Raymond Gubbay, the barometer of English taste

He's the impresario whose shows have scored hit after hit. So how is he so good at knowing what the public wants?


For 45 years Raymond Gubbay has been plying popular musical theatre and opera to huge audiences. And for 45 years the impresario has attracted sneers from his peers, as if there was something sordid about offering crowd-pleasing productions to "middle-brow little England", and selling millions of tickets in the process.

"Millions and millions," assures Gubbay, sitting behind his desk in his tidy office in central London. He looks, it has to be said, like a man not at all concerned by what his critics say. And no wonder.

A couple of years ago he sold 75 per cent of the Raymond Gubbay brand to a German entertainment company, who in turn were bought out by Sony. Next year the Germans will buy the remaining 25 per cent. The deal is worth just under £10 million, and when the money is safely banked, Gubbay, who will be 65, plans to retire.

But how does an impresario who has built a career on hard graft and an instinct for what the public want, suddenly stop work? Isn't he meant to say that he will never retire?

"I don't want to carry on working full time anymore" he says candidly. "There would be no point in selling the business if I wanted to work full time."

Not that he was planning to give up a 45-year career in which he has produced hit stagings of Aida, Tosca, Carmen and virtually every other operatic classic. The Germans just sort of turned up and made him an offer he could not refuse. And there is not the tiniest hint of regret about letting go of the business he has nurtured for his entire adult life.

"I wasn't really going to refuse it," he says. "It would have been very foolish. I have children and grandchildren and it enables me to do what I want."

He will not be idle. Gubbay sits on the broad of governors at the Central School of Ballet and there are his charity concerts too. But much of life will be lived at his left bank flat in Paris or his villa in Provence surrounded by vinyards. It is easy to imagine him there, by the pool, listening to opera on his headphones. But actually, no.

"I won't be listening to that much opera," he says. "It's a funny thing. I don't listen to a lot of music because I've got music in my head all the time. I'm always humming. I don't physically sit down to listen to a lot of music, but it's always been in my life."

The son of Ida and David Gubbay, a chartered accountant, he was raised in Golders Green and lived across the road from the Hippodrome, then one of London's major out-of-town venues for shows heading to the West End.

"I remember my grandmother took me to The Merry Widow, The Student Prince, and then my parents taking my brother and I to Drury Lane for The King and I."

These, then, were the shows that formed one of the most reliable barometers of Little English tastes. Not bad for someone who has never thought of himself as being particularly English.

"I was born here but I don't suppose I've got a drop of English blood in me," says Gubbay, whose Sephardi lineage can be traced to Baghdad. "I've never been a Little Englander. My mother's mother came from the Baltic states and originally from Moscow. My father's family were born in Calcutta, his father was born in Alleppo, in Syria, and his father was born in Baghdad."

How then can he be so sure about the tastes of his very English audiences? "I know what they like. I think I absorbed a lot as a child."

He left school at 15, worked for his father, though "detested it", before being hired by Pathe News to look for interesting stories. He would not have had to look far - he joined the week John F Kennedy was assassinated. And then he got a job with the famous promoter, Victor Hochauser. Hochhauser only had three questions at the interview: "Where did you go to school? Are you Jewish? When can you start?"

Although Gubbay worked there only for 10 months, it set him on the path along which the budding producer would walk for the next four decades.

Yet somehow, the many successes that followed - of which the current production of Madame Butterfly at the Royal Albert Hall is undoubtedly one - have not been quite as conspicuous as the very few failures. Most recent was the 2004 project Savoy Opera, for which Gubbay went into partnership with his fellow Jewish West End producer, Sir Stephen Waley-Cohen. It was to be the ultimate democratisation of opera, for those for whom Covent Garden and even the English National Opera seemed inaccessible in ivory towers. "It was a misjudgement," he says now. "We got it wrong. There was a huge amount of press interest. The public didn't come. Mistake. When they announced the closure I went to my flat in Paris and took the sim card out of my phone." With so much riding on the project, and so much publicity, it must have been one of the more painful episodes in a long career. "You can't be in this business if every time something goes wrong you hang your head," he shrugs. "You go on and pick yourself up. That's what this business is about."

Perhaps surprisingly for someone who has always relied on his entrepreneurial resources, Gubbay is no supporter of the Coalition's brutal cuts in arts subsidy. "If you look at the National Theatre and see the wonderful things going on there, and see the price that people can get in for, that tells you everything you want to know about subsidy. I'm not being political. I am apolitical. But I am for subsidy."

He has collaborated with the subsidised sector as much as he has competed with it. Later this year he and the Royal Opera are putting on the Royal Ballet at the O2 centre in London. And then there was that moment when, not altogether seriously, he applied to run the Royal Opera House, a prospect which one of his detractors described as being like putting the grim reaper in charge of a hospice. It was yet another sneer.

Says Gubbay: "All through my professional life, quite a lot of agents, managers and opera companies have looked down their noses at me. 'Who is this man?' Lots of them would be desperate to sell for a fraction of what I got. I'm very pleased about that."

Royal Albert Hall

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