A night at the opera: prices slashed in drive to boost attendances

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The Independent Culture

A night at the opera was once the province of the upper classes, a black-tie occasion for the champagne-swilling rich. But opera chiefs are aiming to make an evening at La Traviata as routine as catching George Clooney at the cinema, and yesterday the Welsh National Opera (WNO) became the latest company to announce cut-price seats.

A night at the opera was once the province of the upper classes, a black-tie occasion for the champagne-swilling rich. But opera chiefs are aiming to make an evening at La Traviata as routine as catching George Clooney at the cinema, and yesterday the Welsh National Opera (WNO) became the latest company to announce cut-price seats.

When the WNO moves into its new home at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff next year, top-price tickets will be cut by a quarter from £47 to £35, making them cheaper than the most expensive seats for the rugby Six Nations. A third of the seats will be priced at £20 or less and the bottom prices will fall by 37 per cent to £5.

The WNO is not alone. Next month, Raymond Gubbay, the opera impresario who has made a success of large-scale opera at the Royal Albert Hall, launches his cut-price company at the Savoy Theatre in London, with ticket prices ranging from £10 o £49.50. "For less than the cost of a ticket to Jerry Springer - The Opera, you can see Mozart, the opera," is the venture's clarion call. And the English National Opera (ENO) is offering more than 500 seats at under £10 every week at the newly refurbished Coliseum.

The reductions follow research suggesting that price is the biggest deterrent for new audiences. Companies hope that cut-price tickets will make opera an art form for the people.

Anthony Freud, the WNO's general director, said: "It seems to me that, collectively, the opera sector is beginning to win the long-term battle for general popularity.

"We've all worked extremely hard to break down people's misconceptions in a huge variety of ways. The impact of that work is being seen in the cross-section of audiences going to the opera."

It is not the first time that a new dawn for opera has been predicted. When the nation went crazy for "Nessun Dorma" and the Three Tenors more than a decade ago, a boom was predicted. But many believe the surge in interest failed to translate into a permanent new audience for full-length operatic performance.

Yet there are signs that opera has succeeded in ditching its elitist tag to reach a wider range of people. Some thought the ENO had been influenced by populist reality TV when it took part in Channel 4's search for opera talent, Operatunity. But even its fiercest critics were won over when the final, in which two winners performed Rigoletto at the Coliseum, was watched by 8 million television viewers and three-quarters of the ticket-buyers in the auditorium were opera first-timers.

Research at the Royal Opera House showed that 39 per cent of ticket-buyers for ballet and opera, after it reopened following a refurbishment, had not been before.

Mr Freud believes that the WNO's move from the New Theatre in Cardiff to the Wales Millennium Centre - the company's first permanent base in its 58-year history - offers the best chance it has ever had to create new audiences.

Mr Freud said it seemed obvious that his company should use the extra seat capacity in Cardiff to cut the price of admission. "Pricing is always talked about in relation to opera," he said.

"People perceive that opera is expensive. But we believe that opera should be on everyone's shopping list of leisure activities," he added.

Offering opera for £5 would make it easier for people to take a risk on an opera they might not know or to attend more frequently than they had done in the past, he said.

Eventually, Mr Freud said, that should enable more adventurous programming as audiences become accustomed to taking a punt on more unusual works, such as the WNO's planned series of Russian operas, instead of sticking with the familiar favourites of Puccini, Mozart or Verdi.

John Allison, the editor of Opera magazine, said: "I think it can only be a good thing. Making the cheapest seats the same cost as going to a movie has to be a good way to get people to dabble in opera. And the Welsh National Opera is a very good company. Ticket prices that give people pretty reasonable access to a very good company is an exciting development."

With a chorus of about 40, an orchestra of 60, principal singers, backstage crews, scene-painters, wardrobe staff and wig-makers, opera is rarely going to prove an easy art form to stage on the cheap.

But Mr Freud believes that whether through Operatunity or the Three Tenors, thousands of people are beginning to believe that opera could be an art form for them.

"Once we get them through the doors, there is never any problem in enticing them back," he said. "Opera works its spell."

WHERE ELSE FOR A FIVER?

* Find your inner calm by attending a post-work t'ai chi class at Soho Gyms in central London on a Wednesday evening

* Take in a film at any time on a Monday or before 5pm on any other weekday at the Curzon Soho cinema in the West End of London

* Sip a lemongrass and cucumber martini at the swanky Oloroso bar and restaurant in the heart of Edinburgh for £5.50

* Watch a Shakespeare production in the authentic Tudor surroundings of the Globe Theatre - albeit standing in the Yard area

* Savour fine tea blends with a pot of the Lapsang Souchong at Fortnum & Mason's St James' Restaurant for £4.75 - it may exceed the budget with automatic 12.5 per cent service charge

* Treat a friend to a night at the dogs in the popular enclosure at Walthamstow Stadium on a Tuesday or Thursday for only £2 each

* Fly from London Stansted to Graz with Ryanair for £4.29 - although taxes cost extra

* Spend a lost weekday driving around the inner sanctum of the capital within the confines of the congestion charging zone

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