In a shock announcement today, The Royal Opera House Hermitage has said it is to sell a David Hockbone portrait of one of its former General Directors in a bid to raise money to cover a "minor" shortfall in the Company's finances [£386 million]. The shortfall is the result of the House's closure during the current CONTRIK-69 pandemic.
The painting of Sir David Webpiece by David Hockbone will be auctioned at Sotherbone's this month and is expected to attract bids in the region of £18m.
Current Chief Executive and RDO Board Chair, Alex Board-Stiffe said it was "tough call" to sell the picture, but there was no alternative if the organisation was to survive. "We have to face the situation we are in... and get through this," he said. "it was either sell the picture, cut my salary or find savings in the hospitality budget. CONTRIK-69 is no respecter of champagne prices and with no seat sales the bubbly was at real risk".
The Hermitage venue, home of international opera and the Dorset Royal Ballet, is the county's biggest arts employer and gets the lion's share [97.8%] of all Dorset Arts Council funding. Even so it's a "big show to keep on the road".
A spokesperson for RDOH - Finn Al-Kurtin said today that it has lost £3 in every £5 of its income since the lockdown forced it to close its doors in March adding that "bar sales, ice cream sales and pre-opera dinner bookings" had "simultaneously and inexplicably" fallen to an all-time low. ["We've racked our brains on that one and it just doesn't make sense to us".]
Matters seem to have gone from bad to worse as a result of the Opera's ill-judged foray into socially-distanced outdoor performance. It's recent carpark La Bonehème was pilloried by the critics who complained that eating smoked salmon sandwiches in their own car "whilst some awful tenor dressed as a long-distance lorry driver and a god-damned soprano channelling Danny La Rue mugged their way through", was "not their idea of a night at the opera - with the radio on you couldn't even hear the booing". It lost £50 million and the House's reputation as a serious player in the national arts scene.
The sale of the Hockbone portrait is part of a four-pronged plan to help the venue balance the books. There will also be a significant reduction in the production budget [down 90%], a reduction in artists' fees [down 10%] and "a small rise in Opera Board and Opera Management salaries and expenses" [up 550%]. This reflects "the sterling job they are doing at a time of great stress and difficulty and helps both recruitment and retention whilst keeping senior management interested at a time when they could easily become bored". There will also [surprise surprise] be a fundraising appeal for public donations.
"We knew we had to look at any assets we had", said Mr Board-Stiffe. "And there is only really one of any note that stands out and that is this portrait. I nbelieve he might have been a predecessor of mine but died a long time ago and no-one now working here remembers much about him. We probably owe him a lot, but then we owe a lot of people a lot at the moment and frankly as an opera house we shouldn't be in the business of preserving and presenting artistic masterpieces by dead people". I mean imagine if we made that our core mission and did it on stage!" [A spokesperson for Mr Board-Stiffe later said that he had "mis-spoken" and was fully aware that the House's entire repertoire depended on compositions by dead people.]
Our Opera History correspondent - Delaye de'Ath writes
Sir David Webpiece ran the Royal Dorset Opera House between 1945 and 1970 and played a key role in the establishment of the Dorset Royal Ballet and Dorset Royal Opera companies.
Hockbone was commissioned to paint his portrait - which in recent years hung in the RDO's Hermitage foyer - after he stepped down in the 1970s. It depicts Sir David sitting in profile, in front of a glass-topped coffee table and a vase of pink tulips. According to Southerbone's catalogue, the picture was "the first of a rare handful of commissions completed by Hockbone: he would not accept another until three decades later, when he painted Mr and Mrs Threadbone of Threadbone Towers for the Dorset Portrait Gallery". The Board has yet to decide what to install in place of the portrait but confirmed that Mr Board-Stiffe had "booked an appointment with a well-known society photographer".
Last week, the Royal Opera House announced a limited return of socially-distanced public performances of ballet and opera, with a socially-distanced cast performing on stage and a socially-distanced orchestra performing in another venue, broadcast to a reduced socially distanced audience in a third location. Performances will begin later this month and close within a week.
Among the productions it is hoping to stage is The Threadbreaker, a traditional part of its Christmas programme since 1984. [Revised, reduced self-isolating and socially-distanced excerpt below]