Analysis FD interview
After a spate of well-documented controversies, the Royal Opera House has been going through a period of stability. Jenny Hirschkorn talks to FD, Anne Bulford
FD interview Analysis
The first time Anne Bulford set foot in the Royal Opera House was in 1978. She was in her first year at University College, London, where she was reading English, and she had queued round the block for tickets to . For the 19-year-old student and opera virgin, nothing could have been further from her mind than that she would one day become finance director of this, one of the world' s great opera houses.
Over the next 24 years, Bulford became a frequent visitor to the House, but denies any suggestion that she is a connoisseur.' I am a huge fan and came here a lot before I worked here, but I don' t pretend to comment on the artistic programme in terms of what should and shouldn' t be done. But I think if you are not interested in it and don' t think it' s important then it [trying to do the job] is hopeless, as with any product.'
Quietly spoken and looking younger than her 43 years, Bulford, who travels to work by boat from her East London home, next month celebrates her first full year in the role. It appealed to her, she says, because it brought together her two great strengths - accountability for public money and working with ' brilliant and creative people' .
Bulford' s career began with professional training at KPMG, where she passed her accountancy exams first time round and where, after qualifying, she developed two specialisms - media and the public sector.
' I was seconded to the London Docklands Development Corporation providing public confidence in the LDDC' s financial controls during the sale of Canary Wharf and raising money for the railway,' she says. She also worked with a number of media clients.
After 12 years with the firm, though, she started to get itchy feet.' Staying in professional practice didn' t feel like the right thing for me. Like many people I found it frustrating to go away just as things got to the interesting bit. I like implementation.'
So when, in 1993, a job came up at the BBC, it provided exactly the right mix for her. She joined the Corporation just after John Birt had introduced the internal market and producer choice reform. As head of internal audit, and with a team of 20 qualified staff, she implemented new systems and procedures and major changes in the way people ran their budgets.
By the time she left the BBC, Bulford had spent five years as FD of BBC Production, responsible for a £700m turnover and 4,500 staff. She remembers it as a very exciting time, looking at programme efficiencies and driving through a lot of change.
She left to dip her toes into the commercial world, becoming finance director of the production division of Carlton Television, but her time there was blighted by the long shadow cast by the ITV digital fiasco. When she heard, then, through Tony Hall, the Opera House' s executive director, that the FD job was coming up, she had no hesitation in putting herself forward for it.
War and peace
Bulford' s appointment may have come as a surprise to some, in view of chairman Sir Colin Southgate' s well-documented disagreements with other women at the House. Former chief executive Mary Allen, who departed soon after Sir Colin' s arrival, accused him of having no great faith in women managers, and friction between him and fund-raiser extraordinaire, Dame Vivien Duffield, led to her resignation from the board. But Bulford leaps to his defence.' I have found Colin a huge support,' she says, ' and he has always been perfectly charming to me.'
Nevertheless, there' s bound to be a palpable change of atmosphere when Sir Colin is succeeded this summer by barrister, Judith Mayhew.
There has been a theatre on the Covent Garden site since 1728, when John Rich, actor/manager at Lincoln' s Inn Fields, commissioned the from John Gay. Twice destroyed by fire and closed down by two world wars, the House' s history is every bit as dramatic as any of the productions it stages.
Bulford and I settle down for our meeting in the gallery of the magnificent Vilar Floral Hall. Since the House' s reopening in 1999 following its £214m restoration (£78m of which came through a National Lottery funded Arts Council grant), this space has served not only as one of its main restaurants and bars, but has also provided a venue for occasional orchestral performances and Friday afternoon tea dances, recalling the days when the ROH was one of the most popular dancing locations in London.
A constant buzz of activity is playing out in the background, as waiting staff prepare for the influx of evening opera-goers, visitors on guided tours pour down the escalators and people wander in off Covent Garden' s piazza just to admire the splendid building.
There are, Bulford tells me, some 200,000 day-time visitors each year, quite aside from performance ticket-holders and backstage tours. It is all a long way from the dark days that dogged the Covent Garden of the late 1990s, and the shambolic organisation that was portrayed in the notorious fly-onthe-wall documentary, .
With Sir Colin Southgate in the chair for the past five years and Tony Hall executive director since April 2001, the House has been going through a newfound period of stability. Hard to believe that four years ago it was on the brink of insolvency and was getting through chief executives as frequently as many organisations dispose of temporary secretaries.
Who: Anne Bulford When: 22.09.1959 Where: Northern Ireland Brain: BA (Hons) English Literature, University College London; Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales (FCA).
Work: Head of internal audit, BBC Life: Ballet, opera, skiing, theatre
Analysis FD interview
Like any organisation on the receiving end of large chunks of public money, the ROH is constantly under scrutiny, so ensuring best commercial practice in everything the House does is foremost on Bulford' s agenda.
With a commitment to keep half of all ticket prices at or below £50 to counter cries of elitism, pressure is on to find new sources of income and Bulford is keen to explore how best to commercially exploit the House' s rich resources and archives.' The question is, are we doing enough with the material we have here? A good example of the sort of thing we want to do is the book we published at Christmas, , based on Bill Cooper' s photographs. That sold very well.'
Maintaining a check on ticket prices is just one part of the effort to make the Royal Opera House a more socially inclusive place. ' I think a lot of it is about making people feel it is their House,' says Bulford. ' Not only do we think very carefully about the range of pricing, but we have a number of special promotions, as well as the big screen programmes that we experimented with away from the piazza, like the one in Victoria Park, Hackney. Also, under the leadership of Deborah Bull, we have set up what we call ROH too!, which is all the spaces away from the main stage and which is really about new art forms, new audiences and doing different things to encourage different people to come in at different prices.'
There have also been more off-beat events, like concerts by Björk and Sir Elton John. Are we likely to see more of the same? ' The number of dark nights is quite low but certainly we want to use those as an opportunity to bring some different people in.'
Reaching out to a wider audience through new media - the internet, narrowcast and broadcast - is a further aim, as is the expansion of the education and access programmes, but the challenge of doing all this within tight financial constraints is not to be underestimated, says Bulford. ' And, of course, there is the constant battle to sustain the artistic excellence on the main stage, both in terms of the mix of new productions and new commissions and the commitment to leading artists,' she adds.
The past three years have seen a small surplus in the House' s accounts, but keeping it that way is proving a very delicate balancing act indeed. Bulford explains: ' Just like any other commercial theatre, we suffer the ups and downs of the box office.Of our £60m income, £21m comes from the Arts Council, £27m-28m from ticket sales and the balance is commercial income - catering, shopping, public donations and sponsorship.The doubling of our insurance premium this year wiped out in one fell swoop the inflation-linked increase in our Arts Council funding.'
Add to that not only the fixed costs involved with maintaining the building but commitments to the programme that had to be booked two and three years ahead, and it is easy to see that Bulford needs to be every bit as fleet of foot as any of the Royal Ballet' s prima ballerinas.
Royal Opera House facts
• There are around 850 people on the Opera House' s payroll, including dancers, musicians, singers, stage technicians and front of house.
• The stage and backstage take up an acre of the overall 2.5 acre redeveloped site, allowing seven different productions to be in circulation at any one time.
• In the 2001/2 season, 52% of active ticket buyers were new to the Royal Opera House.
• Over 480,000 people attended performances by the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera.
• 68% of all Royal Ballet tickets and 55% of all Royal Opera tickets cost £50 or less.
• 25% of all ballet-goers and 20% of all opera-goers are under 35 years of age.
• 11,000 children attended six Clore Duffield Schools' Matinees at a cost of £6 per ticket.
• Nearly 30% of people attending ROH too! spaces, the Clore Studio Upstairs and the Linbury Studio theatre, are under 35 years of age.