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Getting our own house in order

It has been an interesting couple of days on twitter; I have had two prolonged discussions with people who are evidently committed opera goers, but who both appeared to harbour quite virulent belief in the idea that opera is elitist. Both conversations revealed that whilst the general population is polarised on the matter of 'high' arts, those already converted appear to be divided within it.

The first conversation centred around our free ticket schemes. A critic had mentioned meeting two boys at a performance of Fledermaus who were on the scheme. Both, she said, appeared fully engaged and had told her they would definitely be coming back. A twitterer doubted that such schemes were useful (although we did end up discussing subsidy and who was paying for such free tickets). When we set the scheme up many years ago, the idea was simple; the best way to encourage life-long interest in opera is to give young people (from the age of 7 in our case) the chance to experience it, and we know that participants return year after year. Do they all then go on to use the next stage of our "ladder" - the cheap Inspire seats or Investec Under 30's seats - once they reach 18? Yes, many do, but one thing is for sure, the concept of opera is no longer a mystery to them and whether they put their opera going on the back burner until later or continue in dedicated fashion is a moot point. There is no real downside to the scheme as far as I can tell.

The other discussion focused on the concept of elitism. My interlocutor believed that a great many of those he saw attending opera were there to 'be seen', rather than having a passion for the art form. This, he believed, was partly evidenced by having overheard conversations in which audience members clearly didn't have much knowledge. Now this struck me as quite an interesting and, in my view, wrong judgement that was in itself a little ''elitist'. I have worked in opera for 27 years and still have conversations with people in which it is obvious that I don't have a scintilla of their knowledge, but nobody would say I wasn't a genuine opera fan.

It is true that at some venues there will inevitably be a portion of the audience who are not entirely committed to the art-form but that doesn't mean they do not enjoy or value the experience. With everything, a little bit of effort is always rewarding but there is no knowledge bar as far as I am aware. Indeed, we have spent two decades encouraging those who have little or no knowledge of opera to enjoy and support it! I understand what the twitterer was saying, and appreciate the kernel of truth there may be in his argument, but it is, I believe, blinding him to the millions of people who have a genuine interest - albeit based on superficial knowledge or experience - for the art. I can't find it within myself to criticise them for that.

I have always argued that we shouldn't apply 'gimmick' to opera, that we should present it as it is, without being afraid of it, or ashamed of it, or try to make it something it isn't. I also believe it should be accessible, obviously, but on the other hand, a fair price should be paid for it too (you'll note no ticket offers at OHP beyond our formal accessible schemes). For me, it is about normalising opera and, borrowing from a lecture I made two years ago, making what is extraordinary, ordinary. I would also make the point that there are very good explanations for why generally middle class people have a love of the classical arts and it has to do with the sorts of schools they went to. Those of us who bemoan the lack of working class opera goers should be screaming at the government, not other audience members.

Whilst opera as an industry can often be found pissing on its own shoes, I think that those who love it shouldn't fall prey to their own prejudices, and rather than pushing away those they believe use it as a social crutch, they should be dragging those behind them into theatres. Let the newbie decide how much intellectual rigour he or she wishes to apply to their own experience.


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