One of our by-lines for the anniversary is ‘One hundred and fifty years young’, and the other: ‘We’ve got more history to make’.
Inspired by Roman amphitheater design, the unique stage of Royal Albert Hall has hosted legends of modern times. Stars from every conceivable artistic galaxy have gathered here to render their career’s most remarkable performances. From opera divas, to 3D ballets, to Einstein and Churchill, and even a boxing match in 1971, featuring none other than Mohamed Ali. In 1963, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones played here on one bill in an exceptional music event never to be repeated, while Jimi Hendrix famously shattered his guitar against the very same elliptical podium. In 2011, Adele basked here in standing ovations following her concert of heart-wrenching pop anthems, and ten years later in September 2021, Bond – James Bond, premiered at this iconic venue for the fourth time, with the Royal Family in attendance. Exclusively for Luxury International Magazine, Daria Malich meets Craig Hassall, CEO at the Royal Albert Hall, to reflect on the venue’s remarkable history, artistic life, and festive highlights.
D. M. Queen Victoria, who had built the Royal Albert Hall in 1871, named it after her late husband, Prince Albert. Do you think the gesture had a personal meaning to her?
C. H. It absolutely did! First of all, she loved Albert very much. They were truly and completely devoted to each other. Unfortunately, Albert died very young, but in the years before his death he had cleverly created the Great Exhibition in 1851.
This made huge profits which Albert then used to fund the entire area surrounding the hall. The area included the hall itself, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Natural History Museum and all the buildings in this cultural precinct; it consequently earned the nickname Albertopolis. Albert sadly died before he could see his project realised, so Queen Victoria went on to open the hall in his honour, because she felt so strongly about him. And when you walk around the building, you can spot little A’s everywhere – there are twenty-eight thousand of them altogether; all for Albert.
D. M. That’s quite a love tribute.
C. H. It is a love tribute. The Albert Hall is, in a sense, a love story.
D. M. Although Queen Victoria saw the project through to completion, it was Prince Albert who devised the original concept for the venue, which was very avant-garde for its time. Almost visionary, one could say.
C. H. Yes, Albert was a very international man with global ideas. He was German, as was Queen Victoria, and being married to her made him Prince Consort. It was a very unusual role, because you are not a monarch as such, simply a consort to one. Historically, the role had been seen as somewhat unprepossessing, but Albert was the first Prince Consort to really make sense of his position. He was highly entrepreneurial and gave serious thought to Britain’s place in the world. The Great Exhibition was his way of showcasing British ingenuity and talent, and his vision for the future of the Royal Albert Hall. It was his intention for the Great Exhibition to be the meeting place for ideas and knowledge, where common people could come and learn about music, science, debate, and all manner of cultural activities.
D. M. And do you think the Royal Albert Hall of today lives up to the Prince’s expectations?
C. H. In many ways I do. Although, I would like to see a little more focus on the things that Albert wanted us to be originally. This would involve more spoken word events, like debates and presentations; more thought-provoking activities around arts and science. These events are of course already a part of our charter but it is more difficult to present science in a way that appeals to a broader audience. When Stephen Hawking was alive, he spoke at the Hall, as did Albert Einstein before him. Today, we welcome modern-day pioneers like Brian Cox and Tim Peake, but we’d like to develop more science and spoken word events. But then, of course, film is right at the nexus of art and science, and we have many film premiers here.
In November we hosted the James Bond premier and I’m sure if Prince Albert was alive today he’d approve of that.
D. M. I’m sure he’d be a fan of Bond, too.
C. H. I have no doubt about that!
D. M. So many talents spanning so many different genres have performed here. You’ve seen everything from poetry to Sumo wrestling; politics to ice-skating. Would it be an exaggeration to say that the Royal Albert Hall is the most versatile stage in the world?
C. H. I think it’s absolutely correct to say that. Our description of the Hall is: We are eccentric, we are eclectic, and we are electric.
D. M. That definitely has a ring to it!
C. H. It does, and that’s genuinely what we do here. The day after James Bond premiered, we hosted the International Ballroom Dancing Championships, and then we had Patti Smith. Opera singers and rock legends preform here. I don’t know any other venue that offers the variety of events that we do. So, you are right, I think it’s a claim we can take as our own.
D. M. The Hall’s arena shape mimics the Roman Colosseum, making it a unique space for modern times. Is it a challenge to accommodate performers who are used to more conventional settings?
C. H. That’s a good question. Yes and no, really. There are a few points to make here: first of all, as you rightly point out, the Hall is inspired by the design of the Colosseum.
The elliptic shape was intended to create an egalitarian experience for the audience. In a regular concert hall, the whole audience is in front of you. At the Royal Albert Hall, they envelope you three hundred and sixty degrees, and also from above – so it’s a challenging experience for a performer.
But everyone seems to love it, because it means an equal amount of adoration from every angle.
Where it becomes challenging though, is with ballet or the opera-in-the-round. On a normal stage, you have the safety net of the orchestra pit, creating space between performer and audience, but there is no safety net in-the-round. For a dancer, for instance, it means the audience can see them at an unusually close proximity, from all sides. The sweat, the micro facial expressions, the beads of glitter on their costume – everything!
It’s an incredibly authentic experience for the viewer but for a performer it can be daunting. If you’re on stage at the Royal Albert Hall, you can’t even scratch your nose because there is nowhere to hide!
D. M. Your guests are often as remarkable as your performers, from Her Majesty The Queen who is a fan and patron, to Stephen Fry, Kylie Minogue and also Len Blavatnik who is a committed donor. One would assume you are given a heads up whenever a prestigious guest is about to turn up. But who have been some of the most unexpected guests here during your tenure?
C. H. I remember an interesting episode with Tom Holland, Spider-Man, who turned up at the Bond premier.
The World Premiere of No Time To Die 28 September 2021
D. M. Did he swing in on a web?
C. H. No! He just walked in – but in a very private capacity, completely low key. I mean, we have a lot of celebrities and high-profile visitors, often unannounced. I can’t disclose names because they wish to remain private; they just slide into their box quietly to watch a show like any normal person would. Members of the Royal Family often come too, officially, as well as unofficially. We don’t make a fuss; we have on-site security, and we simply escort them to their seats where they will enjoy the show without attracting any unwanted attention.
D. M. The Hall is a treasure trove of stories. I learned that from reading your anniversary publication: Royal Albert Hall: A Celebration in 150 Unforgettable Moments. One event in particular that struck me, was when Aimee McPherson, a Canadian evangelist, converted a thousand people using a giant water tank, which stood mid-stage, representing the River Jordan. As an expert on the Royal Albert Hall, do you have a favourite story of your own?
C. H. I certainly do. My favourite is about the Sherlock Holmes author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, or more specifically, his wife. She was a fan of the occult and when Sir Arthur died, she hired the Royal Albert Hall to hold a massive séance. There was a medium on the stage, and all the lights flickered very low. The aim was to bring Sir Arthur back to life on stage… which never happened, of course. But still, it’s quite a story!
D. M. Rumour has it you have ghosts…
C. H. Well Daria, it’s not a rumour. It’s absolutely true.
D. M. Are they friendly?
C. H. Apparently so. I’ve heard about two ladies sitting in the choir stalls. They never spook anyone – they just sit quietly when no one’s here, looking around, minding their own business. And apparently, we have a little girl who wonders around in the gallery sometimes. But I suppose in a building as old as this, with such rich and populated history, there must be a certain element of the supernatural and bizarre. Speaking of which, when I first started here four and a half years ago, we found a cupboard, under the old staircase, which had been locked for over a century. When our staff finally unlocked it, inside we found an organ console, a miniature model of the Albert Hall, and … of all things … a Victorian wheelchair.
D. M. Curious items. You imagine someone had a plan for this eerie ensemble?
C. H. Maybe they wanted to put the ghost in a wheel chair, I don’t know! But I see it as a time capsule. We keep these objects as a part of our memorabilia, which always makes for a good story.
D. M. There is an opinion that the Royal Albert Hall is what the name implies: a royal, elitist, highbrow establishment, and eye-wateringly expensive to visit. How would you react to this in your own words?
C. H. For every artist and every person that appears on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall, it’s so special. And it’s equally special for every audience member who visits too. At one end of the spectrum you could pay a lot of money to host guests in a private box, with champagne and truffles, but you can also buy a ticket for our Friendship Matinee for only six pounds.
I like to think we are special, but we are certainly not elitist – quite the opposite in fact: we are very democratic with our prices. There is no barrier here; the Royal Albert Hall is for everyone.
David Arnold’s A Circle of Sound
D. M. It would be remiss of me not to mention that before your tenure at the Albert Hall, you were the CEO of Opera Australia, which, in terms of national significance, is as important in Australia as the Eiffel Tower is in France, or, indeed, the Albert Hall in the UK. How does it feel to be at the helm of these iconic establishments?
C. H. I love it. I’ve been very lucky and privileged to have done these jobs. And I suppose in both cases it has been the notion of ‘access’ that has made them special to me. I would hate to think that people didn’t feel they could access the opera, or the Royal Albert Hall, or the National Ballet. Some of these art forms are perceived to be exclusive for certain elements of our society, but they’re not. In continental Europe, for instance, opera and ballet, are a much more ‘everyday’ pastime. Special, yes, but they feel more accessible. Especially in Vienna, where you would go to the opera as a child, but that tends not to happen so much in London. I want the notion of access to come through in every job I do, particularly for young people. The experience of music and dance for a child has a lifelong impact, whether they are a performer or a member of the audience. Achieving that goal is the aim of my job – that’s what is really important to me.
D. M. There has never been a time when the Royal Albert Hall hasn’t been popular with the British audience. In many cases, a new venue will open, have its heyday, and then take a dip, fluctuating in and out of vogue. But the Royal Albert Hall is different. Its star has never waned. More impressively, it remains popular across all age groups. Even kids have a ball frolicking around the beautiful spaces here. So what is the venue’s X-factor? What is the secret of the Albert Hall’s universal appeal?
C. H. I think the secret is in the magic of the building. It’s such a special place to visit where no one feels excluded. That alludes to your first point about variety; if you love ballroom dancing, you’d come from anywhere in the world to see it at the Royal Albert Hall. If you love Adele, you can buy a ticket to see her here. Or Cirque de Soleil, or Eric Clapton. We have so many international visitors who come from all around the globe to see their favourite acts and seeing them at the world famous Royal Albert Hall is the pinnacle of the whole experience, I would say.
Construction of the dome stell roof in the Royal Albert Hall during the 1870s.
D. M. We have all been affected by the pandemic in the last two years. The Royal Albert Hall was forced to shut its doors for the first time since World War II. I can imagine it has been a testing time for you, especially as an enterprise so dependent on physical attendance. What strategies have you employed to ride out the crisis?
C. H. First and foremost, I made sure I kept my staff. I was determined not to lose them. Our building is beautiful, of course, but it’s also all about the people who work here: the stewards, the security guards, the technicians – they are all vital to the operation and personality of the Hall. I had to make sure they all stayed with us. Coming out of the pandemic – as we don’t receive any government funding – our strategy is to get back on track as fast as we can and to make a profit and rebuild our reserves – but not at the cost of our artistic integrity. We want to remain true to our core values, whilst at the same time doing our best to tread our way out of the crisis.
D. M. So you think you’ll bounce back?
C. H. Yes, of course. It’s the Royal Albert Hall!
D. M. I wanted to ask you about your 150th anniversary programme, which is a hugely impressive all-star line-up. I was told once that a celebrity’s work schedule can be their own private hell. What has been your experience of putting together a project involving so many high-profile performers?
C. H. It’s difficult, of course. The first thing we did was appoint a chairman, Neil Warnock, who is a mega agent! We also appointed ambassadors for the anniversary programme: key agents, promoters, and some of the stars and performers who wanted to be ambassadors for the event. Then we called in some favours and reached out to all the people we wanted to include in the programme, telling them we’d love to have them for our 150th, and asking if they would like to take part.
D. M. Do people in the industry owe you a lot of favours?
C. H. Ha! Well, they all love the Royal Albert Hall, so they really want to be here. To the point that our birthday party – our gala programme – now extends to 2023. So the creative sector is right behind us, which is amazing.
D. M. Over the past one hundred and fifty years, the Royal Albert Hall has given Britain some of its brightest cultural gems. That’s a hard act to follow! But do you think the next one hundred and fifty years will be equally as dazzling?
C. H. Well, one of our by-lines for the anniversary is ‘One hundred and fifty years young’, and the other: ‘We’ve got more history to make’. To make that happen, it’s massively important that we don’t rest on our laurels. So many legends have graced our stage over the past one hundred and fifty years, it’s mind-boggling, and wonderful, of course; but now we have to make more history, and that’s what we’re encouraging through our programmes. As I said, we don’t receive any government funding, but we have an obligation to the industry we work in and that’s why we want to create a platform for the next Stephen Fry, or the next Brian Cox, or the next Shirley Bassey. We have to set up a framework where those artists, poets, scientists, academics and orators can shine. We have lots of programmes to find them and bring them to the stage.
D. M. And shine they will.
C. H. … and shine they will!
To celebrate 150 years of the Royal Albert Hall, Steinway & Sons has created the ‘Steinway Royal Albert Hall Limited Edition’ grand piano.