Il Seraglio, which was not quite so well known in those days, in 1963 in the St Pancras Town Hall, and I got involved and that got me into contact with professionals. There was a lot going on in those days in the St Pancras Town Hall – now the Camden Town Hall – and there was the famous St Pancras Festival which did opera productions and there were other things going on throughout the year, so I got sort of involved in that and then I got a job with Victor Hochhauser through Centre 42, which used to be based at the Roundhouse and my dad did the accounts for them; Arnold Wesker was heavily involved with Centre 42 and got me an introduction to Victor. He asked me three questions; where did you go to school, are you a Jewish boy, and can you start on Monday? So I did! I worked for him for ten months 28 days and 12 hours. I drifted around a bit after that and the first concert I ever gave under my own auspices was on October 21 1966, which was the day of Aberfan, this terrible tragedy in South Wales when the slag heap collapsed on the school, so it was a date that I’m unlikely to forget. We did it at the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmonds and it was a Gilbert and Sullivan evening. There were lots of little halls and theatres in those days, what they call municipal entertainment was very strong, where each local authority would have some money to put into providing entertainment, and it’s rather sad that it’s nearly all gone now, the last vestiges are still there but it’s nearly all gone. I got three or four singers and a pianist and that’s how it started. My mother said she hoped I’d get a proper job someday, but I’m still doing it. I’ve been very lucky to live a life enjoying what I do and that’s something I’m very thankful for.
What would you have done if you hadn’t become a producer?
I’m not sure actually. I think I’ve found my niche, I’ve found something I really like. Not to say I couldn’t do something else but I’ve really found something I enjoy and thank God it’s given me a decent living and it’s given me a huge amount of pleasure, and I think the pleasure is more important than the decent living. To be able to do something in this world where you actually enjoy it, each day is a challenge and you look forward to it, the money’s a bonus in a sense. If you want to make money, be a lawyer or a property developer, something totally different. It’s interesting how many property developers actually go on the boards of artistic enterprises because it’s that which actually gives them the satisfaction, so I’m lucky I’m there from the start.
How do you decide what to produce?
I essentially regard myself as a concert promoter, I’ve never been anything else and the other things have sort of grown out of it. The various things have all come about in a kind of logical way but without any great deal of planning; the operas at the Albert Hall came out of the Classical Spectaculars we were doing – still are doing now, we do them worldwide – the opera started ten years ago, and the ballet followed from these in the round productions and they seemed to strike a chord, certainly with the public, and this is now the tenth anniversary of the first production that we did there. The Royal Albert Hall are very much our risk partners and our equal partners in this and without their support it would not have been possible. Show Boat, our first musical there, came out of the ballet slot in the summer; it’s quite hard to find enough popular ballet to keep this up on an annual basis and we felt this was a logical progression of what we were doing and we felt going for musicals would be rather nice. We were lucky enough to get the rights for Show Boat, to do it in the round and to get Francesca Zambello to do it, I admire her hugely and I think she’s very talented. She’s brought back Peter Davidson and Sue Wilmington as her design team, which is so strong, it’s the same creative team for La Boheme. It was a joy to see her direct Boheme the first time. Within a couple of days she knew all the chorus’ names and created characters for them and obviously thought it out terribly carefully and put it all into effect, and it was like watching somebody with an oil painting create this incredible image. I watched the show, I think I saw every performance, certainly the second act, and each time I watched it there was something I hadn’t seen before, it was a revelation. And so I think with Show Boat she’s going to be tremendous because she’s very used to working in the round having done Boheme and I think her ideas with Show Boat will be great, I’m looking forward to it very much, it’s an exciting project to be working on.
Which productions are you proudest of?
I’m proud of a lot of things I’ve done. I’m proud of having opened up the Barbican when it started as a concert venue, it was called a white elephant early on, people were damning it, and the first year I did 50 concerts and in the subsequent years I did up to 130 concerts including lunchtimes and so on; I don’t think either they or we particularly want to do that now but it was of it’s time and it struck a chord and these popular concerts were selling out one after the other, and it was great to live through, that was a real thrill. I loved working with Yehudi Menuhin and I gave his last concert in London, I didn’t know that at the time, but it was quite moving. It was Beethoven’s ninth symphony, the choral symphony, at the Albert Hall as part of our Christmas Festival and it was a packed house. I think we started with Beethoven’s Symphony Eight just as a curtain raiser, and he suddenly announced that he wanted to talk to the audience. There’s no proper sort of permanent sound system at the Albert Hall so all they could do was wheel out the emergency evacuation microphones and he spoke to the audience very movingly about events at the time in Kosovo and Beethoven’s relevance to modern life and the way music touches people. He gave a lovely performance and I said goodbye at the end and that was in December and the following March he died. I’d worked with him in the past on many occasions and that was very nice. I was also very proud when we did opera for the first time at the Royal Albert Hall, and particularly in the third year when we did Madam Butterfly, David Freeman’s production, which really struck a chord and I felt we’d actually arrived - and even the critics were pretty positive about it. We’ve since revived it another two times and we’re doing it again next year so it’s got an enduring quality, which is great.
Which productions, in hindsight, might you not have done?
There are certainly things which I’ve failed on, whether I shouldn’t have done them is another matter. It’s not all a bed of roses. People think that if you only do popular things you can’t fail, but believe me you can fail at every single step, there’s no such thing as a certainty. So if I look back on the Savoy Opera I say should we have done it? Yes we should have done. Did we get it right? No we didn’t, we got it wrong; I think we placed, in hindsight, too much reliance on the artistic directors and not enough on our own gut instincts and feelings and I think that – I’m not saying doing it differently would have saved it because I’m not sure in hindsight whether it could have worked - but I think it might have worked better, who knows. You try these things, you suck it and see and if it doesn’t work you’ve got be big enough to say so. Why didn’t it work? Well, not enough people came, they didn’t buy tickets. It happens in the West End all the time, we just happened to be fairly high profile. I went to my flat in Paris for the weekend, changed my mobile phone number to avoid the press; it was a big story, I looked on Google in France and there were about 150 stories about it, and I thought I don’t want to know. But today’s newspapers are tomorrow’s chips papers. There’s so much going on in the West End, why should it be so special? It was a West End show that didn’t work. I was in partnership with Stephen Waley-Cohen and that was great we had – and still have - a good relationship, but we brought in a trio of artistic directors who gave the whole project great credibility and were all very good people in their own right but I think they moved the goal posts from our original plan. Stephen had the original idea, it was very much his baby and he wanted to run one opera for six weeks then do the next one and so on. We did two in repertoire which was confusing to people, especially in the West End, and I’m not sure that doing Mozart and Rossini to start with was a very good idea. I think we should have started with something a bit more rumpty-tum in the nicest possible way, to go out there and give people something very popular, and I don’t think the actual direction and design and so on was that special. We didn’t live up to the expectation, quite frankly, and there was a lot of hype about the kind of artists they were going to get and so on and they raised the expectation level to a certain pitch. Having said that, we got some very good reviews – we got some pretty awful ones too, it was very mixed, and that’s fair enough – but there was a lot of good will. A lot of people wanted it to work and I think that we were getting a lot of feedback from people who had been saying they enjoyed it and I think there just weren’t enough people going there. I don’t want to use the excuse of blaming other people and saying it didn’t work because of them, that’s not what I’m saying at all, but I’m not sure we went about it in the best way. We could have found a better way of doing it and we didn’t. I doubt whether I’d do something similar in future but I’m certainly not put off doing opera in the West End, though it wouldn’t be on this kind of permanent basis, it would be on a one off basis if some good ideas came together. And I hope they will. Never say never.
Are there any concerts other people have done that you wish you had done?
Sure, we all learn form each other and it’s impossible to say we’ve only backed winners, we certainly haven’t and I’m sure there are lots of things we could have done but didn’t. But I’ve done things that I’ve enjoyed doing and somehow they’ve worked on the whole, so I’ve never been to worried about what other people are doing. The business we’re in is a big enough oyster for everyone to have a dip, and competition is what stimulates new ideas.
How did your current West End productions come about?
We did La Boheme two years ago for the first time so I’d been in touch with Francesca for some time before that and it seemed a nice one for us to start with so she brought in Sue Wilmington and Peter Davidson and Arthur Pita who’s doing the choreography and it’s a really good team. La Boheme got really good reviews first time round so we’re reviving it now for its second outing, and Show Boat kind of developed out of that. Francesca has always been involved in more than opera, she’s doing the new Disney Little Mermaid, and she did West Side Story and she’s doing some big musical in Vienna, she’s always been involved in all kinds of productions so when she said she was interested in doing Show Boat I was thrilled because I knew that meant we would have someone really good driving it. I think the idea to do Show Boat came from us because it was something we had been keen on doing and we thought it would work well in the round, but Francesca embraced it from the word go and was keen to do it. It’s the sort of daddy of the musicals; I can’t say it established musicals because there were musicals before Show Boat; but I think it was a turning point. It was a musical that really reached out to a modern audience at the time and it’s historically interesting, the racial mixture is very interesting for a modern audience, and something that Francesca will bring out and confront because I think its’ very relevant to modern day. It’s an interesting piece and it has a fabulous score, it’s just got one good tune after another, you can’t possible fail to be drawn to a score like that, you go out singing all the songs. And I think doing it in the round allows us to look at it in a different way because the one thing I’ve found with these in the round productions is that they achieve a fantastic intimacy – quite the reverse of what you’d think – when you’re standing on stage in the middle of the Royal Albert Hall you’ve got the audience almost within touching distance all around you. We noticed this with Madam Butterfly, which is a very intimate piece, there are not a lot of big crowd scenes or anything; the audience is drawn in, there’s that kind of concentration and when you’ve got 5,000 people all concentrating together there is a shared experience and I hope that’s what will come into play in Show Boat.
What might you tackle after Show Boat if it’s a success?
As far as extending Show Boat goes, we’re very much in the hands of the rights-holders because we only have the rights to do this for one season. Also, because it’s a new idea of doing it in the round I think, understandably, they’d like to see what they’re going to get before they make any commitments. I hope very much they’ll enjoy what they see, and we’ll see the potential. As for anything else, I think we’ve got a wish list but quite honestly we don’t know. We’ve got to establish first of all that this will work in the round, and then there are lots of other things that we could tackle and would like to tackle with the Albert Hall, who are very much involved with us; but I think we’ll draw breath after this one and say right, can we take this abroad? can we do other things with it? and so on.
Would you ever consider branching out even further and producing plays?
I’m not a play producer really, there are so many people who do it rather well and understand it. The shows I’ve done have grown out of what I’ve already done, one thing has led to another, and who knows, never say never, but I can’t see myself really as being in that area. There are so many people already who do it rather well.
What qualities do you think are most crucial to be a successful producer?
Staying power, an ability to shrug things off because, as I said before, it’s not all up, there are downs as well, and at the end of the day it is only show business, it’s not rocket science, it’s not going to change the world. We’re out there to entertain people, we shouldn’t lose sight of that and at the end of the day the satisfaction comes from bringing something to fruition. If you happen bring it to fruition and there’s a big crow there as well it’s even better, but it’s not always essential to have a huge audience to feel the satisfaction of saying yes, we did it. If people have got the bottle to produce and they really want to do it then you’ll never stop them, but I would discourage anyone but the most foolhardy and determined.
What would you advise the government – or the industry -
to secure the future of British theatre?
The government should certainly look at how they can find a way of investing in West End theatres to help them refurbish themselves. I think that’s hugely important because you’ve only got to see what Cameron has done with the Novello theatre - and I’m sure some of his others as well but I happened to go round there the other day - to see what some money and some love can do; and not everybody is going to be in that position and able to invest in that way, so it would be nice to know that our London theatres can be looked after and kept for future generations because they are real gems and we’ve lost so many of them. And considering the high prices that have to be charged, really people should expect not only tip-top performances, which they will get in the West End, but also tip-top theatres and it’s unfair to think that the proprietors can do it all themselves, something needs to be done to ensure the future of those theatres. The government can help with the musical education of children, which is so lacking in our schools. When I was a youngster it was part and parcel of the education system that you were taught music and given the chance to play an instrument and that seems to have almost gone. And also to give children the experience of going to see the performing arts. There should be funds available to encourage children at every level and from every area to be able to go and see live performances to give them all a chance to actually experience what going to a live performance is all about. They’re not all going to be grabbed by the throat but some of them will be and we’ve got to educate future audiences. There is nothing to my mind as exciting as going to a live performance whether it’s opera or ballet or a play or a musical, to be there and to be part of that nightly rollercoaster ride - because there is a danger in live performance, nothing’s ever the same twice and you’re part of that and it’s what makes it special; and you can never replicate that, however good the DVD is, it’s never the same as actually being there, part of that shared experience of seeing theatre live. I remember as a youngster how I was affected by things I saw, as a very small child I liked the glamour and so on but as I got older into my teens the power of plays, the power of drama really can make you think and motivate you and these are all hugely important but I think young people are missing out on this. It’s the duty of the government to do it, but I don’t think they see it that way because it’s not sexy enough for their image, they’re much more concerned with other things and I think that’s rather sad.
Why do you think theatre is important in modern Britain?
Unless you go to a live performance you don’t know what you’re missing. It’s a great high for people to be taken out of their ordinary lives and drawn into whatever the piece is, into another world - especially when it gives you cause to think or to stretch yourself or to move in different directions. So many people that come to the opera, for example, at the Albert Hall are not opera-goers and I can’t put my hand on my heart and say they all get converted, and nor would I necessarily want them to be, but they are moved by the experience and they suddenly realise that actually opera isn’t something separate from musicals, there is a link; if you hear Puccini, if you hear Madam Butterfly or La Boheme or Tosca, it’s like going to high-class music theatre. You don’t even need to have heard any of the music before for it to envelop you and draw you in and if you’re hearing it sung in English then you should be able to understand it and follow it - with Puccini in particular, he’s very economic in how he uses his music and brings back themes to point to certain people or incidents, so it’s very easy, I think, to come to Boheme or Butterfly and be drawn in. And perhaps that influences you to go and see performances elsewhere.
It worries me that our national Opera House is still so inaccessible on account of it’s cost and I’ve never understood how you can subsidise to the level it is subsidised and still have seats at £175. It seems to me it’s keeping it as a kind of elite entertainment. I think they also missed a huge opportunity with the redevelopment in not actually putting it into a more appropriate venue for a modern audience. I think the opera house is lovely but it is an early Victorian horseshoe-shaped theatre of a type you’d find many of in those days, designed for an audience to see each other and wave at each other from their boxes, and it does seem to my mind a bit ridiculous to put all that money into redevelopment when, by all means keep it and use it for certain performances, but why not do as they have done in Paris have an opera house where they are able to bring in a big audience and keep prices low. One of the reasons they’re able to do that is they’ve got a few more seats than at Covent Garden, and at Covent Garden of course they were not able to deal with the sight-line problem because the structure’s quite difficult to move whole areas into new formations. They’re left with a very beautiful house, it’s lovely, and if you happen to be sitting in one of the expensive seats in the dress circle good on you; but if you’re paying rather less and you’re craning to see a third of the stage it’s not so good. I did make a somewhat tongue-in-cheek bid to run the opera house, and certainly it was taken up by a lot of the heavy-weight press and I was surprised by the amount of support I got! I think it’s a pity that the opera house continues in its same old way of groups of one opera put in for five or six performances and then the next one and then a ballet in between. It can’t be very good for the ballet company because the dancers don’t get enough chance to dance as much as they would like to and economically it can’t be a very good idea to have two companies sitting side by side working effectively part time, so it always seemed to me a missed opportunity. But life goes on, and I think Tony Hall’s done a great job there and it’s just a shame that nothing much fundamentally has changed.
How would you describe the current state of the West End?
It’s OK, it depends what shows you’re talking about. It’s relatively tough out there but it’s very clear when you’ve got something people want to go and see they’ll go and see it, it just depends what you’ve got. But I think as a market generally it’s probably quite tough and you’ve only to see the amount of discounting that goes on, that’s always a kind of indicator as to how things are, to see how low it can be.
What are the most important issues facing
commercial theatre in the 21st-century?
Getting people to theatres in an era where security and costs are both big factors, both in the West End and the regions, because we mustn’t forget we’ve got fantastic regional theatres and concert halls as well. Get those audiences coming in and keep them interested and excited, in spite of all the problems of coming into a big city with security and congestion charge and parking and high costs. It’s an expensive night out so you’ve got to give value for money and you’ve got to make it attractive for people to come. And I suppose everything I’ve said is to do with that, doing up the venues is going to be something that makes people want to come, I mean going into the foyer of the Novello theatre and seeing how it’s all been beautifully done is a lesson for other people to see what could be done if they had the money available. I’m not tempted to buy any theatres myself, I love to go out after a show or concert at the end of the day and shut the door and say it’s somebody else’s problem.
What are your plans for the future?
We’re continuing to plan with the Royal Albert Hall future seasons of opera and ballet, and we have musicals as well; and we’re waiting to see what happens at the South Bank because we have a relationship there with musicals (we did Follies and On Your Toes there). More widespread, we have a very active business all around the country and abroad now as well, as Classical Spectacular goes to Australia and Germany, Austria, Holland and Switzerland and so on, so there are a lot of things going on there. London is the tip of the iceberg, it’s a very prominent part but we have things going on all over the place. About 16 people work for me so it keeps us all very busy. I’m going to be 60 this year. I’m not planning to retire yet but I’ve got a succession in place here with a tremendous young team and I’ve moved slightly into the background and I intend to do more of that, but I still enjoy being involved, and as long as they want me to be involved I will be because I like it. But I do have another life, I’ve got six grandchildren, three in Ireland, three here, and they are a very important part of my life so it’s not all work. But in the modern world in which we live you can have one of these Blackberry machines and you can wander anywhere and still check emails. I’m one of those people even when I’m away it’s quite refreshing for me to leave the pool side and start to answer a few emails, it doesn’t worry me. Some people need to switch off completely but I’m not like that, I can relax and enjoy working alongside that, so my colleagues know whenever they need me they can get hold of me.
Raymond Gubbay was speaking to Terri Paddock