Arts feature

The promoter the critics love to hate: an interview with Raymond Gubbay

Richard Bratby talks to one of Britain’s most successful impresarios about his promoter’s nose, Arts Council spinelessness and ENO madness

19 June 2021

9:00 AM

19 June 2021

9:00 AM

When Raymond Gubbay left school, he was articled to an accountant’s firm. Fascinated by opera and depressed at the prospect of life as a Golders Green beancounter, he wriggled out of it in a matter of months, and into an assistant’s job at Pathé Newsreels. Sensing that newsreels had a looming expiry date, he asked Arnold Wesker (a family friend) to wangle him an interview with Victor Hochhauser, Britain’s leading promoter of mass-market classical concerts. Hochhauser sat behind a desk in his office above a fridge shop in Kensington and asked the 17-year-old Raymond three questions. Where did you go to school? Are you a Jewish boy? And can you start on Monday?

Six decades later, even three questions feel unnecessary. Raymond Gubbay is a brand; classical music’s equivalent of easyJet or Toby Carvery. You’ll have seen the newspaper ads and the Tube posters. ‘Four Seasons by Candlelight’. ‘Madame Butterfly at the Royal Albert Hall’. 1812 Overture — with cannon and laser effects! Gubbay’s ‘Spectaculars’ are probably the most popular classical concerts in the UK, and no critic will touch them. Tell an orchestra that they’ve been booked for ‘a Gubbay’ and 80 pairs of eyes will roll upwards in unison. But as a veteran tenor once reminded me, backstage at the Sheffield Arena as he waited to sing his fifth ‘Nessun dorma’ that week to a crowd of 12,000, Raymond Gubbay is possibly the only major promoter in Britain who has consistently made money out of classical music.

‘That gives me a certain amount of pride,’ says Gubbay. Turns out he’s real and not, as I’d once assumed, the musical equivalent of Cillit Bang’s Barry Scott. No, he’s very real, and having stepped down from his empire in 2016, he’s written his memoirs. Time to come straight out with the big question: the one that has defeated the most highly qualified (and remunerated) minds in the UK arts scene. How do you make classical music pay?

‘Well, I mean, I always did what I liked doing. I wasn’t trying to supplant what was already there; I was working with a different audience, and putting on things that I happened to like. The operas, and the ballets, and the Classical Spectaculars just came out of all that — at one time I was doing nearly 100 shows a year at the Royal Albert Hall alone. I wasn’t answerable to anybody other than the bank, and like all promoters, I nearly went bust more than once. You go with what you think will sell. But contrary to what a lot of people say, the money was always secondary to having a good time —doing something that I enjoyed, and that seemed to please the audience.’

And if there’s one thing that Gubbay understands, it’s how to please an audience. People love fireworks? Give them fireworks: Tchaikovsky’s big enough to take it. ‘I have what I call a promoter’s nose,’ he says, and for anyone acclimatised to the eggshell egos and fantasy economics of the subsidised arts, a conversation with Gubbay is a bracing experience. He’s intensely proud of the blockbuster operas that he mounted at Wembley Arena, and in his beloved Royal Albert Hall. But he’s also shouldered some high-profile failures: notably Savoy Opera, an attempt in 2004 to create a self-sustaining commercial opera company in the West End.

‘Some of the casting was not what I would have chosen — but look, my name was on it, and it didn’t work. I’m not making excuses. It didn’t work because people didn’t want to buy tickets. That’s the risk, and you can’t duck or dive, you have to say: “No more. We’ve got to stop this.” So we did. And I went to Paris, where I had a flat, and turned my phone off, and when I got back there were 50, 60, 70 unanswered calls. Well, today’s headlines are tomorrow’s chip paper. You just have to move on.’

Yet Gubbay’s success is still occasionally brandished by opponents of public arts funding. The man himself is unconvinced. ‘I’ve never been one to criticise public subsidy — I think it’s absolutely essential. Orchestras don’t get public money for putting on Grieg’s Piano Concerto, and Rachmaninov Two. They’re there to push the boundaries, to do different things.’ But he reserves the right to question the way that subsidy is dispensed and deployed. This is the man who in 2000 made a very public application to run the crisis-stricken Royal Opera House. If the resulting controversy shifted a few more tickets for Gubbay’s own (unsubsidised, naturally) production of Aida at the Royal Albert Hall — well, that was a win-win, wasn’t it?

‘Actually, what I was proposing was not nonsense. It had some heavyweight support. But the Opera House being what it was at that time, I didn’t even get an interview. The chair, Sir Colin Southgate or whatever his name was, said that he didn’t want audiences with dirty sneakers and T-shirts — you know, he was putting out such an arrogant message. The Opera House should be for everyone. I’ve had the great pleasure of working with the Royal Opera at Wembley, with Turandot. It was a big undertaking; it got them out of the Opera House and they were really thrilled. But in the annual report the chairman didn’t even mention it. I thought, well that says it all, really, doesn’t it?’

Looking back it seems like a missed opportunity — now more than ever. Still, never too late: how does Gubbay view the post-Covid landscape? ‘I think the Arts Council are spineless,’ he says. ‘People are making superhuman efforts to keep going; the freelancers had a terrible time. The government’s done its best but a lot of people have fallen through the cracks, and yet the Arts Council is handing out money to commercial companies. I’m not saying that’s wrong — though some of the choices do seem a bit odd — but I certainly think that the Arts Council should be much more proactive in deciding if a company isn’t up to scratch.’

He’s thinking specifically of English National Opera. ‘How can you justify your subsidy if you cut your season to a third of what it used to be? And in a season with a very limited number of performances, why would you put HMS Pinafore in? Nothing against Pinafore, it’s absolutely right — but why don’t you make it a four-week standalone season? You could actually make money in a house of that size, and that would help your other activities. That, to me, is just plain madness. But there you go.’

For a man who no longer has a dog in the fight, he’s strikingly passionate. It might surprise those who recoil from Gubbay the brand to realise how deeply Gubbay the man cares about the performers he booked and the music he sold. ‘I’ve spent my life like a kid with a train set. The fact that I’ve earned money out of it is nice, but it was never the motivation, and never the way forward for me. I was just very happy to be doing something I loved.

‘Am I glad that I’m not out there right now, in the forefront, trying to get things going again? Yes, I am very glad that I don’t have to worry about selling another seat. Am I heartbroken? Yes I am, because I’ve worked for fiftysomething years in this industry.’ Despite his claims to be out of the game, Gubbay doesn’t sound like a man who’s had his last word on the UK arts scene. There’s more than one major institution, in 2021, that might do worse than schedule a Zoom with Britain’s most successful living classical impresario, and have an honest chat.

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Lowering the Tone & Raising the Roof, by Raymond Gubbay, is published by Quiller Press.

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