No accounting for taste

Curator and CEO of the Royal Albert Hall, Jasper Hope plans the programme of a national treasure. Built in 1871 by Queen Victoria as a public theatre, the Hall seats 5000 people and hosts events every single night of the year, but its magical atmosphere is what Hope thinks makes the Royal Albert Hall unlike any other venue in the world. Many don't realise that the Hall is a charity, and relies solely on the income of ticket sales to not only keep the venue going, but to maintain the building which costs millions each year. A former outdoor event organiser, Hope is happy to have a roof over his head these days, and feels truly privileged to oversee the operations of a national icon and globally recognised venue. Hope's plans for the future are to encourage day time tours and generate awareness that the Royal Albert Hall is not only a performing space for legends, but a champion of youth music, emerging and eclectic acts.

When did you start in a curatorial role - and what or who were your early passions and influences?

I’ve had a curatorial role to a lesser or greater extent since I switched from the role of agent to that of promoter in 1996.  I don’t claim any particularly strong influences, it wasn’t something I had planned but rather an opportunity that presented itself as result of circumstances at the time. I found the job of choosing artists and/or programmes which I thought others would enjoy, and the associated element of financial risk to be tremendously exciting and rewarding and I was hooked. That feeling has been constant for nearly 20 years and I sincerely hope it never fades.

What do you personally consider to be the incisive moments in your work and/or career?

There have been many and they are ongoing, I continue to learn with every show.  I’ve been fortunate to have worked with some of the very best artists throughout my career and seeing how their audiences enjoy the performances has given me an incredible insight.  Perhaps the most incisive moments have come from failure rather than success, in simple terms the programming of shows that, for a variety of reasons over the years, an audience simply did not want to see in sufficiently large numbers. However professionally painful it was at the time, I’ve always felt the benefit in the next endeavour and tried even harder to better understand the needs of the audience.

How would you describe and rate the music scene of the city you are currently living in and how much does it get featured in your programming?

I think London’s musical scene is one of the best in the world for variety of event, venue and genre and quality in them all. The Royal Albert Hall certainly plays a part in that with 390 shows in the main auditorium last year and another 200 in other spaces, with attendance averaging at almost 90%. Those numbers are impressive compared to almost any other venue in the world but it’s actually the variety of show, genre and style rather than the stats, that for me is the wonderful nature of the Hall and something I’ve been very keen to see even further developed over the past six years. We’re blessed with a unique space and a performance history second to none and the challenge is to always keep adding to that, even after 143 years.

Is objectivity in any way a goal in your own work? What, other than your personal taste, are criteria for defining quality?

Objectivity is everything in my professional life. Of course I have personal preferences in genres, in artists, in programmes and in everything else but one of those key lessons I learned early on was to never try and programme based on my taste, which is eclectic to put it mildly. The things which succeed are those which capture the imagination of others and that should always be the goal if you want the show to be full and for the audience to go away happy.

How would you describe your role in the creative process? 

It’s probably easiest to say that my role runs in parallel.  I’m very involved in many processes but very rarely from a strictly creative standpoint, I prefer to leave that to artists. Largely I try and stay out of the way until such time as someone needs to start the practical aspects, like paying for it, organising it and selling it!  The adage that "everyone has two businesses - his own and show business” is one of the oldest entertainment sayings and having experienced it so many times in my career I prefer to concentrate on the things where I know can add my actual value rather than just my opinions. 

Tell me a bit about your perspective on the selection process for your programming, please. In how far do PR companies, the media and public awareness of an artist or band play a role in programming them? How much room is there in your work for taking creative risks?

Despite what I’ve occasionally heard from the relative safety of the subsidised arts sector, we take creative risks all the time at the Hall, both inside and outside the main auditorium.  We just choose extremely carefully for the benefit of our audience and ourselves because we rely exclusively on them for 100% of our income.  In the last few years we’ve engaged world-class artists to graffiti our loading bay with their view of our history, we’ve commissioned new music for our organ from people other than traditional organists, we’ve co-created and staged productions of opera, ballet and musical theatre (all without subsidy and all to audiences far larger than are ever seen in many other venues), we’ve developed a position as the UK’s leading presenter showing films with full live orchestral accompaniment working with composers from around the world, not to mention building and funding a national education programme from scratch, and we’ve created a host of smaller series involving singer-songwriters, unsigned classical soloists and chamber groups, comedians, jazz and world artists.  I could go on for a long time yet about the breadth, quality and success of the Hall’s own creative work, but the point is that it’s actually all made possible by successfully programming what people want to see and the creative work and quality of the incredible artists who we are so fortunate to have grace our stages throughout the year.

Programming music can occasionally lead to deeper insights into the music itself. In which way, do you feel, can curating change the way music and certain styles of music are perceived?

Programming probably can lead to deeper insights into the music itself when one takes the time to research it and its composer and their greater body of work.  The most important insight for me though always comes when I watch the audience watch and listen to music being performed and I listen to what they have to say about their enjoyment of the experience.  In terms of curating and changing perceptions, perhaps the best example I can give is the rise in popularity of audiences wanting to enjoy our film and live orchestra series.  When I first started in the business the concept was largely based around Chaplin films being scored for orchestra and a few other examples being programmed infrequently and to niche audiences.  After two years of building a very successful series of our own however, in the last seven days we’ve welcomed 40,000 people to screenings and orchestral/choral performances of the scores of Gladiator, Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, with their composers in attendance and participating in other events, and every day we’ve sensed an extraordinary feeling of emotion and a new perception about the quality of that music - because it was played live and in the context of the film screening.  I don’t think that would have happened had the film not been showing at the same time and I am positive that the audience would have been smaller had that not been the case.


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