Philip Hensher: Why pretend that opera is funky?

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Tony Hall, the chief executive of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has been from most points of view an outstanding success. It's difficult to remember now that, a very few years ago, the house seemed to be staring liquidation in the face. Since taking over, he's balanced the books for seven consecutive years. He's come to a relaxed acceptance of the value of the wealthy and the chic to an operation like Covent Garden. He's demonstrated that enough people are prepared to pay more than £200 a seat for some productions to make it priggish to keep the top price any lower. And, my God, are they prepared; you couldn't get a top-whack ticket for the triumphant Ring cycle last year for love, money or the offer of sexual favours over the box-office counter, even when the big draw of Bryn Terfel as Wotan fell through.

And Hall is taking care not to let the price of the cheap tickets sail upwards too. It should be remembered that the Opera House absorbs substantial public funds – £25m last year. It has some social responsibility. His big problem, really, is that the theatre still does not have an enormous number of seats. How to draw in people who love opera and ballet, or who might like to give them a go, is near-insoluble. ENO, with its vast theatre, has much more room to play with.

Hall is proposing one development that I think everyone will see as a very good idea, and a shift in philosophy that looks a little more questionable.

The CD and DVD production company, Opera Arte, bought last year by the house for £5.7m – surely something of a bargain – is going to branch out from commercial recordings. ROH productions, at first pre-recorded but subsequently live, will be made available to cinemas across the world, reaching an almost limitless audience.

It's an excellent idea. The Metropolitan in New York already has such an arrangement and, having gone to one or two, I can say the experience is a very satisfying halfway house between the DVD and live performance. There is a proper sense of occasion in sitting in the stalls, even in Clapham, and watching the action on a large scale.

There is, too, going to be much more formal harnessing of the power of the internet in making productions available as downloads. Here, we are entering a golden age – the resources available on YouTube are already beyond anything one would have imagined 10 years ago. Just writing this, I thought what I would give to see again Edita Gruberova's astounding "Grossmachtige Prinzessin"; and there it is, from a 1982 Vienna production and, mirabile dictu, a concert performance of the first version of 1912. What once seemed to disappear into memory is being resurrected in cyberspace, and the opera house is right to contribute to this extraordinary cultural shift.

Where, however, one slightly wonders about the house's plans is in some signs that it might be buying into the cult of fashion, of cool, of cultivating young audiences at the expense of what it does best. An editorial in Opera magazine, never a publication with a tendency to regard the glass as half-full, has poured scorn on Hall for saying in public: "We want to get that buzzy, cool crowd to come in." A consultancy has been paid large sums to reveal the astonishing fact that the opera house appealed to opera and ballet lovers, but not to professionals in their twenties and thirties more generally. "There – the secret is out," the magazine, with perhaps justifiable amusement, comments.

Certainly some of the proposals look fairly horrible. Every rebranding of this sort involves, sooner or later, a DJ and the artist Julian Opie, and this one goes along with the general tendency in an almost parodic way.

The nettle Hall needs to grasp is that opera and ballet are complex, refined, expensive art forms, often demanding patience and understanding. There seems no relationship at all between the apparent ease with which an art form can be understood, and the demand for it. Nothing could be more difficult and wearing on the audience than Wagner's Ring, and there is nothing more guaranteed to sell out. On the other hand, it seems to me unlikely in the extreme that anyone who has gone to hear a DJ at the opera house will be drawn by that to have a go at Das Rheingold.

Most people will never like opera, or ballet. Hall is doing everything right to persuade people to give it a go, but he ought to accept that few will take him up on his offer. He has established a niche for what Samuel Johnson called the "irrational and exotick entertainment", but persuading anyone it could ever be cool or funky to spend hours looking at ancient films of Gruberova in a Richard Strauss opera is, I fear, beyond even Hall's abilities.



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