A revival of Anna Nicole will open the Royal Opera House new season, it was announced today. And students will be able to get in for £1, tweeted Kasper Holten proudly. A quid! So that’s an orchestra, an excellent cast of 17, a chorus, a production team of two or three dozen, two hours of words and music and a very good conductor all for less than one pot noodle.
The news might baffle. The received wisdom is that opera tickets are too high. Far too high. So high that they are the principal (if not sole) reason why the art form has fallen behind the others in the popularity stakes. But the reality has always been quite different. Even for adults, a portion of Royal Opera House tickets has always been dirt cheap. For as long as I can remember, it’s been possible to get in to 95 per cent of Royal Opera productions for £9.
Just to put that in perspective that’s a tenth of the cost of an England football shirt, a seventh the price of the cheapest seat at a Justin Timberlake gig, a third what it costs to go to a Premiere League football match and about double the price of Curry’s cheapest toaster. And Holten is proud of this? Hooray, opera isn’t even worth a ninetieth the price of a really ugly football shirt! How could this be a cause for celebration?
And what’s been the response from the public to these acts of generosity? Apathy at best. There’s been no groundswell of support. No sudden leap of trade across from Timberlake and toasters to Traviata. On this, as on so much else, the opera establishment has got things quite wrong. Ticket prices will never be a reason why art forms gain or lose appeal.
People aren’t put off by opera because they can’t afford a ticket. They’re put off by opera because they simply don’t like it. They’ve decided (not unreasonably) that it’s not for them. They get their kicks elsewhere: from football or books or betting. So be it. I see no reason (beyond a selfish one) why we should entice people to this bit of culture over another bit.
But also I see no hope in this race-to-the-bottom tactic. The arts that attract are those that are proud of what they do and honest about how much time and effort goes into it and what it costs. There’s nothing noble in prostrating oneself. There’s no value to be gained in acts of desperation like this. The public can smell fear a mile off. If opera gets to the stage where it is essentially paying people to come see it, it’s the end. The Royal Opera House is now one pot noodle away.
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