As the 2015-16 London opera season starts up, and before we run into the usual ignorant comments about ticket prices, it’s useful to address some different questions of accessibility: that there are too few opera performances, of too little repertory.
To start, let’s look back earlier this year at one unusual week, when a remarkable amount of opera was being performed in a few days.
Taking the week in London from 7th to 13th March 2015, there were opening nights of new productions (or one-off concert performances) of The Siege of Calais, Alice in Wonderland, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Semele, The Wild Man of the West, The Rake’s Progress, La bohème and Duke Bluebeard’s Castle; and further performances in their runs of The Mastersingers, Madama Butterfly, Die Zauberflöte, The Indian Queen, La Traviata, I pazzi per progetto and The Dancing Master – 15 individual productions in total, and with multiple further nights taken into account, a splendid total of 28 opera performances in seven days.
Butterfly, La bohème and La Traviata apart, it was also a good week for unfamiliar repertory, a trend continued over the next weeks with performances of Catone in Utica, Giove in Argo, The Dragon of Wantley, and Adriano in Siria. (Admittedly several of the unusual works were staged in the smallest available theatres.) The quantity of performances and choice of works felt energising and exciting, as if opera had become a genuinely popular activity and, odd as it may sound, normal.
These 28 performances provided roughly 50,000 opera-seats in the week (i.e. number of theatre seats, multiplied by number of performances, summed across all the venues involved), whereas the weekly average for the 2014-2015 season was a much lower 18,000 opera-seats. The data used for these statistics is somewhat generalised – but the important point is that, for a few days, London had nearly three times its average availability of opera-seats.
As expected, that week went uncelebrated by the mainstream media, who are unable to move on from losing the argument over the cost of opera tickets, and continue to give a distorted (though thankfully limited) impression of what live opera is all about.
But, although these opera performances were spread across 8 theatres/halls, another 2 theatres (not in use that week) are frequently used to stage opera, and maybe a further 10 London venues are used sporadically (giving 20 opera venues in total), obviously only 2 theatres out of these 20 venues are staging opera productions regularly across the whole year.
For comparison, looking at spoken theatre/musicals, London has 241 theatres at over 200 sites, and attendance figures indicate that at least 423,000 theatre-seats are available on average per week – the actual capacity could be even higher. As for cinema, London’s 850 screens at 158 sites regularly have multiple screenings of films each day, so there are at a minimum some 812,000 cinema-seats available in an average week. Many of those theatres and most of those cinemas are open to audiences almost every day of the year.
As mentioned already, it was not only the opera-seat availability that week that was unusual, but also the number of works performed. Typically, London sees around 120 individual operas performed in a year, and even though the average of 2.3 per week is misleading because of seasonal skews, it still makes that particular week exceptional with 15 individual works.
But again, London has probably in excess of 1,000 individual spoken plays/musicals performed each year, and given that London’s cinemas show roughly 200 individual films per week it’s not unreasonable to assume that there could be 4,000 individual films shown in a year.
Factor in that many of the 28 opera performances we started with had been sold out for months (which is also the case for certain other productions throughout the year), and the availability of tickets (especially the cheapest ones) reduces still further for the casual opera-goer – some of whom have a genuine argument that they lose interest when unable to attend a performance at reasonable short-notice or in response to good reviews. As a consequence, they stop trying to look at any opera performance, and often the availability of opera-seats simply goes unnoticed.
Except for a handful of star-cast productions in the theatre, it is generally possible to buy tickets (including at the cheapest prices) during the run of a play. Accessibility in this sense is never an issue, and it is really quite easy for most Londoners to develop and sustain a spoken-theatre-going habit.
Further, given that in recent seasons the opera repertory has been skewed in parts towards a handful of frequently performed works or composers, with major works and composers entirely absent, there’s sometimes an impression that opera houses are museums of C19th Italy, rather than theatres that have a serious dramatic purpose – even if that is not their best intention. There is obviously plenty of other repertory staged, including a fair (but not excellent) range of C21st and world premiere productions, but those are often subject to the advance-sell out or small theatre capacity problems to be generally accessible. Contrariwise, it would be hard to justify any argument that London’s theatre and cinema repertory is not wide enough.
Broadening the opera-seat comparison to Berlin, Paris and Vienna, there is a not dissimilar weekly average availability of 20,000, 14,000 and 22,000 respectively. But those cities are quite different in population to the greater London region. The easiest measure for comparison is to look at how many people in each city could attend just one performance per year. Paris fares worst at just under 9% of the adult population, London next worst at just over 9%, Berlin a more respectable 24%, and Vienna leads the provision of opera with 55% of the population able to attend one opera performance each year.
But one event a year, however special, is hardly “normal” for most cultural or sporting activities – at least in a large capital city (for this post leaving aside the issue of minimal or zero provision of opera in many places outside the capital). Attending 12 opera performances a year would seem a minimum reasonable normal amount, and the percentage of the four cities’ population able to do that is 0.7% for Paris, 0.8% for London, 2% for Berlin and over 4.5% for Vienna. Paris and Berlin certainly are understated in this comparison, as it’s hard to assemble performance and capacity numbers for the smaller and seasonal companies – instinct says that London actually has the lowest opera-seat provision relative to population. A question for the Arts Council, the UK government Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), and London’s Deputy Mayor for Education and Culture, Munira Mirza, is, how can they justify that London lags behind competitor capitals in Europe in the provision of such a major art form?
If that remarkable week in london were consistent through most of the year, opera in one sense would be less exclusive quite simply because it could be part of a normal theatre-going activity, and the repertory broad enough for people to try unknown works just as they do in the spoken theatre – safe in the knowledge that if they don’t like the work or the production, another one will be along the following week that they might enjoy.
But of course, what we see currently is the opposite in availability. Through a malicious and vindictive cut in their Arts Council funding, English National Opera have been forced to reduce their offering, from 15 productions and 158 performances in 2014-2015, to 11 productions and under 100 performances in 2015-2016. That means a loss to London of nearly 150,000 opera-seats in the year, or on average nearly 3,000 opera-seats a week. The impact is on repertory as well, with a withdrawal into “safer” works, however imaginatively they are marketed.
This reduction in accessibility makes opera literally more exclusive, as fewer and fewer people can attend live staged performances – an activity which has to be the heart not just of an opera-loving habit, but of a thriving art form and of the serious provision of culture in a capital city. The second question for the Arts Council, DCMS and the Deputy Mayor is, do you really want to exclude 99% of London’s population from regularly seeing a live art form?