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.

26 thoughts on “Opera tickets are not “expensive”

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  3. I was in Vienna last month. You can get standing room tickets for the Staatsoper for 4 Euros. And if that’s too expensive for you, you can get slightly worse standing room tickets for 3 Euros. If I lived there, I would do that all the time (the 4 Euro ticket).

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  6. I think your analysis, whilst comprehensive, is incorrect. Some thoughts below:
    1) You need to strip out one-off events like the RWC final. Or atleast, compare them to one-off opera events, say Operalia.
    2) Yes, opera has cheap tickets. But the vast majority of tickets are not so. Not sure what the %s are but I’d wager that for world class opera at the ROH, 80%+ of the tickets are north of £100. I believe looking at football etc. will provide the reverse conclusion.
    2a) Sort of on the above lines, all the opera discount schemes you mention have a component of “being in the know” or “being first in line” to get access to them. Don’t know how this compares to football but it certainly drives the view of opera being elitist.
    3) By your own numbers, attending an Arsenal game looks cheaper than going to the ROH. Given where public subsidies go, this is not good. Comparing Arsenal to the un-subsidised Glyndebourne is simply scandalous.
    4) Its important to compare like with like. Premier League is a world class competition with an international following. I’d dispute that any houses in the UK outside ROH and Glyndebourne provide world class opera. To use WNO or Opera North, need to compare to possibly 2nd division football teams.
    5) Something which jumps out to me from your analysis is how much cheaper recitals and concerts are vs. opera.
    6) You list items like Tower of London, London Eye, Shard etc. as comparables. I don’t think they are. Most people will go to these places once, maybe twice. Football and opera goers will go 100s of times.
    7) Gavin Ensler made the excellent point on twitter that elitism can be intellectual as well as economic. I believe the opera world has embraced both forms. Stalls tickets and Glyndebourne on the economic side. Slips seats and discount schemes on the intellectual side. Too much money is being put into champagne bars and luvvie events such as Deloitte Ignite. Too little towards genuine outreach such as BP Big Screens.
    Ok thats my rant done.

    • I’m happy to respond to these points briefly in the same order:

      1) The comparison is about the cost of a single ticket for an individual event. It doesn’t matter for this analysis whether that event is a one-off or part of a series, though obviously the Rugby World Cup final is in fact the latter anyway.

      2) You’re wrong about the percentage of low cost opera tickets, at least according to Kasper Holten’s letter to The Guardian of 6 April 2014 http://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2014/apr/06/letters-royal-opera-house-elite-accessible which states the Royal Opera sells 50% of tickets for £55 or less. Let’s also remember that a Premier League club can sell many tens of thousands of tickets for an event, which gives them considerably greater ability to reduce prices compared to a 2,000 seat opera house.

      2a) All of the opera and classical music discount schemes I mention are on the respective websites for companies/venues and have been publicised by them. You’ll find the ballot schemes for Test Match cricket are far more obscure, and selecting the appropriate membership scheme for Chelsea FC would require foreknowledge of the stadium.

      3) The entry-price for the Royal Opera is typically £10, whereas for Arsenal it is £29. Not sure how it can be misread that Arsenal is cheaper at the entry-price level – which is sort of the point of this whole post.

      4) I dont agree.

      5) The entry-price to recitals and concerts is in fact roughly similar to the entry-price for operas.

      6) Again, as per point 1), this comparison is about the cost of a single ticket for an individual event.

      7) I dont really understand your final point, but it seems way beyond the scope of this particular post.

    • chaconato:

      I’d like to add something to your response to point 2.

      I don’t think it is stressed often enough that opera and classical music generally lack the economies of scale available to other entertainments, unless you think that amplified orchestras work in practice. In my opinion, they don’t, and sound terrible. To me, the most accurate speakers in existence are electrostatic, and provide a reasonable approximation of the live sound in a small room, but they do not reproduce bass notes well and cannot deliver the high volumes necessary for large venues. They were in fact used successfully at the Queen Elizabeth Hall many years ago to assist in a Ravi Shankar concert, but the amplification used was modest.

      I find it astonishing that a ticket for an event accommodating an audience of 20,000 or more with relatively few performers, in some instances just one big name and a backing group, can be so expensive.

      Most of this blog is about opera, but a £13 ticket for an orchestral concert with perhaps 80 or more performers on stage is remarkable value. In a 2,000 seat concert hall, that’s a performer/audience ratio of just 25:1, less if a choir is involved. The concert might be subsidised but, the fact remains, £13 is all it takes to get a seat.

    • Good points, thanks David. And more so, £10 – for an opera with 80 players in the pit, 6 leads and a 40-strong chorus on stage, a hundred backstage and front-of-house staff, let alone the people producing sets, costumes and subtitles – seems astonishingly good value compared to almost anything at all.

    • One honourable large venue exception is the concert to be given by Years and Years on 8 April 2016 at the Wembley Arena. The audience capacity is 12,500. Tickets are either £28 or £32.50 – only.

    • A final response to Rex Oper’s point 6: a tourist staying in London for a few days would typically visit several attractions, maybe four in a weekend, many more during a week’s holiday. That seems a perfect equivalent to attending a number of opera performances, so even at the multiple level my comparison is valid.

  7. Excellent research and analysis. Thank you.

    I particularly like your robust comparison with other forms of entertainment, and football in particular. In my opinion, people in the arts tend to be far too polite, sometimes bordering on apologetic, in their own defence, leaving themselves wide open to attack by the lazy journalists you identify, as well as the downright hostile.

    Many years ago, perhaps three decades or so, someone published figures showing that attendance at performing arts events exceeded attendance at football matches in any given year. I don’t recall how “performing arts” were defined, or who published the data, but initial scepticism evaporated when the relatively low attendance at lesser football matches was compared with halls and theatres providing perhaps eight performances a week. I’ve tried to track down this report without success.

    • Thank you, David. I now remember seeing similar figures published in the past couple of years, but don’t have the link to hand. I’ll try to find this data.

  8. To play Devil’s Advocate, the response from the people like the BBC person would be that Public Subsidy of the Arts contrasts with the unsubsidised Free Market that operates in most of the cases cited in these comparisons.

    • Of course the thinking behind that, is ” the chief end of Public Subsidy of the Arts is to keep prices low” rather than to actually ensure that the product is available to audiences.

    • I’m by no means an expert on the UK’s football businesses; to those who are, my comments are doubtless too generalised and/or focused on the premier league. But it seems that hidden subsidy would fall in the following categories: consequential police costs (calculating those is difficult, but currently £2m per annum in London alone), low-paid ground staff (who need welfare assistance as a result), state school sports education, BBC coverage (thousands of hours of broadcasts – effectively free publicity), overseas/offshore ownership (30% of Premier and League businesses could *potentially* avoid capital gains tax), and infrastructure/transport upgrades as club venues are rebuilt or relocated. All of those are of contention in the sports world already; the football businesses reply that they bring £1bn to the economy annually and that it is proper from them to receive support in return. My point is that because, in total, this subsidy is indirect or hidden (compared to the overt Arts Council funding for opera companies), it is not used sufficiently in public debate.

  9. While that data may be accurate it does not take in to account the fact that members often buy up all the low priced seats before they are made available to the general public – especially at the Royal Opera House.

    • The aim of this comparison is to show just the ticket prices, in an attempt to overcome widespread ignorance about the entry-price for opera relative to other events and activities. I hope you’d agree that is a useful starting point, so that any further discussion can be meaningful?
      Availability of tickets is a slightly different issue, and certainly not limited to opera performances. Memberships, ballots and debenture seats are the common route to tickets for many sports venues and other events. I’m not sure what the term general public means in this sense, since membership at many of these organisations (including the Royal Opera House) is open to anyone who pays the fee – Chelsea FC use the terms member and non-member which is clearer. There are usually return tickets available at the Royal Opera House at the lower prices anyway, regardless of membership.

    • Presumably as part of a special scheme or offer? The tables show the standard online adult booking prices, but it’s always good to mention the even lower prices available for certain events or audience categories.

    • Thanks for your kind comment Alison. And yes, you’re correct, the standing tickets at £10 should have been included in the table. I’m updating a couple of things in this post at the moment and will include that amendment.

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