David Lister: Lower ticket prices are the best way to tempt punters to the ballet

The Week in Arts

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A nice titbit emerged this week from the Royal Ballet.

A sales executive was asked if the film Black Swan had affected ticket sales for the company. He replied that it had. There had been a discernible increase in inquiries, not least because the Royal Ballet is currently performing Swan Lake, the piece featured in the movie. But, he sighed, a number of callers did want to know at which performances Natalie Portman would be dancing.

It's a tricky thing, getting new audiences into the so-called high arts. But the quest is never ending. The Royal Ballet's sister company at Covent Garden, the Royal Opera, is banking on a risqué opera about the true story of Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith, who died of a drug overdose, to bring in a younger audience to savour a mixture of sex, sopranos and the champagne bar. The production promises plain speaking or plain singing, with several four-letter words, and a bout of oral sex between Anna Nicole and her wheelchair-bound octogenarian husband.

It must seem to Covent Garden executives that the new audiences will be battering down the doors. I doubt it. The story of Anna Nicole Smith was one that tickled middle-aged tabloid editors, but I don't believe it detained twentysomethings very long.

There are two answers to the new audiences conundrum. The first is that opera may not be a young person's game. One grows into it as one leaves clubbing and a sole diet of rock and pop behind. But that may sound a bit defeatist for those charged and funded to bring in younger audiences. In which case, the answer, much as those executives might not like to hear it, is not artistic but financial. Ticket price is the key.

Not long ago the Royal Opera did a deal with The Sun to give very cheap seats to its readers. I had initial doubts about this, but attended the evening and was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and delight shown by an audience of first-time opera goers. Did they come again? Unlikely, as the seats they had for £20 or so would have cost £150 for subsequent productions. And before someone from Covent Garden rings me up to say there are £8 seats for sale every day, I know, I've sat in them and you can see literally one half of the stage.

New audiences for opera will be wooed by price, not subject matter. The production style should certainly be modern, challenging and exciting. But have an allocation of seats for under-25s at cinema prices, and they will come to Rigoletto, Carmen or Madam Butterfly even more enthusiastically than they will to Anna Nicole.

The Black Swan case is a little different. Perhaps the Royal Ballet could have capitalised on this. A simple, last-minute marketing campaign – "You've seen the movie, now see the real thing in all its glory" – would have taken the company beyond its usual mailing list clientele. And free champagne for anyone disappointed not to see Natalie Portman dancing.

How about respect for the audience?

I had been hoping to see the fine actress Kathryn Hunter playing Cleopatra for the Royal Shakespeare Company, but she has withdrawn from the role midway through the run, and also from the role of the fool in King Lear. A statement from the RSC says: "Kathryn Hunter has decided to resign from the RSC's current long ensemble. Michael Boyd [RSC artistic director] and Kathryn Hunter said: 'We have not been able to achieve together the full range of ambitions that we shared. We share the disappointment that Kathryn will not be with the company for the Roundhouse season and for the remaining life of the company, and continue to share a mutual regard and respect.'"

That's a mighty strange statement. Whatever happened to old theatre principles such as finishing the run, and not disappointing audiences? It's good that Ms Hunter and Mr Boyd "continue to share a mutual regard and respect". It's just a pity that they don't seem to have the same regard and respect for audiences who spent good money buying tickets to see Ms Hunter.

Not too tired to win an award

Derek Walcott has won the T S Eliot poetry prize with his collection White Egrets. The collection deals with ageing, dying, change and the passing of time. But when this was put to him on the Today programme on Tuesday, he replied: "It's about being tired, too."

I've not heard a collection of poetry summarised in this way before. Normally poems are about the subjects listed above, or more often about love or all sorts of extreme emotions. But rarely will a distinguished poet describe his work as being about the mundane but universal business of being plain tired. It will strike a chord with many a reader. Indeed, lyrical as the title White Egrets is, I regret that Walcott didn't address his subject in the title and call it The Fatigue Collection.

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