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Thank you for your email of 5 August in response to my letter, which - as I'm sure you're aware - unexpectedly took on something of a life of its own on the Internet at the end of last week.
I'd like to thank you for replying so courteously and in such detail to my letter. I have to confess that I didn't expect much other than a bland, corporate statement (if anything at all), so it is reassuring to know that my letter has been read and considered carefully and seriously by someone involved intimately in the production process.
Thank you, too, for your recommendation that I view this week's HARDtalk interview with the composer Sir John Tavener. I agree that this was compelling and revealing, and indeed quite thought-provoking, in the way that it addressed his music, his personal religious beliefs, and the adjustments which those underwent following a serious illness. This was an excellent piece of journalism, and one which represented the highest standards of the BBC.
Bearing that in mind, I have to confess that I am even more baffled at the treatment meted out to Thomas Hampson in the interview broadcast on 29 July, and I am far from convinced by the reasoning given in the response which you sent to me. Detailed as it is, I think there are still some worrying gaps in your research when this is considered carefully. Comparing the Tavener and Hampson interviews, I honestly find it difficult to believe that these come from the same production team and the same interviewer, for broadcast under the same series title. One was informative, educational, and profoundly moving. The other, not so much. Allow me to explain in a little more detail below.
Sadly, the Thomas Hampson interview failed to meet the high expectations which I normally associate either with this programme, or with Sarah Montague (for whom I have great respect for her tenacity in interviewing tricky, slippery customers on the Today programme). Judging by the overwhelming response which my letter received on the Internet, it seems fair to say that many, many people around the world share my opinion. At the time of writing this, my letter has been viewed by over 136,000 individual readers from all over Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and beyond, and has been shared prolifically on social media by prominent singers, actors, directors and conductors. I have also received countless supportive emails, tweets, Facebook messages and text messages. In fact, so many people have been in touch that I've struggled to keep up with the volume of correspondence. As an ordinary member of the public – albeit one with an intense interest in music – this is the last thing I expected. To be honest, I'm actually rather embarrassed by all the attention, and would rather sit down in a quiet room with a good book and a cup
of tea, but having unleashed this torrent of support I feel I have a responsibility to speak again on behalf of the (quite literally) thousands who have contacted me.
There are a large number of points which I addressed in my letter, and a large number which you addressed in your reply, and for reasons of time, space, and maintaining your attention (and that of my blog readers) without inducing a coma, I don't propose to go into all of them in extensive detail here. However, there are a few issues which trouble me.
First of all, I understand, as noted in your email, that the format of HARDtalk is intended to be challenging, robust and provocative. I have always (before now) been impressed by the detailed research underpinning the interviews. I also understand fully that HARDtalk is intended not only for domestic audiences, but for those overseas listening via the BBC World Service or viewing on the BBC News Channel. With this in mind, it is all the more important that HARDtalk should uphold the BBC's reputation for excellence, rigour and impartiality in all that it does.
There is a fine line, however, between a legitimate “Devil's Advocate” interviewing style, which involves presenting statements of opposing opinions; and outright aggression, which presents matters of opinion (or simple falsehood) as objective truth. We can argue ad infinitum about perceptions, and these are fine subjects for an interview, but they should never be presented as authoritative fact. On this occasion, my feeling - and one shared overwhelmingly by my correspondents – is that in this particular case the tone of questioning was misjudged and strayed too far into presenting opinion as fact.
As an example, take the introductory piece to camera – approximately 40 seconds by Montague alone, in the absence of Hampson, who thus has no right of reply. The opening statement is among the most important parts of an interview, as it sets the underlying assumptions and premise of the follow-up questions. In this case, elitism and expense are presented as matters of simple fact, inviting the viewer to assume from the start that negative perceptions of opera are true, as well as implying that little can be done about this. This seems to be rather too subjective - and important a matter to generalise and trivialise in such a way.
This tone is continued throughout the interview. You say in your response that “the style […] is robust; it should never be either hostile or aggressive […] I cannot accept that either is an accurate description of Sarah Montague's mode of questioning.” I am afraid that here, it seems we are going to have to agree to disagree. There is a subtle but important difference between reporting a perception: “Many people think that opera is elitist and not relevant to them”; and endorsing that point of view: “Opera is elitist, and irrelevant to most people”. These are paraphrases of the type of question asked here, but I hope you can see the distinction. Here I feel strongly that the tone of questioning was very much – almost exclusively, in fact – in the latter camp.
Similarly, the repeated use of the word "elitism" invites us to assume that opera is financially inaccessible to all but the most privileged in society. This is demonstrably untrue, as I have argued in my first letter. Opera attendance is open and affordable to so many more beyond the “elite” (much as I dislike that vague term).
I certainly don't expect interviewees – on HARDtalk or elsewhere - to be invited in for a cosy chat where everyone agrees on everything. That teaches us nothing. But equally, an interview only works if there is a genuine two-way discussion. Here, Montague clearly had her "lines to take" and was determined to get through them no matter what Hampson said. Witness, for example, Montague's repeated statements – first as conjecture, then later as fact – that the only attendees at the opera are the families and friends of the performers, who are insinuated to be exclusively the elderly and the wealthy. Where is the evidence for this? This line of questioning simply disregards Hampson's answers and makes Montague appear ignorant, biased and rude, with no regard for the answers to her previous questions. It is quite plainly untrue and misleading to make this assertion.
I acknowledge the existence of an image problem in my letter, and so I find your extensive array of quotations in this regard really rather bizarre. You seem to simply quote my arguments back at me along with a large number of quotations which actually support my position. The message of these quotations is not that "opera IS elitist", more that opera directors, managers and the like are aware that there is a perception of opera as elitist and expensive which they need to work to dispel, as well as working to ensure that the public subsidy is put to good use, as argued by Lyndon Terracini.
I would actually be rather worried if people in such prominent positions weren't aware of the need to work hard to dispel the image problem and to ensure they do as much as possible to attract the wider public - to do nothing would be complacent. If you look up the Terry Gilliam quotation in context, he follows up with a statement that “Opera’s for anyone who’s willing to submit. Stick your nose in and find out what’s going on. The ENO's your place – it's all in English. There's no excuse for not turning up, English speakers!" (http://www.theguardian.com/music/2012/oct/03/damonalbarn-kickstarts-eno-opera-scheme). I really don't know how much clearer I can make this! It's clear that he's actually saying "I thought opera was elitist, but I got involved with ENO and discovered I was wrong." This is even pretty clear from the snippet quoted in your email. Similarly, the quotes from ENO and WNO are telling people "don't be afraid - it's not stuffy and incomprehensible. Come along and try it out!"
I certainly don't intend to suggest that opera audiences are wholly representative of the population at large. That is, in my experience, sadly not yet entirely true. But the fact of the matter is that opera is accessible to those on low incomes; there are plenty of young people attending; and opera companies are doing their utmost to continue
to widen access and ensure that people from all walks of life feel comfortable attending. Progress is being made. Opera companies are working hard to dispel these perceptions. Yet the premise which came across in the line of questioning on HARDtalk appeared to be “no, they're not doing enough”. What more can opera companies do in the face of interviews such as this which perpetuate the same old tired myths?
What about ticket pricing? To take one example: "it is true that there is a wide range of ticket prices available. However, it is a fact that 60% of tickets at the Royal Opera House remain above £40." Well, yes; 100 percent minus 40 percent is 60 percent; I can do arithmetic. But the fact remains that there is a very significant proportion of tickets which fall in a price range comparable to, or less than, other forms of entertainment. Shouldn't we be giving the opera credit for this?
To take another point, "The average price to attend the New York Metropolitan Opera this year will be $156." Without a full breakdown of the distribution of ticket price ranges, the numbers in each range, and any discounts available, this is meaningless. The "average" price for Olympic medal athletic sessions last year was about £230, but that figure is skewed by the 20% of tickets over £400: in actual fact plenty of tickets were available at much lower prices ((http://news.sky.com/story/1081964/london-olympics-many-tickets-too-expensive and http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-11546228). Of course it would be good to lower average prices across the board, but to pretend - as was effectively the case in this interview - that this is a problem unique to opera seems rather unfair.
On the subject of age, this is surely at least in part inevitable due to the demographic tendency in Western societies (which form the core audience for opera) towards an ageing population? Articles bemoaning the high average age of opera (and indeed theatre) audiences are nothing new. There are articles from 20 years ago which say basically the same thing. Unless these audiences are exceptionally long-lived or have access to an elixir of youth, we have to conclude that audiences are being replenished somehow. This doesn't mean that we should be complacent about it, of course, but it's clear that opera continues to attract newcomers and that younger audiences form a very significant proportion of those attending.
In this connection, you quote the Opera Australia figures from their Handa Opera season, overlooking that 58% of their audiences are below 55. I admit that the high average income of the audience is disproportionate, but you have also overlooked that according to the same figures over 50% of the audience were first-time operagoers (http://aussietheatre.com.au/news/opera-on-sydney-harbour-aresounding-success). Clearly efforts to encourage attendance are succeeding, and to pretend otherwise is simply misleading.
What about attendance figures? "According to Arts Council statistics from 2009-10, 8.3% of adults in the UK had attended an opera, compared to 16.5% who had attended a classical music concert or recital, and 32.5% who had attended a play." However, this needs to be viewed in context: there are far, far fewer locations in the UK where opera is performed on a regular basis than there are for other forms of classical music or theatre. I think it is fair to say that opera houses in the UK continue to sell out or play to near-capacity audiences time after time after time, so clearly where live opera is available the appetite exists. Your quoted figures also fail to take into account viewing figures for outdoor screenings, cinema broadcasts, live streams online, and radio transmissions, which are opening opera up to ever wider potential audiences. According to the Royal Opera House, for example, over 7.5 million people were engaged with its work in 2011/2012 via attending performances, viewing live broadcasts, taking part in education workshops, etc.
You quote an Arts Council report from 2008 (I assume the report in question is the one entitled “From Indifference to Enthusiasm”, available online) while overlooking one of the key passages in the conclusion: “In particular, there does not appear to be any evidence of a cultural elite that engages with 'high art' rather than popular culture'. You talk of the perception that “certain kinds of arts experiences were not for “people like me”” while overlooking the fact that in subsequent years the Arts Council has reported statistically significant decreases in the percentage of people agreeing with that statement.
The 2008 report acknowledges the existence of psychological barriers to attendance, as I have done repeatedly in my original letter and here. It also recommends that for those people 'behind the barrier', “part of the solution was about information and marketing. They wanted to know not only what the event or performance was about, they also wanted information about the practicalities of attendance: the dress code and etiquette, the length of the intervals, the cost of refreshments and even what the other people in the audience would be like”. This type of information is now routinely and freely available on the internet. I would say that opera houses are fulfilling these recommendations. Wouldn't you agree?
I fear that if I go on for longer I will dilute my point, so let me simply state that I completely agree that there are perceptions of opera as elitist and inaccessible. I completely disagree that such perceptions should be presented as statements of fact, and completely disagree, too, that the approach taken in this interview was balanced or supported by the facts.
I appreciate your comment to the effect that your role is “not to act as an advocate for any person, profession or organisation”. I don't, however, see that avoiding accusations of bias requires your interviewers to take an aggressively contrarian stance which is unsupported by the facts. Culture is something to be celebrated and
encouraged, not belittled and denigrated. It is perfectly possible – as demonstrated by the Tavener interview – to pose challenging and thought-provoking questions without descending into trivialisation, generalisation and accusation, as we observed in the Hampson interview.
To conclude, I note that you say that "Our audience is both international and domestic, and not just the culturally knowledgeable in the UK. Many of them will never have been to an opera and some of them may well never have heard of the art form." Ask yourself this: if you had never been to an opera, or had never heard of it before, what impression would you take away from this interview? Would you be tempted to attend? To me the prevailing tone was overwhelmingly negative and I would argue that it would deter people from discovering opera, so worsening the precise problem which Hampson was given such a hard time about. Does this square with the BBC's remit to educate and inform?
A copy of this letter is also being posted on my blog. I do not intend to pursue this matter further, but I do hope that you consider and digest the points raised above when preparing any future broadcasts on the arts.
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