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OBERTO conference paper

A (very slightly) edited version of the talk I gave at the recent - and very interesting - OBERTO conference at Oxford Brookes University. The day was full of far more interesting and scholarly papers than mine; I was just the end-of-the-day entertainment!

Reassessing audiences and the "not for us debate"

I tend to approach opera from an instinctive point of view. Instinct is really something people like me have almost always  survived on. I read a piece recently in which Kasper Holten, asked whether he was making the right decisions on repertoire, said that in the end, we can really only act on our instinct and our taste. After all, whilst scientific approaches to marketing and running our businesses has a place, if that was the only answer we would all surely be millionaires. So, often, instinct is our greatest tool. And after 25 years of doing this and meeting thousands of opera goers, instinct and experience is something I need to pay attention to. Right now, my instinct is very much that we are perhaps looking in the wrong places and focusing on the wrong things as we struggle to maintain opera's vitality.

Back in June, I wrote an article in The Sunday Times about opera and the problems with various socio-economic groups and their take up of live, theatrical arts.  A couple of weeks later, Sajid Javid, MP, the culture secretary, referenced the piece in his maiden speech on his new portfolio. Soon afterwards, his shadow, Harriet Harman made an almost identical speech but attracted much opprobrium by referencing socio-economic stereotypes in the opera house. When the Arts council recently announced its new funding programme, much of the money was attached to demands;  broadening audiences and encouraging opera houses and theatres to reach out to more people (mainly by telling them to go to the cinema).  Everybody is up in arms about this constant scrutiny because everybody is, to coin a London phrase, "knocking their pipe out" trying to do just that.  We spend millions in the UK trying to get people to make the arts a key part of their lives and millions more are spent on education programmes that go into schools or hospitals or care homes.  We bang this drum constantly yet the impression exists among policy makers that we still don't do enough, that opera or theatre is elitist, expensive. 

I don't want to bore you by listing the countless schemes or cheap ticket programmes that we all know about.  We are a little obsessed with the social make up of our audience, sometimes correctly. My greatest concern is that there is a huge untapped audience out there and there IS a problem. It's not the one Mr Javid or Mrs Harman thinks it is. Neither is it the one that mono-dimensional media coverage of high arts would have you believe it is, or the ramblings of artists like Katherine Jenkins who love to reinforce the concept of a posh folks' private members club. No, none of that is the problem because you can get an opera ticket or a theatre ticket or a gallery ticket or a Proms ticket for tuppence ha'penny if you want one.

The problem is the potential audience itself. We sometimes refer to this potential audience "ordinary people" or the "working class" because we all appear to have a  reference point in our minds for what that means. And in the context of the arguments around elitism, this appears to be the audience we ought to be chasing (as though anybody else doesn't really count but let's put that idea to one side for a moment). If like me, you recoil a bit when you hear the term "working class", please just tolerate it for the purpose of this discussion. But what we are in fact talking about is basically the great majority of people in the country; educated mainly in comprehensives, often professional, vocational workers or tradesmen, living moderate lives. These are the people, we are told (debatably)  that opera has not made any great impression on and it is true that so many have never been to the theatre in their lives. Think about that for a moment...

I seem to be the "go to" person to prove opera is not elitist because, I suppose, I have a London accent, like football and have tattoos. What better way to demonstrate that opera has a universal appeal? What better way to show that we can all find revelation and gratification in Verdi and Mozart? Of course, I am not actually your average working class convert who stumbled upon opera one day and ended up managing a festival.  I will tell you why in a moment. 
(In the open floor discussion later, it was proposed, by me in fact, that we shouldn't actually have such articles circulating since asking the question "is opera for toffs?" constantly reinforces the concept that there is a problem, but I digress)

When I wrote the article for the Sunday Times, I told the story of a friend of mine who grew up on the same Fulham estate as me. I had invited him to a performance and as a result of that he had discovered within himself a huge desire to explore more and began going to the theatre, he had even started to ask me for book recommendations. It was a real "Educating Kenny" scenario. He had never even imagined that theatre or opera or virtually anything beyond popular culture was within his reach intellectually or even socially. He still feels reluctant to tell his mates in the pub that he visits theatres, like a dirty secret.

The issue is further complicated, I believe, by the voracious advance of the digital age and the way in which our emerging adult population is learning to perceive their entire world through a screen and thus the concepts of live, non-digital, emotionally human, collective experience is, (beyond the massive sleep in a field, wallow in the mud rock festivals), utterly alien to many. Big Brother is upon us in the form of technology and those who determine how the world operates follow the dollars not the tears - unless every tear, as the late Lord Attenborough once said of his films, is attached to a dollar.

I assume we have all considered at length why opera audiences are generally middle class and monied - because, let's face it, despite all of our efforts, some of which are successful to a greater or lesser extent, this is largely the case. I think it is simple. Education, or more specifically, the kind of education they had. I am tempted to stop there. That's it. Not much more to be said you might think.  Why my own experience is relevant is also why what I have just said is actually, awfully, depressingly true.

I am not trying to play that game of proving I am more working class than you, honestly. The point is that when I was eleven years old, as a consequence of a set of circumstances and fortune, I was plucked from my inner city estate and single parent family and dropped into a world that today is beyond most who are like the child I was. To cut a very long story short, I ended up at a school that was dubbed the "poor man's Eton" and it was called Woolverstone Hall. The school was a boarding school for underprivileged London boys and was specifically set up to prove that if you gave us the same educational opportunities as those with money, you would see remarkable results. There were lots of people like me in the school, we were the majority in fact, and a major aspect of school life was our cultural education. There were lots of anachronistic rules and traditions at the school that seemed as if from another planet. THOSE were in fact the biggest challenge for us all; rules, doing what we were told, accepting corporal punishment without trying to burn the housemaster out of his home!  But what didn't feel weird or way out or extraordinary was the fact that we sang Handel in choirs, sang proper hymns in assembly,  studied Chaucer and Shakespeare, performed in plays and studied the great composers in music lessons. Kids like me didn't turn a hair when the school mounted Der Freisch├╝tz. We still loved and were encouraged to express our love of popular music in the form of rock concerts too, and soon everything seemed to come from the same cultural pot: it didn't matter, never felt unusual and importantly, nothing was ever introduced with particular fanfare. There was a sort of shrug of the shoulders. It was normal. And I should remind you that we were an apparently very challenging group of children.

And that is the experience of many who attend public schools and I suppose you can in one sense argue that consequently, opera is associated with money!  But why is it that kids who attend our state schools, particularly those in cities, remain so allergic to the higher forms of culture? We spend millions collectively in outreach programmes,  yet whilst youth culture is vibrant in the UK, our young people remain among the most culturally one dimensional in the world. The way in which young people absorb their entertainment is massively controlled and one imagines schools, and the teachers who generationally are from a similar system, perpetuate the lack of a wide and testing cultural education. We must all have stories of struggles to even get educational projects into schools because the interested teachers seem to be rare.

Of course, none of what I am saying is a revelation because we all know that it starts with exposure and education. And this is why I have become pessimistic about not just the future of live opera, but also that of other forms of culture; the task of reversing the concept of threadbare, caricatured, token cultural education is a massive, almost unimaginable one. And alongside that, the digital world is taking over and I think the cultural world is, to coin another phrase from my youth, pissing on its own shoes in this regard too. Making opera more available from the comfort of an armchair is fine but overwhelmingly, the consumers of the digital broadcast are already converts and they often go - or used to go - to theatres too. Some have indeed used cinema to supplant their theatre-going but price may be a factor here as well as access to theatres in more remote communities.  We can go on and on with this you know, we can find all manner of ways to spread the theatrical experience in two dimensional media. But a) we are a live art form and b) too many people think it is another world, not for them. Our chances of converting someone to opera are immeasurably improved by getting their behinds on a seat, in a theatre.

So I imagine you are all waiting with baited breath for me to offer a solution? I have one but I am certain it is unachievable: starting from the age of five years old, all children should experience three hours a week where they explore and listen to classical music, theatre (both classical and modern) and yes, opera. They should have their curriculum filled with higher expectation and aspiration. They should also have no access to digital devices until the age of 25! It could also be argued that we shouldn't expect or assume that the list of culture I just gave is an automatically appropriate thing for kids these days; culture changes, it moves on. I would contest that it is still appropriate to share it with them, that it informs all cultural choices through life.   But we all know this is never happening anyway. So what else can we do?

For opera and the arts in general to flourish as we would like, to ensure new audiences come through, we do need to continue outreach and make seats accessible from a monetary point of view, and we should avoid dumbing it down or sexing it up, trying to appeal to what we think are "modern" likes and dislikes; if we try to meet them on their terms or mould opera into something we think will appeal, we will lose. We shouldn't be running scared of our shadow. But most of all we need to appeal to a huge portion of our society who are simply ensnared by the old stereotypes or are simply afraid of the arts, even though they may be curious. Above all, we must not try to make opera extraordinary - we need to make it ordinary. Stop chasing twitter counts and controversy in order to demonstrate how relevant and hip opera is. We may attract some transient fame but we won't convert a single Take That fan. Rather than make opera stand out, it needs to become another, ordinary part of our cultural offer to a nation of people who have learned to enjoy everything and understand how immeasurably powerful it can be in a live context - that is where and when they learn how extraordinary it can be. I would posit the theory that there is an enormous natural capacity for opera and music drama among the UK population, that people are immensely capable of enjoying the operatic art form because they are melodramatists and emotional by nature, they understand the concepts of drama and how music heightens it. We have seen how popular certain "crossover opera" singers can become. We all remember the Nessun Dorma phenomenon.

Our focus is very much on marketing, access, digital expansion and social media, being progressive, aggressive even. A lot of it is good work and some of it enjoys success but for me, the problem is that largely, we are casting seeds onto barren ground. How much more successful would our efforts be were our twenty something population to be familiar and comfortable with the concept of opera? Able to make choices based on what they like or dislike as opposed to being invited into a world that is surreal and alien?  I always said that my school's greatest achievement was not the education it gave me but that it convinced me before it started that it was worth having an education at all. I feel there is something of that in our attempts to persuade people to come to the opera.

We need people who come from all - or "ordinary" -  communities to evangelise and educate, we need to present the art form in wholly unexpected places and media, without caricature or pop stars, we need to make a massive effort to bring opera into mainstream life, addressing directly not only people's misconceptions of the art form but their misconceptions of themselves.


  1. This is excellent and sounds absolutely right. Cheap tickets and access schemes will do little if the will to attend is not there. Curiosity is just not enough as self-censure and the 'what will my mates think?' effect will squash any 'might give that a go...' impulse. And it is often an impulse which starts off a love.


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