I found myself watching this online debate today; an event that originally quite handily collided with the Royal Opera announcing its new season, and its music director Sir Antonio Pappano making headlines by commenting on the cancelling ways of the present generation of star singers. The Times went as far as to devote page three of their print issue to Pappano’s comments. There was some applause. There were counterarguments. Sides were taken. People got upset. The last time opera got this much press was probably when the past manager of the ROH, Lord Hall, took up a job in the BBC.
A debate on the particular elitism of opera and ballet seems a bit cheap and obvious to me. It’s all about how one asks the question – “is opera elitist?” is searching for an answer that is different from “why don’t you like opera?” or “would you consider going to opera, if you have never been?”. “Elitist” implies things. Money. Social position, real or imagined. Aspiration. In some cases, education. Taste for things that are not shared by the majority. If those things are not cheap, or readily accessible, they are elitist – with such definitions, one could argue country walks are elitist. Elitist in the context of opera apparently also implies fancy clothes, expensive tickets, stuck-up people (you know who you are) and something that is incomprehensible and difficult by definition and in a foreign language.
In the web debate Marc-Anthony Turnage, a contemporary opera composer, points out that this is a discussion that would never happen in the continent; that there is a horrifying anti-intellectualism in the UK. He is right, in a way. I sometimes find myself saying I miss the central Europe because of how cultured it is. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of arts in the UK – great, world class arts, fascinating, innovative projects, legendary orchestras, plenty of opera to go around. But somehow arts are not present in the public life; they don’t colour the streets. There are no men walking the streets of Worchester dressed up as Elgar – even if there are some women dressed up Jane Austen strolling Bath (but those are strictly for the tourists to see). Arts may have an audience – educated, curious, appreciative audience, but when they attract attention outside the review pages, it’s quite often in a negative context (see the first paragraph). It seems that all forms of art need to defend their existence in the public discourse.
But arts receive public funding, I hear you saying – shouldn’t something that receives public subsidy be inclusive and open to all? There are two parts to this.
First, arts don’t get their funding from national budget – the money spent on opera and ballet and theatre and galleries and countless independent projects around the country comes from the National Lottery Distribution Fund; 12p of a £1 lottery ticket goes towards “charitable causes”. Contribution is entirely voluntary, you might say. Arts are relatively cheap, taking up only about 8% of the funds raised by the lottery fund. So if you bought a lottery ticket last Saturday, you contributed about 2p towards the funding of British arts. If you buy a ticket every Saturday, in a year you have contributed about one quid. I don’t know how much exactly opera and ballet get, but I assume their share of that quid is probably about 5p. Arts – not even those performed in the ROH – are not expensive to maintain.
Second – and this is important – arts are not exclusive. Yes, they do tend to sell tickets to events, and sometimes the tickets are even expensive – as are some pop concert tickets, and especially some sport event tickets – but more often than not, fantastic events are free or charge very little. Glyndebourne aside, no one dresses up. Yes, some people will make clever (or clever-sounding) comments during the interval. But there is no secret club, and as a rule no one will mind if you just say, “I don’t get it”. There is no imaginary elite that will pull out their copy of Kobbé’s Complete Opera Guide and pummel you on the head with it if you dare to go to the opera for the first time (although they might, if you snored loudly). No art form exists in a don’t-come-here vacuum; artists will say they do what they do to express themselves, but most of them are desperate for your attention.
“Are opera and ballet elitist?” is an amoeba of a question – how is “elitist” defined? what would make these two art forms particularly elitist? is art expensive/necessary/difficult? – those are all relevant questions and maybe they give some answers that will make the original question easier to answer. If elitist is defined as something prohibitively expensive and/or accessible to a decidedly select few, then no. Superyachts and the Orient Express are elitist. Millionaire’s Club is elitist. Augusta National golf club is elitist. Opera is not – it doesn’t in itself exclude anyone for any reason. Technically, you don’t even have to buy tickets to see it:
(Isn’t youtube great?)