From “village hall” to world acclaim: Behind the scenes at the Royal Albert Hall

We meet Jasper Hope, the man behind the hall’s booming success

The completion of the Royal Albert Hall in 1871 was almost a disaster. On the day of its opening, everything was ready, the vast glass and cast-iron dome which had been brought down from Manchester via horse and cart had been successfully installed, Queen Victoria herself was in attendance, and the designers were proud to show off an ingenious gas-lighting solution that fired up the thousands of gas jets needed to light the hall in under 10 seconds.

But once the celebratory concert began, the mother of all problems made itself apparent. The shape of the high domed roof generated a particularly strong and musically unfortunate echo.

For a premier concert venue, this was a serious issue, and led to remarks that the Royal Albert Hall was “the only place a British composer could be sure of hearing his work twice”.

But now, 143 years after it first opened, the Royal Albert Hall is one of London’s most revered concert halls and has become a powerful brand in its own right.  

So from such inauspicious beginnings, how did the hall overcome its sonic woes and ascend to its current world class status?

I’ve come to the Royal Albert Hall to find out from the man who really does run the show.

“Yes, it absolutely did have that problem,” laughs chief operating officer Jasper Hope when I ask about the sound issues. “But today it’s easy. The solution came in 1969, and since then it’s been fine. But given we opened in 1871, it did take almost a hundred years to get right.”

It wasn’t just the sound problems which bothered visitors. In 1888, full electric lighting replaced the hall’s gas lamps, which led to a disgruntled patron writing a letter to the Times, declaring the new-fangled lighting to be “a very ghastly and unpleasant innovation”.

A similarly mixed reaction was recorded almost 80 years later, when Bob Dylan famously “went electric” and toured the UK, including historic performances at the Albert Hall which helped build the venue’s reputation for hosting top flight rock and pop concerts as well as its classical events such as the Proms.  

Today any concerns over electricity and sound quality are perhaps the least of the worries facing the hall’s operation.

Instead, Hope is more concerned about how to fit 390 performances in the hall into just 365 days of the year.

Sound success

“We are incredibly popular,” says Hope. “And that’s wonderful; a very nice problem to have, but it is a challenge. More people want dates that we don’t have, and that means that a lot of what many of us do is say ‘no’ to people. And many of them are quite important artists.”

Hope puts the huge level of demand down to the majesty of the hall itself. “It’s difficult to explain it to anyone who hasn’t actually been into the Albert Hall,” he says, “but when you walk in and it’s lit, and there’s that expectation of the show you have come to see, there’s a kind of fairy dust that gets sprinkled onto the people who walk into the building.

“And when you walk into the auditorium, the first thing you see is this incredible elliptical space. It’s red and gold and majestic and awe-inspiring, and depending on the set-up, there is one of the world’s largest organs sitting directly in front of you.

“It’s just got everything, and you cannot fail to be impressed by that.”

Jasper Hope

Royal Albert Hall chief operating officer Jasper Hope

In addition to the hall’s matchless atmosphere, it is also unique in the way it operates.

“We’re this sort of hybrid that exists as a charity,” Hope explains. “It’s sometimes difficult to recognise what the hall is, because there are many other places particularly that host classical music, like the Barbican or Wigmore Hall, and various other places around the country, but they are subsidised in one form or another from various sources, and they use that subsidy to house orchestras and promote musical events on the classical side.

“We don’t. We don’t have an orchestra, we don’t have a subsidy. We don’t have the same kind of operation.

“Similarly, if you compare us to the Hammersmith Apollo, or the O2 or Wembley Arena, we have lots of rock and pop shows in any one year, but we are not a company and we don’t have shareholders, so we don’t have to make a profit and then send it off, as those people do.”

Yet in order to survive and to safeguard the hall’s future, shrewd business acumen is needed to build reputation and deliver results without unnecessary expense.

The audacity of Hope

Under Hope’s direction the hall has seen a higher show count, an increased number of sponsors, a higher number of its own events and an increase in revenue – all of which are crucial elements in ensuring the prosperity of the charity. 

Annual revenues increased from £12.6m in 2008 to £16.1m 2011 and the number of sponsors has increased from just two in 2008 to 17 today.

“The philosophy has been based around giving people what they want,” says Hope. “It’s making sure that what we put on stage is of sufficient quality and appeal that 5,000 people every night come along and will willingly pay whatever the ticket price is to come and enjoy the experience.”

Hope has spent his entire professional life perfecting the art of hosting live events, and outside his career at the Albert Hall he is perhaps best known for introducing Winter Wonderland to London.

“[Events are] the only thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “I left university and I started work on the [following] Monday morning.” Indeed, he was prepared for it from a young age. His mother was an agent, working with classical musicians, his brother is a successful violinist, and his father is the Whitbread prize-winning author Christopher Hope.

As well as hosting concerts, the hall also runs tours, hosts educational events to promote the arts and sciences, and in November held a successful four-day blues festival.

What are some of more unusual events the hall has hosted?

“We had the Royal Warrant Holders’ annual banquet the other night,” says Hope. “Amongst all of the things we are known for, one of the lesser-known things is that we are probably Europe’s largest dining room. We lay out a special floor, and can take about 2,500 people for dinner.”

Before leaving, I am treated to a tour of the hall. As we enter the vast auditorium through a door at the top, groovy tunes are winding their way up into the gallery.

Wearing a black hoodie and a pair of spectacles, an old man is mooching round the stage while a rock band lay down a note-perfect rendition of Maggie’s Farm. Some 48 years on from his controversy-laden 1966 tour, Bob Dylan is back, his presence testimony to the continuing appeal and importance of one of London’s most exciting venues.

Rock on.

 

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