wed 28/07/2021

Opinion: Opera does not deserve its image problem | reviews, news & interviews

Opinion: Opera does not deserve its image problem

Opinion: Opera does not deserve its image problem

Dear BBC, get your facts right. An open letter accuses HARDtalk of bad journalism

Elitist? Those people standing in the foreground paid a fiver to see 'Siegfried' at the BBC Proms© BBC/Chris Christodoulou

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.

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 Minister to the BBC News website, 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 (pictured right) 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 2012/2013 the Arts Council grant was just over £25m – or approximately 40p per person if averaged over the latest estimated UK population of 62 million.

Perhaps by expense, then, Ms Montague (pictured left) 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 as £3. Forty percent of tickets are below £40 and 30 percent below £30; 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 in the West End, £26 to see Arsenal as a non-member, or a whopping £42.75 to see Jay-Z at the Manchester Arena.

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 five 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 percent 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 2011 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 cut-off age beyond which I should shy away from enjoying a night at the opera? 35? 45? 55? Please do let me know.

Overleaf: watch the full HARDtalk interview


It is quite simply untrue to suggest that opera is only open to the wealthy

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You miss the point of the programme (as a BBC World Service fan, I had no idea there was a telly version). Its very remit is to play devil's advocate, to present pugnacious points of view - it's called HARDtalk, though it's news to me about the ridiculous capitals, rendering the title even more annoying - which the interviewee then refutes. I am told - and I still have to watch it, which I'll do here shortly* - that Thomas Hampson acquitted himself extremely well as an eloquent spokesperson; it would have been of more value, perhaps, to reflect upon his ripostes. But the interviewer is ALWAYS even more belligerent than the appalling John Humphrys. I've always thought that hard nose fitted the more frequent presenter, 'Nice Guy' Sackur, very badly.

My own experience of discussing opera on Radio 4 recently was totally positive: Jenni Murray of Woman's Hour, backed up by the most assiduous researcher, asked questions about Britten and women in opera that were eloquent and pertinent. But I admit that's rare, and that's radio, which is where I hear HARDtalk when I catch it. Telly coverage of opera especially is still tentative, though not at the moment when we're in the thick of the Proms (shame the Ring couldn't be televised: prohibitive costs or reluctance to give up so much air time?)

As for younger people at Covent Garden, try the stalls or the various circles. Very few. The ticket prices there are very high (and even an amphitheatre ticket for the concert performance of Capriccio was in the £90 region). Nothing, admittedly, compared to tx for Barbra Streisand or The Rolling Stones. But go to the regions and you'll find next to no young people in Opera North's performances at Leeds Grand Theatre or Scottish Opera's in Glasgow. At least on the occasions when I've gone there.

Access is all very well, but when you have tiers of Special Friends at Covent Garden and the Wigmore, the older audience members - who should always make up a proportion, of course - all get in first and tickets for the top events are extremely hard to come by. Verdi and Wagner are closed to anyone who casually decides he or she wants to go along at a later stage. But at least that makes the Royal Opera a victim of its own success. We do need to solve the problem - which is being addressed by many of our orchestras, and indeed by smalller companies staging operas in pub theatres and unusual venues - of how to build the audiences of the future. But maybe that's another question. All points taken, of course, as to how all you need for opera are an open heart and mind.

*(4/7) I have now, and it's exactly as I anticipated. Sarah Montague's terrier-interviewing is anything but charming, and she uses her notes too much, yet Hampson answers everything well (as he says, 'since this is HARDtalk, I'm allowed to push back a little').  A bit too specifically near the beginning - by plunging in to Verdi's Simon Boccanegra - and then a bit too generally, and the last few minutes lose focus a bit, but in between it settles nicely. He's especially good in questioning unfortunate word choices - why should wanting to learn more about something be 'precious'? - and on matching heart with brain. I wish they'd both brought up the rise of livescreening, which must up the numbers hugely and the diversity. There's a programme to be made about this, but at least I'm glad this one gave an articulate advocate airspace.

You are obviously bringing up points to defend the presenter.

I'd be interested to know the reasons why you think that, Helen, since a careful reading of the above makes it clear that I don't care for such a self-consciously pugnacious approach. My main point is that it's the - maybe now outdated - format of the programme, and ultimately Hampson came out much the stronger.

It might have been less inflammatory if the accusations were couched in 'people say that...'. 'the figures suggest that...'; but clearly that's not how HARDtalk goes about setting up its interviewees, and it never has.

Dear David,

Thank you for your well-reasoned comments above. There are just a few points I wish to clarify.

The main source of my objection - and this is something which appears to resonate with many, many people judging by the responses I've had so far - is that this interview goes beyond a legitimate "Devil's Advocate" interviewing style, which I recognise to be HARDtalk's particular approach. Adversarial interviewing requires the interviewer to do more than simply state cliche as fact. Here, the introductory piece to camera states "opera is one of the least watched art forms... possibly the most expensive... Can one of the most elite and expensive art forms have worldwide appeal?" In doing so we are already presented as fact the ideas of elitism and expense, and invited to assume that there is a lack of appeal and little that can be done about this. The whole interview starts from false premises. It's particularly disappointing given that Montague is normally so much better than this, and this programme is normally so much better researched, with incisive questions grounded in fact rather than lazy, sweeping generalisations.

I certainly don't expect interviewees 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" (in fairness to her, these may be dictated by the director or producer, and not reflect her actual opinion) and was determined to get through them no matter what Hampson said. This makes her look aggressive, ignorant and rude. Hampson mounted an extremely eloquent defence of opera and the arts, but I would say that was in spite of, not because of, the hectoring questioning.

As I've mentioned in the full version of my letter, it's striking that what tends to be loosely described as "high culture" - opera, classical music, modern art, etc. - constantly finds itself on the defensive, as though there is a presumption that art needs to justify its existence over and over again. We don't see the same approach taken with sports or other forms of music, which are equally, if not more, expensive in many respects, and which carry with them their own forms of jargon, rules and tradition which could be said to be equally baffling to "outsiders". The BBC is our national broadcaster, funded by all licence-fee payers, and has a duty to provide adequately for a wide range of interests. This is a difficult task, admittedly, but when the radio tends to get it so right with it specialist broadcasts, it is very disappointing that a TV programme aimed at the intelligent "general" audience feels the need to pander to ill-informed prejudice with the aim of creating a controversy where there needn't be one. Surely the BBC should be seeking to bring all forms of entertainment to as wide an audience as possible. The way to do that is to let the art form speak for itself, and let people discover it without being fed a steady drip of damaging preconceptions. Treating opera as some great mysterious Other simply reinforces the (mistaken) perception that it is inaccessible.

Many of the points raised by Montague refer to institutional problems, whether real or perceived, of opera funding; as an independent professional, Hampson can't reasonably be asked to account for matters of policy. The people to speak to here would be the directors, the managers, the publicity and outreach officers, and the people who fund the opera. We shouldn't attack an artist who is simply following his vocation and trying to bring an appreciation of opera to people worldwide regardless of their background.

On reflection, the second half of the interview is perhaps more reasonable. It touches upon the influence of new digital media on listening habits. Why not start there? It's a fascinating topic which deserves more exploration, about which Hampson has previously spoken with great insight (search for his talk on the Berlin Phil's Digital Concert Hall page on Youtube) and could easily take a full half-hour discussion. Why precede it with 15 minutes of inverse snobbery which merely appeals to old, tired prejudices? What does that achieve? Even in the latter part of the interview, however, a sceptical tone of "this new technology will never catch on" seemed to pervade throughout, as well as contradicting Montague's earlier points. Having just spent 15 minutes arguing that opera is inaccessible and of minority interest, she then changes tack and seems to argue that attempting to make it more widely available is somehow also flawed. Which one does she want us to believe?

Finally, a comment on your point about ticket prices. In my experience, the younger audience members (myself included) do tend to be in the cheaper seats, but what is so wrong with that? People tend to have more disposable income as they grow older, so it is reasonable to expect that, proportionally, the expensive seats will reflect an older demographic, just as business-class flights, expensive restaurants and five-star hotels tend to be the domain of the older customer. Not many young people have the sort of disposable income needed for a prime-location stalls seat (I certainly don't!). Similar demographic profiles apply at the theatre and at sporting matches (look at the crowds at Lords or Wimbledon, for instance. Where are the young people there?) The point remains, however, that you don't need to be in the expensive seats to appreciate a great performance!

Agreed, Alex, and thanks for taking the time to clarify your own points, which clearly had more space to breathe in the original. I take your point especially about the opening address of the programme: instantly alienating. And about ticket prices: my problem is when younger audience members can't get anywhere near the top, sold-out-before-box-office-opens events.

As a tutor of mostly middle aged to elderly students, I agree that there's an almost aggressive antipathy towards the core audience. They are all intelligent individuals and have so much to contribute. Imagine my chagrin when the London Philharmonic marketing department, under whose aegis I began the course now linked to the BBC Symphony Orchestra, told me the students were too middle-aged, middle class and white. To which my response was that I would welcome diversity more than anyone, but how was I to attract it? People are free to sign up and pay the fees. But getting a wider range still needs work. We're getting there slowly, I think.

The BBC has replied to me in detail. I haven't had chance to consider their points as yet, but thought I would get the text onto my blog for your consideration:

Good of them to have bothered to respond with chapter and verse. What still bugs me is this myth of 'accessibility': why an opera shouldn't be as accessible as a football or cricket match, which both have rules you need to grasp first, beats me. And the dress code really isn't an issue except at the country house venues. Nor, for me, even as a student back in the 1980s, has it ever been so.

My thoughts on the BBC's reply (reproduced from my blog). I've not had time to go into detail on every single point so far, but will do so later if time allows. First, I'd like to say that I'm very impressed that the BBC took the time to send me such a detailed reply, rather than simply ignoring my letter or issuing a rather bland statement. However, I'm far from convinced by their reasoning here, and the central issue remains: that of the general tone and impression given by the interview. I'm fully aware of the format of the Hard Talk programme, and it appears that Hampson was too. However, the heart of my complaint was that - even bearing that in mind - the tone of the questioning was unduly aggressive and came across as poorly-prepared and ignorant. It does not seem to me that the BBC has engaged with this point. There is a fine line between confrontational interviewing (which is the signature style of this particular show) and outright aggression, and here my feeling is that the balance went too far in the direction of aggression. "Devil's Advocate" interviewing style is a legitimate tactic. However, my perception here (and one shared by an overwhelming number of those who have written to me after reading my letter and viewing the interview) is that in this case the tone went beyond that and strayed into presenting matters of perception and opinion - which we can argue about ad infinitum - as objective truth. For instance, the opening piece to camera already, to me, invites the viewer to assume that opera is disproportionately expensive and unpopular, and that little can be done to widen its appeal. Elitism and expense are presented as matters of fact. This seems to be rather too subjective -and important - a matter to generalise and trivialise in such a way. As many have noted (and indeed I noted in my letter) there are plenty of valid questions here, and hiding somewhere in that show was a good interview. Opera does face an image problem, that's for sure. However, I think I speak for many involved in music when I say that at least part of the problem comes from these cliches being brought up by the media time and time again, so that the problem becomes self-fulfilling. As I believe I noted elsewhere, I certainly don't expect interviewees 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. For example, after Hampson gives a very thoughtful response on demographics, Montague leaps in with words along the lines of "ah yes, but it's still just a bunch of old rich people going to see their friends, isn't it?" - demonstrating a complete lack of interest in the points he just made. So what of the other points in the BBC's response? I don't have time to go into detail on every single point right now, but I find it pretty unconvincing, despite its length and the fact that at first glance it seems pretty thorough. Take, for example, the various quotations cited in support of the existence of an image problem. If anything, these suggest less that "opera IS elitist", more that opera directors, managers etc. are aware that there is a perception of opera as elitist which they need to work to dispel, as well as working to ensure that the public subsidy is put to good use. This is not exactly surprising. Given the importance of their role I would actually be rather worried if they 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, it's clear that he's actually saying "I thought opera was elitist, then I turned up to do Faust at ENO and discovered I was wrong." This is even pretty clear from the snippet quoted in the BBC email. The reference to suits of armour is from a lighthearted comment where Gilliam is basically saying "I don't care what people wear as long as they come to see my opera". 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!" Does this acknowledge an image problem? Yes, and I think we are all aware that negative perceptions exist. I didn't deny that in my letter. But does it also suggest that opera companies are working hard to dispel that? I would argue that it does. Yet the BBC premise seems to effectively be "no, they're not". This is incompatible with the evidence. 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, much lower prices ( and 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. Touching on a few other points: Surely, as I alluded to in my original letter, the age issue is at least in part inevitable due to the demographic tendency in Western societies towards an ageing population? Moreover, articles bemoaning the high average age of opera (and indeed theatre) audiences are nothing new - a friend has sent me links to articles from 20 years ago (which I will try to share later) saying 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. Not that we should be complacent about it, of course, but perhaps the problem is overstated. 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." This is not entirely unexpected: 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. This also fails 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. I don't know if any research has been done on that but seem to recall the ROH saying that their cinema viewing figures were far in excess of attendance at the house itself, which is pretty impressive. Can anyone enlighten me here? Finally, just a note on one of the later comments from the BBC. "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?

Apologies for the dreadful formatting on that comment. I copied and pasted from my blog, and now can't alter the formatting of the comment!

Ironic that a hired hand of one publicly-subsidised outfit (proportionately much more fully subsidised than the opera houses, even with the BBC's extensive commercial activities) should expect authoritative answers from a star performer who, I guess, has no greater hand in the funding and management of the institutions he is hired to sing for than Ms Montague has at the BBC. But that's show business. Likewise, responsibility for the purported "image problems" of Hampson's art form and of the BBC itself. Image problems don't keep people away from Premier League football matches - or indeed from the recent RAH Ring Cycle.

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