Make the opera house a people's palace

Use lottery cash to keep ticket prices low; the decor can look after itself, says David Lister
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The Independent Online
It was not only the Sun that blasted the pounds 55m lottery money given to the Royal Opera House this week, though it alone managed to find a resonant headline: "The Greedy Beggars' Opera".

That criticism found widespread support ranging from the Times, which felt the money should have been spread more equitably among the arts, to the Labour MP and former arts spokesman Tony Banks, who sounded off about "middle-class people in central London pushing themselves to the front" to take money coming from working-class lottery ticket buyers.

The chorus of disapproval was joined by cancer charities, which have yet to see a single penny of lottery money. The tardiness of the lottery distribution body for charities in getting its act together is not the fault of the arts, but it certainly does not do them any favours.

The money for the Royal Opera House is not a scandal. Without the cash it would have had to close, as pounds 30m is for essential health and safety improvements. And some of the rest will go towards expanding the building so that it can be open all day to the general public.

Nevertheless the Royal Opera House, and opera more generally, arouse strong emotions when questions of elitism and use of lottery proceeds are concerned. It is not really surprising. The average ticket price at the Royal Opera House is pounds 66. Despite the so-called opera boom of the Eighties, attendances are not strikingly high. In 1993-94 the English National Opera played to 61 per cent of its audience capacity, English Touring Opera to 58 per cent, Opera North and the Welsh National Opera to a healthier 75 per cent-plus. The Royal Opera played to 85 per cent, with 283,640 tickets sold. "More people came to see us than went to see Chelsea play," boasts Jeremy Isaacs, general director of the Royal Opera House. But Chelsea don't perform four nights a week.

And Chelsea probably get a more representative cross-section of the population. Figures from the Policy Studies Institute show that, nationally, 15.5 per cent of social class AB go to opera, 7.9 per cent of C1s, and 2.5 per cent of C2s and Ds.

Yet the interest in opera is there. Subsidised opera companies played to 930,000 people around the country in 1993-94. The big arena productions from the late Eighties of Carmen, Aida and Tosca at places such as Wembley, Earl's Court and the National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham, regularly attracted audiences of 12,000-plus, more than five times the audience at the Royal Opera House. More than 10 per cent of the population listens to Classic FM and nearly 7 per cent to Radio 3. According to HMV record stores yesterday, 5 per cent of album sales in London are opera (around 7 million), a figure equal to country music sales. Though opera sales drop to 2 per cent in the country at large, this is still roughly equivalent to sales of jazz, which is never spoken of as an elitist art form.

Why do these opera lovers not go to opera houses, and most particularly the Royal Opera House, to which they and the rest of us have just given pounds 55m?

The answer, as the Sun knows full well, is that it is perceived as a place for "toffs". Not so, says Lord Gowrie, chairman of the Arts Council. It is full of middle-class people struggling with their mortgages. The point is, it could be fuller, and it need not make such a hole in those mortgages. Lord Gowrie seemed to recognise that this week when he laid down a series of conditions as he doled out the ROH grant, aimed at improving accessibility.

Two key points were that the ROH must do more broadcasting and it must come up with a better ticket pricing policy.

Broadcasting more performances on television is widely regarded among those in the arts as a way of increasing popular access. The argument goes that the taxpayers who cannot get to Covent Garden, or afford the seat prices, can share the experience in their front rooms.

But do they? Opera is the art form that above all relishes spectacle and exaggerated emotion on a grand scale. The joy of seeing opera is seeing the singers on stage and sharing the electricity and thrill of live performance.

It is a thrill too few can afford. But, the Royal Opera House argues, it simply cannot bring prices down while it receives a lower level of public subsidy (37 per cent) than in the rest of Europe. Berlin gets 80 per cent of its income from public funds, Vienna 78 per cent, Munich and Milan about 70 per cent, and the English National Opera 40 per cent.

With such low subsidy, the argument goes, the price of most tickets has to be high. The hugely expensive seats - the pounds 267 to see Pavarotti - are snapped up by people who can well afford them, and this helps to keep the few cheapish seats in the gallery at a low level.

But this misses two points. First, the public cannot stomach the fact that their taxes and now their lottery tickets go to subsidise evenings that they themselves mostly cannot afford. They might not choose to come, but they would like at least to have that choice.

Second, and terribly important, there is a public distaste at pounds 100 and pounds 200 being charged for an evening's entertainment in a publicly funded institution. For too many people, the thought of charging that much for three hours of opera is at best decadent, at worst obscene. The Royal Opera House has been to slow to sense this distaste.

There is another way. Currently, the big companies get their annual grants when their artistic programmes are already in place and cannot be tampered with. So they have to balance their budgets with self-generated income, of which the most obvious part is the box-office receipts. Hence ticket prices always end up rising to make up the difference. Ticket prices are the last thing to be addressed when everything else is sorted.

But what if they were, instead, the first thing? What if seat prices were considered top priority, the most crucial part of running the company, and subject to an earmarked grant? There would probably have to be fewer productions, and fewer improvements to the decor and furnishings, but with the promise of low seat prices, would the public really object?

Another thought: not a penny of lottery money goes towards keeping seat prices low. If some of those millions went to that end, who could object to a redevelopment programme for an opera house that was not only a great institution with cherished traditions, but also a people's palace?