Not enough opera

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?

Three simple things to wish for, in the opera discourse. 1/3

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.


Next up:

2. Regie rules.
3. The joys of harmony.

A double pain to suffer, first in act and then in telling

In just over four weeks from today, English National Opera stages the world premiere production of The Thebans, with music by Julian Anderson and a libretto by Frank McGuinness. It’s based on the primordial trilogy by Sophocles, retelling the events not just of the familiar Oedipus Rex, but also of the other two subsequent plays, Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus. Theater Bonn is the co-producer, and the opera is an ENO commission. The cast are all ENO stalwarts with international careers, there is a major role for the excellent ENO chorus, ENO’s music director Edward Gardner is conducting – and the occasion also marks the ENO debut as director for Pierre Audi.

In 1982 Audi founded the Almeida Theatre in Islington, turning a previously derelict building into a highly regarded Fringe venue with as much focus on contemporary music and opera as theatre. The list of works performed there during his eight-year tenure is as enormous as the range of ensembles and individuals from around the world who gave those performances. Starting from Audi’s vision, the theatre’s artistic integrity has remained intact through its subsequent four directors, and London audiences and the business (both operatic and theatrical) owe Audi a substantial debt of gratitude. Audi moved in 1990 to the Artistic Directorship of De Nationale Opera of the Netherlands, running the company and continuing to direct a broad range of operas in Amsterdam and around the continent.

Anderson is a highly respected British composer, a key figure both in the teaching of composition (at the Royal College of Music, Harvard University, and currently Professor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama) and in the Composer Residences established by a number of ensembles/venues (the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, The Cleveland Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Wigmore Hall), with some 50 works performed, and several released on CD.

McGuinness is a distinguished Irish playwright and poet, his twenty-two plays staged variously by the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre, the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and others. If anything he is more famous for his modern language adaptations of ‘classic’ plays by Brecht, Chekhov, Euripides, Ibsen, Lorca, Seneca, and Sophocles – his spoken version of Oedipus Rex was staged at London’s National Theatre in 2008, with Ralph Fiennes and Clare Higgins in the lead roles.

Bringing together this pedigree of creative artistry for what will, in all likelihood, be a very fine production of Anderson’s first opera, is exactly what a national opera company should be doing; the work has a strong chance of becoming part of the repertory.

It’s going to be a disaster, though, for ENO itself.

The first night at the Coliseum will struggle to manage a fifty percent audience capacity, and a considerable number of those present will doubtless fall into the category of “friends, family, academic and professional colleagues” some of whom may, and nothing wrong with this, be entering on complementary tickets. Looking at the quantity of unsold tickets in each of the seating areas, for each of the subsequent six performances, a basic estimate is that achieving fifteen percent capacity for the run as a whole is barely feasible. Some of the seats marked as “taken” are in conspicuous formations and locations, which suggests they are merely reserved for potential discount sales through agencies – which may not sell them at all.

I’m not as familiar with the detailed costs of producing an opera at this scale as I would like, but a large financial loss from the venture seems a reasonable outcome to assume. A positive critical reaction to the work itself or the production is never guaranteed. Worse is the reputational damage and the effect on staff morale, as the large auditorium yawns vacant night after night.

It’s not just during the run that ENO will suffer, but again later during official and unofficial reviews of the year: the pressure for much greater transparency about the company accounts to lay bare the scale of the loss, the questions about the commercial wisdom of staging the premiere opera from a composer who, despite his many achievements, is not that familiar even to a general concert-going public, the demands to re-justify every aspect of the decision making behind the work’s commission and scheduling – there are some potentially dire consequences.

The title of this post is an un-famous quote, widely attributed to Oedipus Rex but in fact from Oedipus at Colonus; the intent more clearly understood as: “I don’t want to suffer that pain a second time, … [the] first time when I went through it and then now when I’m telling you about it.”

You can see the relevance to this discussion, though you might be wondering what concern all this to me. Quite simply, the need for frequent world premieres of contemporary music is one strongly held belief of mine, and another is that the provision of opera in London and Britain needs to be reinforced not pulled apart. Although I have no personal connection with any of this, I sincerely want this premiere to be a success in every way.

So, I have three tactical suggestions for English National Opera, which may not seem appealing or practical – but sometimes the best way to manage a crisis is to celebrate it.

First, go on the attack.

John Berry (ENO’s Artistic Director), Gardner, and Audi should tell everyone they can find in the media how worried they are about the low sales figures, what the potential impact these small audiences will have on the future provision of opera in London is, and show the full confidence they have that the production will be an artistic success.

They should draw attention to the climate of fear they (and other opera companies) have to work in, where lazy journalism (BBC HardTalk, Daily Telegraph, Huffington Post, BBCRadio 4, for example) repeats cliches long out of date about opera tickets being expensive, the music elite not wanting people to hear or see opera, modern music being difficult to understand, opera being socially exclusive, and so on. Explain how hard it is to get the message across to the public that ticket prices for The Thebans start at £5 and anyone of any sort is welcome to buy one, no need to dress up as one of the orchestra or singers etc, because there is so much uninformed prejudice.

Second, ask the marketing department to work overtime.

The impression is that The Thebans is being marketed just as “another opera in the season”, and nothing feels special about it or the premiere. Many theatre-goers will be familiar with McGuinness and his plays or adaptations, but my guess is they simply don’t know he has written the libretto for this opera – surely some of them would be curious to see what it is about.

Years ago, ENO released CDs as introductions to new operas before their premieres; I have those for The Silver Tassie and From Morning to Midnight on my desk right now. They contain extracts from the music and commentary from the creative teams. Not completely exciting, but at least there was an effort to help willing listeners familiarise themselves with a brand new opera. Can the marketing team at ENO not use modern media to release short extracts from the opera to raise interest? A plot summary in conjunction with an audio musical guide to the whole work, or a simple trailer? Or are they happy to wait until the critics, hopefully, do their work for them and audiences feel confident to go based on a very short newspaper review of the first night?

Third, make the tickets free.

Yes, free. This suggestion was already being drafted when news from the Royal Opera’s 2014-15 season, with an opening night given over to students paying from £1 to £25 for tickets, scooped the idea. But why not copy that, or go a step further if contractually permissible. The production is going to make a loss anyway, so turn it into a popular success instead by getting a much larger audience. Sure, making some arrangements for those who have already bought tickets might be slightly complex, though a simple credit voucher usable for other ENO productions would suffice, with a replacement ticket for those booked for The Thebans in the Balcony or Upper Circle to move to the Stalls or Dress Circle. But if Berry, Gardner, Audi and the whole of ENO finish their interviews and comment articles by saying that, because they are so concerned to overcome the widespread prejudice about the cost and social exclusivity of opera, and to ensure that as many people as possible have a chance to see this exciting new production, they are throwing the doors open to anyone who wants to walk in and try it, that would certainly take people by surprise.

Celebrate the crisis, make the opera premiere an event that people talk about because they were actually present, and show up the mainstream media for their ignorance and laziness.

But do something, don’t just continue as always until it is too late to do anything at all.