The joke went that when the curtain calls ended we would have to serve breakfast, such was the warmth of the reception from the audiences in Tokyo for this summer’s tour by the Royal Ballet. And, standing in the wings as the applause went on and on for the final performance of Romeo and Juliet with ballerina Miyako Yoshida, it was difficult to see what would bring the standing ovation to an end. Miyako, who is Japanese and has been with the Royal Ballet for over 25 years, was understandably tearful, as were people in the audience. A rampart of flowers grew with each sweep of the curtains. She picked glitter from the hair of her partner, Steven McRae, who had spun at the speed of a bullet train at various times during the performance. ‘Sayonara’ said the banner over her head, and those of the ballet company surrounding her. For a country where a reserved politeness is one of its greatest hallmarks, this was a send-off more Mediterranean than Japanese.
This extraordinary reception was typical of the way Tokyo took to the Royal Ballet. Dancers had to brave crowds of fans — hundreds strong — outside the theatre and around their hotel. And no ordinary fans these: some of them handed to the dancers beautifully bound albums showing pictures of them last time they were in Tokyo, and the time before. These people knew their stuff and, in their scrupulously proper way, loved what they were seeing. It is impossible to understate the good this does to the reputation of the dancers, the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera House, and of course the UK.
My reading for this trip was David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a brilliant novel set in Nagasaki during the period when Japan was ruled by the shoguns who cut the country off from all foreign contact. The Japanese themselves were forbidden to travel abroad. Interestingly, nowadays fewer and fewer young Japanese are travelling outside the country. And a falling birth rate has raised the issue of immigration. But the 200 or so arts and business leaders I addressed on the top floor of the Mori Tower in central Tokyo were looking outwards and seeking advice for what they felt they could not get in Japan. Perhaps surprisingly, a particular excitement arose around the nature of our funding: an arts council with an arm’s-length relationship separating out public money from the artists and arts organisations that use it. They like our model for funding the arts and want to do the same.
Meanwhile two meals, two films, a bit of work and a bit of a doze away by plane — in other words in London — Plácido Domingo took the stage as the Doge in Verdi’s masterpiece Simon Boccanegra. A few hours after Miyako was receiving her standing ovation in Tokyo, Plácido, the whole of the cast and the orchestra conducted by Antonio Pappano, received their standing ovation from the audience in Covent Garden. Plácido generates huge excitement around the building, his warm, generous nature is infectious. The artists all say he energises everyone on stage. One member of the chorus postponed his paternity leave to make sure he did not miss singing with the great man. People round the building love having him here. A member of the admin staff got in the lift with him and was given a flower from the many bouquets he was carrying. She is not going to forget that.
But of course that is nothing compared with the excitement outside. Performances for Boccanegra were sold out ages ago. That is why we are broadcasting one of his performances live on the BBC this week, and relaying another to 13 big screens up and down the country, including one in Trafalgar Square. Allowing hundreds of thousands of people to see Plácido perform free is as important to him as it is to us. And the great news is that he is planning to come back, not just next year and in 2012, but for performances beyond that too. Retirement aged 69? Forget it.
One of the principal dancers for the Royal Ballet, an Argentinian called Marianela Nuñez, was telling me how excited her family were that they could see her dance in one of our cinema relays in Buenos Aires. The whole family are going along to make it a real evening out, she said. They are so excited. In the future, they may be able to see their daughter perform in 3D. At the moment, we are doing the post-production work on our first 3D recording of the opera Carmen. This is an experiment, and the result of a partnership with the biggest 3D company in the world — RealD of California. I went along to a showing wondering whether what had overwhelmed me in Avatar would have a similar effect for an opera. The answer is it is spectacular. Forget the idea of cinema giving you the best seat in the house; 3D gives you a magic carpet somewhere over the orchestra pit close up to the singers and the chorus and the action. It is utterly absorbing. Slowly, as you pan away from the dead Carmen in the arms of Don José, it is so very moving. I am convinced now that 3D opera and ballet will add to people’s experience of the art forms — and find new audiences too.
Tony Hall is the chief executive of the Royal Opera House.