e’s the reason I’m working in opera,’ one of the stage managers told me in the middle of the 12-minute standing ovation for Plácido Domingo, ‘he’s the most generous artist there is.’ As she spoke, Plácido was pushed yet again to the front of the stage to acknowledge the applause on his own. His reluctance was genuine. He picked up some of the flowers raining down on him and threw them back, to the orchestra, to the audience. Backstage, he greeted everyone, literally everyone, but not in a rush — with real interest. A programme from his very first performance at Covent Garden — as Cavaradossi in Tosca in December 1971 — was signed: ‘Forty years on. . . ’ ‘Have I talked to everyone?’ he asked after 20 minutes, still clad in the heavy, hot maroon robes of a Doge. This from the man who, aged 70, had just performed three of Verdi’s major roles — as Otello, Rigoletto and the Genoan Doge, Simon Boccanegra — to celebrate 40 years at the Royal Opera House. Everybody there that night, front of house and backstage, had deep memories of him. And he’s probably the artist who more than anyone reaches out to millions of people beyond the world of opera. It’s why he’s such a passionate supporter of our BP Big Screens, which each summer for nearly a quarter of a century have taken our work out to people for free. There’s no one else like him.
Early next morning I’m off to Moscow for the reopening of the Bolshoi Theatre. Timings are tight, traffic in Moscow is awful, and made worse by the fact that President Medvedev is coming and the place is surrounded by security guards. I’m told to go straight to the theatre and change into my dinner jacket when I arrive. ‘Let’s go,’ says my host, as I emerge from the metro and am ushered towards the red carpet in front of the theatre, lined with the presidential guard, in bright blue uniforms, hat with cochades, and shiny boots. I, on the other hand, am in jeans and an open-necked shirt, pulling my overnight case on wheels. Nonetheless, the soldiers come to attention.
The building — one of Russia’s greatest cultural icons — is transformed. When I was last there — eight years ago when the Royal Ballet visited — we were all mindful of the history of the place. Over by the stage was the box Stalin preferred, and from which he’d watched and condemned Shostakovich’s masterpiece Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The Covent Garden team were allowed to watch from the Tsar’s box. But it all looked shabby and run-down. Backstage, cats, brought in to
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deal with a plague of mice, had gone wild and the smell was overpowering.
The restoration is worthy of the Bolshoi’s history. The gold and cream of the auditorium is the most visible change, but backstage the equipment is state-of-the-art, and beneath the floors, a cavity filled with concrete by the Soviets has been excavated to help the acoustics. The Gala began with the noise of drilling and reconstruction, dump trucks with flashing yellow lights moving across the stage, men and women in hard hats, pallets being hoisted to the sky, which gradually gave way to what the Bolshoi is most famous for: opera and ballet. Ivan Vasiliev dancing Spartacus, a ballet choreographed by one of the Bolshoi’s greats, Yuri Grigorovich, was just one of the highlights of a programme that proclaimed the company was back in their proper home. At a reception afterwards both the Russian President, and the general director of the Bolshoi, Anatoly Iksanov, told me how proud they were — and they’re right to be.
Afew days later — but with Yeletsky’s aria still in my ears — I’m on a 36-hour tour of Belfast, Edinburgh and back to London, launching the London 2012 Festival, which I chair, with Ruth Mackenzie its indefatigable director. It is genuinely exciting. I love the fact that on Midsummer’s Day the festival will begin with a Peace One Day concert on the site of the old army barracks in Londonderry. In London, the programme is announced to the world’s press. All sorts of artists and organisations are pushing themselves to do something special and I’m thrilled that the Royal Opera house will have a day when, with Streetwise Opera, homeless people will be given an official platform as part of the Olympics, performing around the building. This will be a festival celebrating what we’re good at in this country — arts and culture. With the eyes of the world upon us, there’ll no doubt be a long-term boost to tourism. And, let’s be frank, we’re all in need of something to celebrate at the moment.
Tony Hall is chief executive of the Royal Opera House.
the spectator | 12 November 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk de_vroom_15_09.indd 1