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Classic FM speaks with Raymond Gubbay - one of the West End's most colourful and controversial figures.
Raymond Gubbay loves opera – there’s absolutely no question about that. So much so, in fact, that he’s putting his considerable experience of promoting classical music events behind a new venture, the launch of London’s Art Deco jewel of a theatre, the Savoy, as an opera house, with its own company and orchestra.
“You don’t need to know anything about opera – great composers just know how to tug at the heartstrings. I think that’s what it’s all about. Knowing how to make people cry from music, that’s pure genius.”
His latest move has raised some eyebrows in the opera community. After all, do we really need another opera house in London when we already have the ENO and Covent Garden? Raymond Gubbay certainly thinks so.
“I love the intimacy of this 1100-seat theatre. Many operas were not conceived for big opera houses. And this one has a proper orchestra pit, which is a real rarity in London theatres. It’s also small enough for young voices not to be overstretched.
“We have a very good team and The Royal Philharmonic Opera orchestra has been created specially for this project. Yet the seats will be at West End prices, and it won’t be at all snobby. We’ve put together a good repertoire – not just populist, but good – and we’ve attracted some big names. Lots of people want to work with us. And there’s no reason why it won’t work. I’ve put on shows before.”
What’s more, Raymond feels we’re ready for a more populist approach to opera.
“Too much is made of ‘opera’. Come on, it was the popular entertainment of its day, written for the moment. And I think it’s good to introduce it in a West End full of tribute shows. You can put opera on in an intimate, engaging way. You can almost touch the stage here at the Savoy and you’ll be able to see shows in a way that’s not possible in the big opera houses.”
And he’s enthusiastic about the theatre itself: “Did you know it was originally built by D’Oyly Carte for Gilbert and Sullivan? The theatre came first – and the money made from the Mikado led to the hotel being built. In 1929 it was re-done in the Art Deco style and the panels were made by the same bloke who worked on the original Queen Elizabeth liner. Amazing, aren’t they?”
Interestingly, the Savoy theatre was the world’s first public building to be lit by electric lighting. In 1990, the treasured Victorian venue was almost lost to fire but was thankfully saved and restored to its full former glory three years later.
And now Raymond Gubbay is taking this splendid theatre to new musical heights. He’s always loved classical music, and opera in particular, growing up in Golders Green in north London, in a home where music was all around him. His father played the violin, and his mother was a pianist who’d studied with Schnabel. If World War II hadn’t intervened her son is sure she would have been a concert pianist.
“She took huge pleasure from it. My cousin was a singer and she would go and sing with my mother when she was playing at Holloway prison. They were there the week after Ruth Ellis was hanged, in the chapel. The inmates weren’t allowed to clap, it was a very harsh regime at the time, but I heard there were old lags with tears in their eyes.”
Her talent, he says, managed to bypass Raymond – “I failed Grade 1 piano,” he laughs – but her appreciation of music surely didn’t. His grandmother would take him to the theatre every Saturday, too.
“We lived near the Golders Green Hippodrome. I was taken to pantos, and I remember going up on stage. We’d see D’Oyly Carte musicals and, later on, plays. It was one of those theatres that would have West End previews and so we saw some amazing stuff. I remember seeing Fonteyn and Nureyev. Wonderful, and all for 10 and six.”
After school he was destined to follow his father into accountancy, and having gained five ‘O’ levels he joined the same firm. But he hated the profession and, just eight months later, he left and got a job with Victor Hochhauser, the impresario, who specialised in booking Russian musicians.
“I always say I had to answer three questions to get that job: What school did I go to? Was I a Jewish boy? And could I start on Monday?”
He set up on his own on October 21, 1966, the day of the Aberfan pit disaster in south Wales when 144 people were killed [116 of them were children].
“I’d organised a Gilbert and Sullivan evening and I nearly cancelled it after hearing the news,” says Raymond. “Soon after I started on my own I remember sitting on Golders Green station, thinking ‘Well I’ve enough work for six months, and that will be it.’ But it’s just carried on ever since.”
For many of us, it’s carried on in the form of Raymond’s hugely successful Classical Spectaculars.
“I started them 15 years ago. And they’re very popular indeed. I put on unadulterated classics, but jollied up with lasers and lights. I know how many people I’ve introduced to classical music in this way, and I don’t care what the critics say or if they sneer.”
For a man who seems to have dedicated his life to bringing classical music to as many people as possible, he’s surprisingly stern on the subject of classical crossover acts like Bond and the Planets.
“My view is you don’t create barriers, so if there’s an audience for crossover, then fine, there’s validity. But it’s not my taste. I’m not so excited by the idea of rearranging the classics. It’s not what I’m about. I might change, but I see myself as a classical music promoter. I always promote the things I like, and that’s classical music.”
When he’s not talking about music, Raymond waxes lyrical about his six grandchildren and how much he’d like to spend more time with them, especially in his new house in Provence, which is clearly another of his pride and joys.
“It’s in Beaume de Venise, between Oranges and Avignon, and I fully intend to spend as much time there as possible! It’s surrounded by vineyards and the wines are fabulous. I just love it when I discover one of the local wines in the off-licences here in the UK – it takes me right back to Provence.”
He was already a true Francophile before acquiring the house in France, living half of the year in a flat on the left bank in Paris.
“I love the French and their attitude to life. As soon as I go through the Channel tunnel I’m in heaven. I must admit I don’t understand the politics, but I don’t care about that.”
So what are the chances of Raymond Gubbay getting on Eurostar back to London a little more often, when he has the small task of launching a new opera house? Plus he’s got a whole stack of concerts planned throughout the UK during the coming year.
“Well I’ve got a dozen people working for me, so I’m good at delegating! And don’t forget, this Savoy project is really the brainchild of Sir Stephen Waley-Cohen, president of the Society of London Theatre. He thought of using the Savoy as an opera house, so he manages it, but he doesn’t like the limelight.”
And with that, the enthusiastic Mr Gubbay is off, taking his energy, vision and his golden touch with him.