The Prudential's Peter Davis takes his opera seriously. For a performance of Verdi's Un ballo in maschera he joins Financial Times critic Richard Fairman, who writes below.
Since Peter Davis's entry in Who's Who gives wine as one of his hobbies, it seemed prudent to let him take charge of the wine list. In any case there wouldn't have been time for discussion. Bertorelli's in Covent Garden offers a quick service for those heading off to the theatre and the waiter was already hovering.
For the chief executive of Prudential Corporation, only recently installed in the post, Peter Davis seemed remarkably relaxed less than an hour after leaving the office. The next morning, at 9.00 sharp, he would be facing his first board meeting and there were some difficult items on the agenda. This evening, however, was for relaxation and he was looking forward to a visit to the opera - in this case, a revival of Verdi's Un ballo in maschera at the Royal Opera House.
His interest in opera, he explains, had actually started with ballet, primarily through the enthusiasm of his wife. 'Then in 1976 I went to work for Sainsbury and was very much involved with the scholarship programme. Sainsbury sponsored quite a lot of ballet in particular and I started going on the company tickets, gradually moving on to opera. I think I've enjoyed opera more quickly than my wife and I've not wanted to be too adventurous when she is with me. Our second visit was Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, five hours of it in Russian, and that was a bit of a shock'.
Since then he has formed a love for Verdi and Puccini and has made a start on Janacek, which - perhaps to his surprise - he found he enjoyed. It is clearly a hobby he takes seriously. 'If I'm going to a new opera I always like to do some homework. I try to hear the music beforehand and get the basic elements of the plot set in my mind.' After Sainsbury he moved to Reed, which at that time had just begun a programme of arts sponsorship. Most of it went towards the Royal Academy and the Tate Gallery, but there was one major sponsorship - Verdi's Il trovatore - at the Royal Opera House. 'It was the most expensive and probably the least successful,' he reflects. 'Still, it wasn't an indulgence as we had specific business objectives. Domingo sang, there was a royal gala, and we had a wonderful dinner in the Crush Bar for our guests. A lot of people came who we would find it difficult to get at normally.' Davis, who had evidently been keeping an eye on his watch, announced at this point it was time to go and we set off for our seats in the Grand Tier. A bad throat had been troubling him and, as a considerate opera-goer, he had brought a bottle of cough mixture and lozenges. Others nearby were less considerate. There was chatter during the performance which obviously disturbed him. He fixed his eyes on the miscreants with what I imagined, in the dark, was an 'old-fashioned' look.
The interval at the Royal Opera House is a time for captains of industry to catch up on news. Various acquaintances nodded or said hello as we discussed the merits of the opera and also Davis's appointment a few months earlier to the Royal Opera House Trust - a position that promised to bring him closer to the problems of day-to-day administration. Did it worry him that opera was such an extravagant business? 'I must say that sometimes the businessman in me surfaces when I see the 50th or 60th member of the cast coming on to the stage. But then I kick myself and say, "It's not your problem. Enjoy it".' I wondered if he could imagine himself as managing director of the Royal Opera House, or would he find screaming prima donnas a trial? 'We have some of those in business'. He thought for a moment. 'I've made some curious leaps in my career, switching from industry to industry, and found that so much is common to different businesses. I rate Jeremy Isaacs very highly. His job requires both enormous management skills and impresario flair. It would be a hell of a challenge.' After the performance we agreed that it had been a decent, but not unforgettable, evening. 'Six out of ten' was Davis's score. As we parted company, I wished him well for his meeting the next morning. For a moment a look of surprise crossed his face. 'That's kind, thank you,' he said. And then, without any affectation, 'I'd forgotten about that.'.