Opera tickets are not “expensive”

In the week when another senior journalist, this time from the BBC, has felt it necessary to raise the question of opera ticket prices (even if the interviewee’s response successfully dismissed the “expensive” label used), it is more than timely to update the price comparison previously published in November 2014.

The basic premise of the comparison is that opera tickets are sold at a range of prices, not at a single price-point. That’s something obvious to those who actually buy opera tickets, and generally obvious to those who have some notion of ticketed events – but bafflingly out of the mental grasp of leading media journalists, commentators and presenters.

There are some opera tickets which cost more than £100, but so do the top price tickets to many other comparable events and activities. Only a few hundred of those top price opera tickets are available given the small size of theatres and handful of performances of each opera, whereas tens of thousands of the top price sports and pop concert tickets are available for sale. Yet, those other activities are not routinely denigrated as “expensive”, and their participants are not forced to defend the entire sporting or cultural sector in every single mainstream media discussion – in the way that Jonas Kaufmann and Thomas Hampson have been by BBC presenters.

Certain events are far more expensive than opera, by any measure. The losing event in the previous comparison was the series of concerts performed by the Rolling Stones at the O2 Arena in 2012, where ticket prices ranged from £90 to £375. This time the new losing event is the Rugby World Cup Final at Twickenham, where ticket prices start at £150 and top price tickets are £715. It’s not yet known which teams will be playing in the final. If I were paying that much for an opera ticket (I wouldn’t anyway), I’d want to know in advance which opera and which performers would be on stage on the evening.

The problem is that many journalists, commentators and presenters across the whole mainstream media simply have not checked their facts about entry-prices, and make the lazy, ignorant mistake of taking the small percentage of opera tickets sold at the highest price-point to represent the full range of tickets available.

The entry-price (i.e. the cheapest ticket available for a performance or event) for opera is more or less the lowest entry-price of anything comparable. Let’s rephrase that, for all those suffering from opera-cliché syndrome: tickets are available for operas at cheaper prices than for any major cultural, sporting or tourist activity.

This October 2015 comparison looks at ticket prices for staged productions by large opera companies, in their home theatre. (Ticket prices for opera performances on tour are partly outside the control of the opera company, depending on the receiving theatre fees.) The opera data are shown in magenta.

The comparison is made with other arts performances produced mostly by large-scale or national companies, with gallery and museum special exhibitions, pop music concerts, musicals, tourist attractions, and a range of sports events and games. This is a selective list – but consistent in mainly covering productions, events and attractions which have a large number of professional performers or operational staff, or which require considerable logistic effort to prepare. All locations are in London, unless stated. Some events have a single ticket price, which is shown both in the entry- and highest-price columns.

All prices shown are for October 2015 events, unless another date is specified. The prices are for standard adult online tickets. Booking fees and venue improvement levies are included where it is not possible to opt out from paying them. It must be noted that opera houses and concert halls (and some other venues) charge the booking fee *per transaction*, regardless of how many individual performances are included in the transaction. So for example, buying a ticket for both La bohème and The Force of Destiny at English National Opera would cost from £25.75 i.e. £12 per ticket and one fee of £1.75. It must also be noted that the price ranges for many operas vary depending on the date of performance; the cost difference in top price tickets at Glyndebourne for The Cunning Little Vixen, for example, is £65 across dates in June and July 2016.

The ticket prices for all items in the comparison do not include any extras such as travel costs, food and drink, programmes (mostly), baby-sitter fees, accommodation, or clothing (£72 for a football shirt and scarf, for example) – and no, it is not normally necessary to wear any special clothing to an opera performance; even at Glyndebourne wearing black tie is effectively optional. One common, absurd accusation about opera’s supposed “inaccessibilty” is the cost of extras – which obviously apply to any event not taking place in one’s immediate home location.

The inclusion of Glyndebourne Festival Opera in the list needed some consideration. It is clearly a large-scale performing arts company, but stages productions only for a few months of the year rather than the full season, and receives (for the main festival) no public funding, which means different financial criteria apply. Its range of ticket prices is therefore not as low as the national opera companies, but omitting this from the comparison could have been considered misleading.

Classical music performers and venues should be congratulated on their efforts to attract new or younger audiences through reduced price or free tickets. Welsh National Opera offers tickets for £5 in all parts of the Millennium Centre theatre to those under 30 years. The Wigmore Hall also offers tickets for some concerts at £5, to those under 35 years. English National Opera runs a Secret Seat scheme, where a £20 ticket gives you a seat allocated a few days prior to the performance – experience suggests these are usually top price seats, representing a pot-luck saving of £80 or so. English National Opera also has substantial discounts for people under 30 years, as well as discounts when tickets for several operas are booked in one go. The Philharmonia Orchestra has a series of short contemporary music concerts (Music of Today) where all tickets are free. And for some concerts, the Wigmore Hall also offers free tickets to people under 25 years old.

That seems to represent a sensible use of public subsidy, though a full discussion of arts funding (or lack thereof, in the UK’s case) lies outside this particular blog post. It is worth stating however, that the question of public subsidy for the performing arts cannot be addressed in isolation. There needs to be full transparency from the UK football businesses (the correct terms for clubs) regarding the hidden state and local subsidies they receive through infrastructure, services and especially for police costs. When taxpayers’ money is used to enhance the cultural life of the nation, confused libertarians and philistine far-right commentators in certain newspapers consider it a scandal – the real scandal is that it is accepted and deemed an essential requirement for taxpayers’ money to be used to prevent attendees at a game from fighting each other, assaulting bystanders or vandalising property. The other scandal is that, in a multi-billion pound business, the football companies do not pay a living wage to ground staff, and expect government to fund grassroots football facilities and training – yet still charge ticket prices that should be routinely termed expensive as a cost-yardstick far and wide, and levelled as a daily accusation against every professional footballer in all media appearances.

The data shown is taken from website of the respective organisations. If anyone would like to use the ticket-price comparison table in their own blog or publication, I’d be grateful for a credit and a link to this blog post. In turn, I should credit @boulezian on Twitter for drawing to my attention the BBC interview with Jonas Kaufmann broadcast on 16 October 2015, and who, unwittingly, provided a couple of ideas on which I have expanded above. The first table is sorted by descending entry-price cost, the second by descending highest cost.

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Postscript – 19 October 2015

The above is now an updated version of this post, following the welcome attention the original received across social media in the 24 hours since it was first published (4,500 views and rising steadily). I’m grateful to everyone who has retweeted, reblogged, or otherwise reposted it, and for all the comments received.

First, the tone of the original opening paragraph was unhelpful, even though I was expressing the deep frustration felt by many people about the mainstream media’s persistent confusion over the cost of opera tickets. The journalist whose interview stimulated this post may have felt misrepresented; though, given I had sent the original link to him, it would have been useful if his reply had been made direct to me rather than through third-parties. I hope the paragraph is now fairer; it was not my intention to pick on an individual and I’m obviously sorry if that’s how it was received.

Second, I have updated the tables following a couple of suggestions from readers. In come the UK Formula 1 Grand Prix ticket prices, and the entry-price for operas at Glyndebourne is amended (the correct figure is £10 not £40). A couple of small changes were made to the text as a consequence. If any of the organisations cited need further corrections to the data I’ll obviously do so swiftly.

Otherwise, I don’t plan to revisit this topic again unless circumstances change significantly; the point has been made quite clearly to most, but sadly not all, readers.

One last word though: obviously I recognise that there is plenty of media commentary and debate on the cost of football and other sports tickets in general, and the Rugby World Cup tickets in particular. Many keen sports fans are priced out or rightly feel that tickets are poor value. I’m not suggesting that the “expensive” label has been applied uniquely to opera tickets, nor is this a slanging match with the sports world. The annoyance is that many in the mainstream media fail to acknowledge the existence of the cheaper opera tickets or that opera tickets have a range of prices, and show no understanding that the entry-price to opera performances is lower than most comparable activities. The “expensive” label is used routinely and gratuitously; worse, it becomes a pernicious accusation about the value of opera and everyone involved with performing it. I’m not sure anything else of such value is subject to a similar uninformed attack, and it is well past the time for journalists, presenters and commentators to drop the cliché for good. When every mainstream media discussion of opera starts with the comment “isn’t it good that opera tickets are so cheap”, or “live opera really is better value for so little money than any other activity”, then we can finally lay this nonsense to rest.