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Interview with Alex Beard, Chief Executive, Royal Opera House

The Royal Opera House's Bob and Tamar Manoukian Production Workshop at High House, Essex

Future Cities Forum was delighted to interview Alex Beard, Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House this week, on the planned online arts programme during the Covid-19 outbreak and his involvement in the future of the Thames Estuary Production Corridor.

Alex Beard is also Chair of High House Production Park in the borough of Thurrock, Essex. High House has brought education and job opportunities to the borough. The council has now been given £75 million from the Housing Infrastructure Fund to begin development of Purfleet as a new town - soon to be re-named, Purfleet-on-Thames.

'High House is a hugely important part of the Royal Opera House story. My connection is twofold as I am Chair of the production park and also Chief Executive of the ROH. What makes High House so special is the range of facilities and expertise. We have a world leading set production and scene painting workshop, a heritage costume collection and costume centre, and there is a BA in costume design course on site with South Essex College and the University of the Arts London.

'We have an education team that works with the council on access to creative education, and we run ROH Bridge, which is an Arts Council funded project that connects arts organisations with high quality education across Kent, Essex, Hertfordshire and East Bucks. It has a connection with The National Back-stage Centre and local artists studios. The opportunity is to be make it more than the sum of its parts by cross-fertilising these creative organisations in a relatively deprived area.

'Being in Purfleet gives us a much richer character than we would have otherwise have. On one side we have a foot in the Covent Garden piazza with some of the world's top opera and ballet performers connecting to the world. On the other foot, we are in the Thames Gateway where we are developing sets and costumes, and working with local authorities and schools to develop the next generation of talent. Being part of the Thames Estuary Production Corridor and the next phase of Purfleet's development is very exciting.'

Alex worked - before his Royal Opera House role - with Nicholas Serota on the creation of Tate Modern, which was transformative for Southwark and attracted huge global audiences to Tate's brand, website and exhibitions - once the power station had been transfigured and the footbridge built across the Thames to St Paul's. He conceded that High House development is different but has a particular focus on the cluster of creative enterprises to enable extraordinary experiences, combined with top-end craft:

Asked about whether there is certainty for future employment to match current investment, Alex commented:

'We have shifted from subsistence to expression over the last 2,000 years, and for each fifty year period more and more are employed in creative industries. Technology such as AI and 3D printing are all improving productivity so there is more space, appetite and time to be involved in story-telling. People want an emotional element to how they spend time. Therefore there will continue to be employment opportunities for those involved in story-telling. The council and developer are thinking about the wider setting for this, so other creative industries employers can come in and there will be better transport links.' he added.

On the coping with the present pandemic and the current offering of ballet and music online for the community during the crisis, Alex explained:

'What Covid-19 does do is to create some headroom - it's spurring us to be super-creative about connecting with people, although we do have the biggest following on YouTube for a European cultural organisation.. It's about people coming together in culture. The appetite for what we are doing online is not new but it's really important. People are missing physical performances.'

The ROH is offering a schedule of free broadcasts and live content that audiences can access through its Facebook and YouTube channels. Among the programme, Cosi fan Tutte, The Royal Opera House, 2010 will be broadcast on 10th April at 7pm BST and The Winter's Tale, The Royal Ballet 2014 on 1st May, again at 7pm, BST. Further content is also available on radio, TV and online through its ongoing partnership with the BBC.

Picture: Bob and Tamar Manoukian Production Workshop at the ROH High House, Essex

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