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Place London W1A 1AA Dear Ms. xxxxxxx I'm a great fan of the BBC, I really am, but it pains me to say that its coverage of the arts on TV often leaves a great deal to be desired. A case in point is Sarah Montague's recent (29 July) HARDtalk interview of opera singer Thomas Hampson, which I watched via the HARDtalk YouTube page yesterday1. Should opera companies receive public subsidy? Could they do more to diversify the demographics of their audiences? How can opera be made to appeal to modern listeners? These are all valid questions which have been posed before, from Yes Minister2 to the BBC News website3, and which will no doubt continue to be asked. Reasoned debate is warranted. Unfortunately, this interview failed to provide anything of the sort. I'm a placid type, not given to complaining (except among friends), but this shoddily-researched, aggressive and misleading interview angered me enough that I'm writing to the BBC for the first time ever. Within the first 40 seconds it became abundantly clear that the entire premise of the interview was going to rest on presenting an image of opera as expensive, socially elitist, little-attended and irrelevant, which it would be up to Mr. Hampson to defend or refute. I don't deny that opera, and classical music in general, have an image problem, but this stems in good part from the regrettable tendency of the news media to follow the same old tired narrative of elitism and irrelevance when a look at the facts would show that the stereotypes are simply not true. Is opera expensive? If we are referring to running costs, inevitably so: opera companies require large casts, choruses and orchestras, performance and rehearsal facilities, and a host of skilled workers behind the scenes to ensure the set, costumes and lighting are correct. On the other hand, large overheads are a fact of life for any large employer requiring extensive premises and a wide range of skills. What about the costs of running the Royal Shakespeare Company? What about Wembley Stadium? What about the BBC, for that matter? Why single out opera in this regard? What of the cost to the public, though? To suggest that public subsidy is expensive is self-evidently absurd: taking the Royal Opera House as an example, a quick internet search reveals that in 1http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A8Nyc833IqA&feature=youtube_gdata
2 Yes Minister: “The Middle Class Rip-Off” (1982)
2012/2013 the Arts Council grant4 was just over £25m – or approximately 40p per person if averaged over the latest estimated UK population of 62m. Perhaps by expense, then, Ms. Montague was referring to the ticket price. Or was she? Again referring to the Royal Opera House, purely for consistency, tickets can be bought for as little 5 as £3. 40% of tickets are below £40 and 30% below £306; I have been attending for around 10 years and have rarely paid more than £30, usually far less. To pick examples at random, I think these prices compare pretty favourably to minimum adult prices of £20 to see the highly-acclaimed Matilda on the West End7; £26 to see Arsenal as a non-member8, or a whopping £42.75 to see Jay-Z at the Manchester Arena9. I don't intend in any way to suggest that opera somehow stands on a higher plane of existence – anyone who asserts that is an irredeemable snob – but these are merely representative prices which it took me all of 5 minutes to check. It is quite simply untrue to suggest that opera is only open to the wealthy – if anything, ticket prices are more favourable to those on a low income than for other activities which rarely attract such hostile scrutiny. This is without even mentioning the student standby schemes, or reduced ticket prices for under-30s which, for example, English National Opera and Glyndebourne offer. This leads me onto another point of contention. What of the idea that opera audiences are generally grey-haired? The same ROH figures quoted above suggest that 40% of their audience in 2011/2012 was under 45 years of age. I'm not yet 30, have been attending the opera since my first year at university, and am far from alone – trips to see ENO, WNO and Opera North (purely by way of anecdotal evidence) suggest that the audience profile is even younger there, not to mention the BBC Proms, where experience suggests audiences are overwhelmingly at the younger end of the spectrum (and, by the way, world-class performances can be seen for £5). I'm sure my friends at Leeds Youth Opera would be horrified to learn that they had been reclassified as pensioners. When I went to see Wagner's Ring Cycle at Covent Garden last year, a large number of the audience members in my vicinity were of a similar age to me. How does the audience profile compare to that of, say, the National Theatre? To present such a sweeping assertion without justification and without any context is simply bad journalism. Besides, it may have escaped the notice of the BBC, but the UK population is ageing; according to the 2010 census, the mean age was 40 and this is predicted to rise. Anyway, what is so wrong with older people appreciating anything? Is there an officially-mandated cutoff age beyond which I should shy away from enjoying a night at the opera? 35? 45? 55? Please do let me know. To his credit, Mr. Hampson answered the hostile questioning with unfailing patience, politeness and eloquence, but sadly it seemed that an agenda had been set in advance and none of his very reasonable rebuttals would deter Ms. Montague from pursuing her predetermined course. Without wishing to labour the point, here are a few other lowlights (for brevity I am paraphrasing what appeared to me to be the tone and intent of the questions): − Because many operas were written so long ago, surely they can't be relevant to today's audiences? For example, Simon Boccanegra premiered in 1857. Well, if one considers that love, loyalty, or loss – to mention a few common operatic themes - can't possibly be relevant, universal themes in the present day, there may be an argument here. Maybe we should also abandon the performance of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Marlowe, and Molière, since they wrote their works even longer ago and they can't possibly stir any reaction in the cynical 21st4 http://artscouncil.org.uk/funding/browse-regularly-funded-organisations/npo/royal-opera-house 5https://s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/static.roh.org.uk/visit/pdfs/autumn-2013-seat-price-plan.pdf
7http://uk.matildathemusical.com/tickets/tickets-information/ 8http://www.arsenal.com/tickets/non-member-ticket-prices 9http://www.livenation.co.uk/artist/jay-z-tickets
century theatregoer. Dickens' views on social injustice clearly have nothing to tell us about modern society. And perhaps Ms. Montague also thinks we should cancel the addition of Jane Austen to the £10 note, given that she (Austen, that is) died in 1817. We should also not forget that it is a documented historical fact that no operas have been written since 1920. At least one of these statements may be sarcastic. − Attendance figures are low. Compared to what, exactly? The Premier League? Glastonbury? Pope Francis' recent open-air mass in Rio de Janeiro? Two of these took place in the open and one occurs in multiple stadiums designed to hold tens of thousands. While I am sure that opera company directors would love to cram a full house many times over into the available space, structural engineers and the Health and Safety Executive may have something to say about that. The ROH operated at over 90% capacity last year. There are also marvellous modern inventions such as live cinema broadcasts and open air screenings. You might additionally wish to enquire with your colleagues at Radio 3 about the wonders of wireless transmission through the ether (which is free to receive, so I hear), or look into buying CDs and DVDs while they still exist. Rumour also has it that opera is available on the internet, sometimes even free of charge. − You need to do your homework to understand what's going on. Don't you get more out of it by understanding the context? Doesn't it only appeal to educated audiences? Surely this is the same for anything in life, depending on how one defines “context” and “education”? I thoroughly enjoyed Wimbledon, despite being no athelete and not having the foggiest idea of the rules of any sport at all. I can still appreciate a good performance on Centre Court when I see one. Of course, if I did know the rules of tennis inside out I might have enjoyed Murray's victory all the more, but it wasn't essential to being swept up by the drama and tension of it all Can you imagine Andy Murray being hauled in front of a hostile interviewer and asked to justify why he continues to play tennis, and by the way, why are Centre Court tickets so pricey? To take another comparison, what about the cinema? I didn't fight for the French Resistance in North Africa, I'm not French, and was born decades too late to take part, so does this disqualify me from enjoying Casablanca? I don't think I know any time travellers, so clearly Doctor Who is right out. In any case, everyone's reaction to music is different, but for many people it's a visceral, emotional response. You don't need to be educated to have emotions, or to simply feel something when you hear music, whether it's Berlioz or Beyonce. For those really interested in knowing more about the cultural context, opera programmes usually include a plot synopsis and all manner of details about historical, social and philosophical background – but to appreciate Don Carlo, nobody expects a PhD in the Spanish Inquisition. − It's all set to classical music. And in foreign! I actually couldn't believe Sarah Montague – Sarah “Today Programme” Montague! - could in all honesty suggest that these are negative features. I particularly appreciated the scornful tone used to enunciate the words “classical music”, as though this is somehow on a par with terrorism, bankers' bonuses or standing on the left of the escalator. If classical music and foreign languages are such bad things perhaps we should recall all those Lord of the Rings and Star Wars soundtrack albums – not only are they written in a late-Romantic orchestral style but they also feature choirs singing in completely made-up languages! Nothing good can possibly come of that. On a serious note, some operas are written in English; the ENO performs everything in English; and surtitles should pose no horrors for a population which can't get enough of The Killing and Borgen. − Aren't you being a bit precious about all of this?
I suppose if somebody with no background in my line of work and little understanding of what I do10 came up to me, told me that everything I did was wrong and inaccessible and useless, and the only way to solve that would be to flagellate myself publicly, cut all my work into bite-size chunks and do it out of context with one hand behind my back so that my original intentions were indecipherable, and preferably engage in some cringeworthily uncool marketing targeted at the under-25's, I'd be inclined to be rather precious, too. − Modern technology is all well and good, but will people really make use of it? Well, the radio has been around since the late 19th century, and what has that ever done for us? − Oh look, opera singers aren't all enormous, pigtailed, horned-helmetted Valkyries these days, are they? Ha, ha! I am not even going to dignify this inane, fatuous statement with a response. I believe it was in the BBC's original mandate to “inform, educate, and entertain”. This particular broadcast did none of these. In fact I haemmorhaged IQ points just watching it. To end on a serious note, I am more saddened than angered (and I am really quite angered) that classical music and opera continue to receive such a bad portrayal. It particularly irks me that “culture” of all kinds is seen as something to be perpetually challenged, probed for value, and forced to defend itself. It would be a breath of fresh air if a TV broadcast, just once, could act as a spirited advocate for the arts instead, without resorting to stereotype. Mind you, I suppose we should forgive the HARDtalk team their frankly inadequate research here. It must be so hard to obtain information at the BBC. After all, it's not as though there's anyone there – the DirectorGeneral, say – who used to run an opera house or anything. Yours, despairingly
Alexander Robinson cc: HARDtalk feedback online; BBC complaints
10 I am not a professional musician, though I do admit to being a rather middling amateur horn-player.
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