Probably almost everyone with a social media feed that includes any of the UK’s publicly-funded opera companies has been aware of the Inside Opera event on 10th May, a live webcast covering activity and events in seven opera companies across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
The main intent was to help encourage new, younger audiences to experience their first live opera, by de-mystifying what is involved in producing an opera in a theatre, and showing the passion and commitment that performing artists, theatre crews, and opera workers bring to this art form. The mystery to regular opera goers is why anyone should find attending an opera performance difficult or challenging, even when it is for the first time in one’s life.
But you don’t need me to remind you that, in the UK at least, the general level of discourse about opera, and classical music, is appallingly uninformed and limited, and would be considered a national disgrace if it were similarly the case for discussions about books, sport or politics. Worse, many people – not just lazy journalists and broadcasters, but also lazy philistines and puritans – have an absurd level of prejudice against opera, fed by unquestioned myths they assert repeatedly and incessantly. A paraphrase of the response given by the Royal Opera’s Kasper Holten, when asked during Inside Opera about rivalry with English National Opera down the road, is: “it’s not opera company versus opera company, but opera companies versus the world”. Hardly surprising that newcomers are put off even a first attempt to visit a performance.
Inside Opera won’t have revolutionised things in just 4 hours, but it gave opera the feel of excitement that surrounds other live, national events. If this collaboration between the seven companies can be repeated and extended – and broadcast on freeview television rather than as a webcast – then maybe some people will be drawn into making a more informed and less harmful contribution to the discussions.
What are some basic essentials for a better discourse about opera? Three simple things are my preoccupation: ticket prices, production type, music theory. The first two dominate most current discussions and drive out any more pertinent artistic and critical contributions, the absence of the last is the elephant in the room. There are many ways to change a discourse, but I worry that we will never make any progress without a concerted and unflinching effort to address all three things.
1. Ticket costs
I rarely swear in public, but when anyone who has never been to an opera performance starts to tell me authoritatively about “opera tickets costing a lot” they end up regretting it, at length. Friendships have been lost, crockery smashed, airplanes diverted; I haven’t yet started wars or invaded the offenders’ homelands, but if I had access to the UN Security Council, its members would right now be debating how best to apply sanctions to anyone repeating this myth.
The worst recent example, from Simon Kelner, a former editor-in-chief of the Independent, in a pointless article about fine dining and celebrities, may not have been aimed just at ticket prices, but wins every prize for ‘the gratuitous use of the word “opera” in a non-related context’. On re-reading the article, the stupidity of the penultimate sentence still brings the neighbours knocking on the door to check if all’s well, given the shouting and screaming triggered by its offensiveness.
Just as stupid, was the remark in Catherine Bennett’s incomprehensible response to the BBC announcement in March 2014 of plans for increased arts coverage that, the Royal Opera House is “subsidised but stratospherically inaccessible”. The facts are otherwise, but why bother with such detail when you merely want to insult?
The BBC itself is sadly not free from this sort of nonsense, but given the immense decline in its editorial and cultural standards imposed by malign political influence from the 1980s onwards, one has low expectations that are frequently met. You’re probably only too familiar with the bizarre opening remarks from Sarah Montague which set the tone for the whole HARDtalk embarrassment: thankfully, many leading opera professionals complained publicly about the inaccuracies. And tweeting in a personal capacity, Sangita Myska, a prominent BBC news and current affairs journalist, recently asserted that “many of our arts venues are still too expensive … for ordinary folk”.
Patronising, as well as wrong.
The repetition of such ignorance is both pernicious and pervasive: in a discussion, ok, row, on the Katherine Jenkins affair [the elite don’t want you to hear opera, but I’m happy to charge £99 a ticket to sing for you at an ‘exclusive’ concert], a person kept insisting to me that, cheap opera tickets literally (and I use that word deliberately, as this was the other person’s clear meaning) do not exist, because the London-dwelling middle classes buy them all. Baffling logic, and never mind that on the very same day the English National Opera website clearly showed the existence and availability of £5 tickets for performances of The Thebans; according to that other person, these do not “exist”. Schrödinger’s cat would be falling out of its box with laughter.
Seemingly, it is beyond the ken of many intelligent commentators and public figures to understand that tickets for operas have a range of prices, rather than just an upper value. I prefer always to talk about the “entry price” for an event, i.e. the minimum cost for which one can be present. Yes one can pay more, and consequently may well have a better experience of the event – which is for a different discussion – but there is no requirement to do so for entry.
Let’s look at some numbers. I have taken a current (or the most recent/next forthcoming) production at each of the seven opera companies participating in Inside Opera. A comparison is made with the entry price to other arts and music venues, cultural, heritage and tourist sites, sporting events, and a night on the town; all but two are current or near-future ticket prices. It’s not a perfect survey – but then those maligning the cost of opera tickets have never been the least bit bothered about accuracy, or facts, at all.
Rolling Stones, O2 Arena (2012) £90
“Clubs and drugs” night out, east/south London £60
The Libertines, BST Hyde Park £55
Lovebox 1-day ticket, Victoria Park £55
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo £49
FA Cup Final 17 May, Wembley Stadium £45
One Direction, Wembley Stadium £43
Chelsea Football Club, home match £41
Singin’ in the Rain, Grand Opera House Belfast £36.50
Buckingham Palace, state rooms, mews and gallery £35.75
London Eye, Southbank £26.55
The Phantom of the Opera, Her Majesty’s Theatre £25
The view from the Shard, Southwark £24.95
London Comedy Store, Picadilly £23.50
London Zoo, Regent’s Park £23
Tower of London, City of London £20.90
Wicked, Kings Theatre Glasgow £20
Godzilla, Odeon Leicester Square £18.50
Macbeth, Northern Ireland Opera, Grand Opera House Belfast (Feb 2014) £18
Vikings, British Museum £16.50
Matisse, Tate Modern £16.30
Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Gielgud Theatre £15
King Lear, National Theatre £15
La Bohème, Opera North, Leeds Grand Theatre £15
War Horse, Wales Millennium Centre £15
West Side Story, Leeds Grand Theatre £15
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew £15
Fashion World of Jean-Paul Gaultier, Barbican Gallery £14.50
Veronese, National Gallery £14
Italian Fashion, Victoria and Albert Museum £13.50
Madama Butterfly, Scottish Opera, Theatre Royal Glasgow £11
Life on the Moon, English Touring Opera, Hackney Empire £10
Moses und Aron, Welsh National Opera, Wales Millennium Centre £10 (or a generous £5 for those under 30)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Dutoit, Royal Festival Hall Southbank Centre £10
The Thebans, English National Opera, Coliseum £10
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Queen Elizabeth Hall Southbank Centre £9
Tosca, Royal Opera, ROH Covent Garden £9
The entry prices for the opera performances are grouped mostly at the bottom of the list. The cheapest end. Along with the classical music concerts. The entry price for nearly everything else is more expensive.
You can see why I am angry.
Of course, these entry prices don’t include travel to the event’s location, a programme, victuals, the comparative events and venues are London-centric, often there are booking fees involved – though the marginal costs apply just as much to the non-opera ticket costs in the list as to the operas. But equally, some of the opera entry prices listed can be reduced in cost through subscription schemes, concessions, and other offers. I’m not claiming this is a comprehensive survey or has a definitive price-parity methodology. I have plenty of ideas to extend the study, and would welcome any constructive suggestions to improve these comparisons.
One objection to that list would be that events/venues with single-price point tickets are mixed with those which offer a range of ticket prices above the entry cost. For example, it only costs £35.75 to visit Buckingham Palace, whereas some stalls seats for Tosca at the Royal Opera House cost £195. That still doesn’t disprove the basic point, that the entry cost to opera is cheaper than for most rival events and venues.
Obviously, some people can afford to pay more than the entry price, and do; those stalls tickets at the Royal Opera are frequently sold out. As already mentioned, the correctness of allowing such a price differential is an argument for elsewhere. But still, as Kasper Holten reminds us in his response to Catherine Bennett’s misrepresentation of ticket prices, 50% of tickets at the Royal Opera House are sold at £55 or less. And if we are talking about the top-end costs, let’s revisit the multi-price point items on the list:
Rolling Stones, O2 Arena (2012) £375
Tosca, Royal Opera, ROH Covent Garden £195
One Direction, Wembley Stadium £149
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo £135
FA Cup Final 17 May, Wembley Stadium £115
The Phantom of the Opera, Her Majesty’s Theatre £115
Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Gielgud Theatre £85
Madama Butterfly, Scottish Opera, Theatre Royal Glasgow £74
Wicked, Kings Theatre Glasgow £72.50
The Thebans, English National Opera, Coliseum £60
War Horse, Wales Millennium Centre £60
King Lear, National Theatre £50
La Bohème, Opera North, Leeds Grand Theatre £49.50
Singin’ in the Rain, Grand Opera House Belfast £49.50
West Side Story, Leeds Grand Theatre £46
Macbeth, Northern Ireland Opera, Grand Opera House Belfast (Feb 2014) £40
Moses und Aron, Welsh National Opera, Wales Millennium Centre £40
Life on the Moon, English Touring Opera, Hackney Empire £33
So, with the exception of a few seats at the Royal Opera, you can see that the cost of a top-price opera ticket is still less than or comparable to that of top-price tickets at most other events, which are also frequently sold-out.
If you want to start lecturing me about the ethics of a publicly-funded institution such as the Royal Opera charging some high ticket prices, then we can also address the hidden public funding of football clubs and match fixtures – millions of pounds over many years, only recently reduced by the clubs taking on the payment for the police costs required to stop match attendees from fighting each other (and assaulting bystanders) in the streets. And you can tell me which you think is the more justifiable use of public money. I’m fairly sure that the football club shareholders have not paid back the policing cost for prior years out of their profits. In any case, the correct argument about public subsidy is actually that if some opera ticket prices are too high, then the subsidy is simply far too low.
The item missing from the list is the cost of a season ticket to a Premiership football club. It appears that at the local club the top-price season tickets require a commitment in advance for four years, at £5,000 per annum – a £20,000 upfront payment. The average cost per match may work out at £150 or so, but how many “ordinary folk” can afford that size of upfront payment for a non-essential activity? In football-specific discussions there is obviously concern and outrage at those high prices, but the prices are not used as an everyday figure of hate in common discourse as are those very few tickets at the Royal Opera.
If the uninformed and the ignorant continue to peddle misinformation and hatred about opera ticket costs, then they should be met with well-deserved contempt and shouted down.
2. Regie rules.
3. The joys of harmony.