The Royal Opera House's Alex Beard on why he's got his dream role

THE MT INTERVIEW: He helped create Tate Modern and is now centre stage at the Royal Opera House as chief executive. A lover of music, he's enjoying himself, despite the tough task of keeping audiences, performers and donors happy.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 29 Jun 2016

Let us begin with full disclosure. Although Alex Beard is right at the top of the tree as one of the UK's premier arts bosses, he's also an excellent cook. I know this because I first met him a number of years ago in the forests of Northumberland where he was holed-up in a modest cottage with his wife and kids. The rain was, as always, falling steadily. On an ancient gas ring he rustled up purple-sprouting broccoli with anchovies, garlic and pine nuts on a piece of sourdough bread. And wine. So, there you have it: we have broken artisan bread together.

Beard now does most of his entertaining in the chief executive's box at the Royal Opera House where nightly he dishes out the canapés and white wine to 'high net worth' guests who, caught up in the gorgeous whirl of it all, may well dip into their pockets to find a bit of philanthropic cash. Twenty-six million pounds was raised this way in 2014.

Beard has been the boss of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden since August 2013. He first visited the Upper Slips aged 11 with his mother and it is his dream job, but he's still best known in his world for his time as Sir Nicholas Serota's number two at the Tate. When the daring £260m extension to Tate Modern opens this month, Beard will be away in Japan on tour with the Royal Ballet. But it was, in many ways, his and Serota's baby. The Tate is the pre-eminent arts success story in the UK of the last 40 years. The Opera House has been around in various forms since 1732.

Photography by Harry Borden

Beard took over from Tony Hall who dutifully answered the desperate call and departed to make what he could of the bed of nails provided for the director general at the BBC.

They lunch several times a year and it's a good bet that Beard is consistently the more cheerful diner. Anyone who thinks these 'creative' jobs are a cushy, artsy-fartsy number in a world of luvvies protected from the jaws of the market should think again. Consider when MT interviewed Hall at the Opera House in 2001 - the place was in a shocking soap opera of a mess, its tantrums and tiaras all over reality TV. It had burned or chased out five CEOs in five years. This was how the article began:

'There are some jobs in life you love, and some you hate, and some you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. And then there's running the Royal Opera House. If you were drawing up an MT list of worst executive jobs to take on over the past decade, it would be pretty near the top. Consider the constants: vicious backbiting, full-on media glare, continual near-bankruptcy, unclear lines of command, a horror of conventional management methods, politicians sticking their oar in, hosts of volatile artistic types venting their spleen... '

Beard smiles. 'O tempora! O mores! Well, things have certainly moved on since then. Much credit for that goes to Tony Hall. He put this place on an external stage. He got it to function properly.' But Beard knows how, with so many variables in play, when things go wrong they can go theatrically awry. 'Opera and ballet are the most extraordinary art forms. You bring together, in the moment, 300 people to perform the near-impossible. It's unbelievably complicated.'

It's true that the Opera House appears to be on a far more even keel than it was in the bad old 90s. It's a highly successful business. The books look far better, the reviews not bad at all, even if the recent 'lame and pretentious' William Tell was booed by some. February's Suor Angelica section of Puccini's' Il trittico had this viewer blubbing like a baby within minutes of curtain up, and not just because his eight-year-old kid was a bed-bound prop on the stage.

Indeed it's the rival English National Opera (ENO) over the road that is taking all the heat at the moment. ('The ENO,' says one member of Beard's board of Trustees 'is a salutary reminder of the fragility of an art form with massive fixed costs, ever-increasing people costs, pension liabilities and a stroppy unionised labour force, which then got the Arts Council on its back to lower prices but still couldn't fill enough seats.')

The ROH is a sizeable operation. There are 1,200 people in the organisation when you add the opera to the ballet and the whole shebang. The turnover is around £125m. Its assets are sweated - 41 shows each year and a total of 500 performances makes it the most intensely used theatre in Europe. It consistently achieves 97% seat occupancy, a figure Ryanair would be proud of.

And, at the top, keeping a guiding hand on things, sits Beard. 'This is a very peopley job. This means that many things can go wrong, which gives it a singular, daily frisson. The worst that could happen at the Tate was that some pictures got nicked. Which they did once when we lost two Turners at an exhibition in Germany. We got them back, eventually. It took 10 years.' At the ROH the fat lady may not sing.

And what are his tips for the age-old problem of managing creative people? 'I very rarely get directly involved in artistic matters. The stakes are high and involve big personalities but they are remarkably collegiate and professional. My job is to keep the story right and maintain the long view. I make sure the people and the culture remain as they should. And I always try to ensure I do what I say I will.'

Now 52, Beard is a beacon of hope for those young people who don't have the easiest and smoothest of times in their teens and early 20s. Those who aren't bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, four A*s at A level, Grade 8 piano and a spell working in a Tanzanian orphanage before going up to Balliol. And this is despite the fact that he's an ex-pupil of Manchester Grammar School and Westminster School in London - two private institutions that produce far more than their fair share of overachieving kids.

He is the oldest son of an eminent plastic surgeon who worked in Manchester and Preston specialising in burns, and a flute teacher. His father, Charles, sang the 'Vivat, vivat Regina' solo at the Queen's Coronation but died at the age of 42 from inoperable lung cancer. Alex was doing his A levels.

'He was diagnosed at Christmas and died in November,' he recalls. 'During his life we got on but hardly spent any time together. He worked the whole time. I was at school. During the year of his death we grew close. Went sailing. Our relationship was conditioned by the fact he was going to die. This was slightly strange. I behaved in classic fashion after his death by putting it all in a box and locking it away. It took me a long time to comes to terms with it - I drifted a lot for the next few years, never going completely off the rails... no smack, or anything. But I had a pretty poor sense of who I was, what I wanted to be. It was a dark decade.'

He scraped a 2.2 in Classics at King's College London, despite not turning up much during his second year and receiving a letter of dismissal from the university. On the road with his girlfriend, he had two rucksacks - one for clothes, one for books. He wrote essays and posted them in from Seville, Marrakech, Budapest. Then he went sailing and racked up some debts.

'My grandfather (another doctor. The Beards were doctors as far back as anyone has looked) was the only one with any money. So I went to see him in his consulting room, but before writing the cheque he wanted me to agree to get a proper job. Medicine and law were out. So I got into Peat Marwick (later KPMG) as a trainee accountant.'

That didn't go well, at all. 'I was not a natural accountant. They sent me to count hovercraft skirts at Dover. Not much fun. Then to Abu Dhabi where I couldn't do any damage, but I hated it. I made some money playing cards in the Gulf and resigned.'

If this is all sounding a bit Graham Greene it probably was. You could just see the young, quietly mysterious and tortured Beard popping up as a fast-talking minor character in The Heart of the Matter.

He's an interesting mixture of outward calm and intensity. When he looks at you, he's really looking.

And so the aimless, footloose lifestyle continued. 'Then I went off travelling again and ran up more debts. All my credit cards maxed out. I came home with my tail really between my legs and got a job at the postroom at the publisher Longman. Then I had a row with a racist supervisor and got the sack.'

Photography by Harry Borden

At rock bottom, he was wandering along High Holborn following his dismissal when he saw an advert in a window for a temp job at the Arts Council as a minor administrator. The lightbulb finally came on. 'The Arts Council wasn't without flaws but suddenly I had something I believed in. I finally connected and started to work hard.'

It was while he was at the Arts Council he met Dennis Stevenson, who before the disaster of HBOS had a glittering career in business and public service. Stevenson took a shine to Beard. 'We really got on and he's always been a champion of young people. He told me to "get myself a proper job" and encouraged me to apply to go and run the Scottish Opera. However there was a hitch. I'd just met my wife and she - having escaped to London from the north-east - really didn't want to go and live in Glasgow.'

He went back to the headhunters who found something at the Tate. 'I was a music rather than art person. But hey, my grandfather had done watercolours.' Six interviews later he was awarded the job as director of finance and administration. There followed what he terms a 19-year 'detour from my obsession with lyric theatre'.

'They took a punt on me,' he acknowledges. 'I had no MBA or accountancy qualification. I ticked no boxes. This was 1994 and the Tate was still in Pimlico. Tate St Ives had just got going and Liverpool was getting underway.' Beard was 29 and his first task was a desk study for Tate Modern, which was then just a pipe dream. 'There were three prospective sites. By the River Effra in Vauxhall, at the site which now houses the London Eye, and the Bankside Power station. I suggested the London Eye site being opposite Parliament with good communications. But Nick (Serota) said, "Go and have a look at Bankside." I went along and opened the doors into the turbine hall. Two pigeons, on cue, took to the air. And I thought, "Yes! It has to be here."'

'His initial verdict was not what I expected to hear,' recalls Serota. 'And it was quite salutary because it suggested we may be overreaching ourselves. He wondered if we were strong enough to take such a commitment on. I thought that was rather mature of him.' It's easy to forget what a gamble this was. Now receiving five million visitors annually, Tate Modern could have proved a catastrophic white elephant.

The change the Tate underwent during Beard's time there was huge. From a slightly dusty, venerable place in Pimlico with loads of Turners in the basement to a global arts megabrand. 'We went from an organisation of 330 people where 85% of our money was coming from HMG to 1,000 people where 33% of the money came from the government,' says Beard. Serota from his time at the Whitechapel Gallery had seen the value in forging alliances with both business and the very wealthy. He had also seen the direction of travel when it came to public subsidy of the arts - you are a fool to rely on the taxpayer for what you need day-to-day, never mind what you dream of creating tomorrow.

So is he pleased to be renowned as one of the cleverest and most persuasive fundraisers ever? He advises the Department for Culture, Media & Sport on philanthropy. 'I like fundraising but I'm not the expert. Nick did the individuals - the high net worth people. I did more of the corporate stuff. I looked after the culture of the place.'

Photography by Harry Borden

Austerity has hit arts funding very hard indeed. Beard acknowledges this but says we've got it just about right in the UK. 'At the Tate, the government was never going to meet our ambitions,' he notes. 'At the same time it would not be desirable if government's ability to fund continually outstripped our imaginations and our ability to spend the money.

'The performing arts have for many years been a mixed economy in Britain - a blend of box office and government. In that sense we're midway between the European and the American model. What's changed in the last 20 years is the role of philanthropy. And that we have learned things from the Americans. And that's a good thing.'

That's all very well, but US-style philanthropy tends to create an equally US-style winner-take-all environment. Great if you are an arts giant like the Opera House, the Amazon or eBay of its world. Less so if you are a provincial arts administrator struggling to keep the show on the road somewhere beyond the reach or interest of London and its stash of newly-minted oligarchs.

Public subsidy of opera has long been a hot potato. It began as a closed art form, a lavish court entertainment for the likes of the Medicis. So, it's not a bizarre and archaic art form that costs far too much money - both public and private - to put on and is only watched by elderly, rich and privileged people?

'Clearly not. Every single show here can be seen for a tenner; 50% of tickets are £50 or less. West End producers cannot claim that. (True. Try getting two adults and a pair of kids into Disney's new production of Aladdin for much less than £300.) We're now very accessible: 15,000 student members, student standbys, student-only performances. We go out into the community. We broadcast six operas and six ballets annually into cinemas all over the country hence the strapline, "You're never more than 30 miles from the Opera House". We will partner with the BBC on many projects and last year 300,000 people saw the Australian Ballet live behind the scenes here on digital.'

But isn't the whole, never-ending need to defend the place, explain that the majority of his audience earns less than £40k and that 40% are under the age of 35 rather wearing? 'No, it's OK. It's an extraordinary art form and it has lots of baggage. But we are true to who we are and have a missionary zeal that is maintained day in day out.' And Beard is zealous. It's refreshing for once to see a boss actually loving what he or she does.

Roland Rudd, City PR man extraordinaire and an Opera House trustee is a big Beard fan. 'He's unique. He exercises extraordinary authority, admiration and respect but in a very charming and rather gentle manner. He doesn't need to throw his weight around but is completely confident in what he has to achieve. And you should never underestimate the power of being likeable. He is liked by his own people, the artists and the donors. He has to deal with many hugely successful and wealthy people and they like him.'

Beard works extremely hard from his office (which has its own sponsor - 'mysterious' Armenian tycoon Bob Manoukian) overlooking the Covent Garden piazza. He walks about a lot and tramping the miles of corridors with him he greets most people by name as they pass. We walk past an enormous Tim Burton-like tree for the new A Winter's Tale ballet – 'the biggest single prop we've ever built here,' Beard notes.

He's normally in by 8am and on at least three or four nights a week during the season stays to watch the show from his box. Flesh must be pressed on a regular basis. A quiet word in the ear of the very well-heeled. So his working days often don't finish until 10.30pm or 11. 'Then there are sometimes after-show dinners.'

One consequence of this lifestyle is that he's slightly bigger than when he made me the broccoli all those years ago. 'I have an anti-canape strategy which involves the gym and my bicycle.' He tries to cycle in from the family home in Hammersmith. His cricket team, which featured the late (and much missed) MT contributor Alan Ruddock, makes an annual tour to Ireland. And he plays the cello occasionally. But not enough to burn off many calories.

His salary of £250,000 is not only less than Tony Hall received, and less than the £287,000 the director of opera Kasper Holten tucks into his tights, but also way less than music director Antonio Pappano, who takes home £540,000.

Does this piss him off? 'Noo! If I was as good a conductor as Tony Pappano, I would be wanting more. He gets £100,000 per annum as music director, then a fee per show. He's one of the world's great conductors.' In this, Beard's not dissimilar to a Premiership football team manager where the galacticos out on the pitch enjoy far greater financial rewards than those in the technical area.

And what next? Could the BBC - once it has completely exhausted Tony Hall and driven him to despair with a combination of the Daily Mail and W1A shenanigans - use his services? He looks at me in horror. 'This is home. The most wonderful gig.' Serota doesn't see why Beard shouldn't run an interesting smaller FTSE company if he chose to. The Tate boss, now 70 himself, probably misses him. 'We were yoked together and he was an invaluable colleague. He really is incredibly quick and alert and articulate. With Alex, the words sometimes come out so fast he should slow down a bit.'

There is certainly plenty going on: a major project to open up the front of the building onto Bow Street and improve facilities still further. New, risky work to commission.

A couple of days after we met, he emailed me the following: 'You asked me how my father's death affected me. On top of the answer I gave, which focused on the impact at the time, by far the most significant has been to reinforce to me how short life is, how we must make the most of it - at work, play and at home - and the fundamental importance of love, in getting through the inevitable shit, in giving ourselves joy, and in the legacy we leave others. And all amplified in spades by Tom's death. (His only sibling Tom, an actor, died aged only 50 last year, also with one of his children midway through their A levels.) Sounds a bit hippyish but there it is. It is a bit of a mantra for me.'

So should it be for all of us.


Keeping the talent happy - they aren't called divas for nothing.

Ensuring that the money - public and private - keeps flowing and that bums continue to fill seats 97% of the time.

Watching his wine/canapé waistline.


1963: (October) Born in London
1985: Short, abortive career at Peat Marwick (now KPMG)
1986-93: Arts Council of England
1994: Joins Tate as director of finance and administration
2002: Becomes deputy director of Tate
2013: CEO, Royal Opera House, London

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