Are opera and ballet elitist?

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?)

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3 thoughts on “Are opera and ballet elitist?

  1. Very well said (and well defined, too). I personally found the debate came across as a bit of a thinly veiled publicity stunt. Not that that is any great crime!

    Nobody mentioned the rather obvious point that all live, un-amplified theatrical events are restrictive by their very nature – there’s only so many people you can squeeze into a theatre. Opera and ballet are very expensive to put on and with the limited amount of tickets per night (compared to say a large pop concert or football match), prices will always tend to be high. The fact that prices are NOT actually that high (all things considered, and relative to pop concerts which can be put on in far bigger capacity venues) proves just how non-elitist ballet and opera are, at least in terms of ticket price.

    As for the (perceived) cultural / social elitism in ballet and opera (and Art in general) it was also a shame that nobody pointed an accusing finger at our appalling Prussian-based state controlled education system and the vile and despicable mainstream media, not least the BBC, who are all clearly on a mission to dumb down the population to the level of celeb-worshipping idiots.

    I cannot remember the last time I saw someone on the BBC actually demonstrate critical thinking or an original idea. (Assume lengthy rant about the BBC here….)

    I don’t think opera and ballet companies can do much more to make themselves accommodating and welcoming to new audiences – the real problem IMHO is that the majority of the – shall we say ‘TV watching’ – population has been conditioned to only feel comfortable when they are part of some overblown herd activity, often involving celebs…… whether it’s Red Nose Day, Big Brother, ‘Strictly’, Downton Abbey, the Olympics…. these are all basically herd activities which are often managed by some unseen authority in which we are guided through like children on a school trip.

    Nobody would stay up and watch perfect strangers getting ready for bed or bickering about the washing up via CCTV cameras – but when it’s a herd event like Big Brother millions are compelled to watch …… perhaps because they subconsciously feel uncomfortable at the thought of being left out the next day when it is discussed around the water cooler.

    The people who are put off going to the ballet or opera – or who find it an uncomfortable experience when they get there – might just be not used to having to make sense of the evening’s ‘entertainment’ on their own, with no consensus opinions being offered, no bubbly presenter leading them through the whole experience and no one to talk to about it at work the next day. (basically no one to tell them what to think and how to feel).

    Opera and ballet are essentially inner experiences, not outer experiences. They are intimate, profound and intense experiences, not extrovert, gregarious and superficial experiences. People who live through the world of mainstream entertainments and celebs tend to live perpetually ‘outside of themselves’. They live exclusively inside their ‘personality’ never venturing inside to occupy their ‘being’. The TV teaches us to live that way all the time …. like eternal TV presenters and celebs! Aaaaagh! LOL

    If there is a genuine barrier to (appreciating) opera and ballet I would say it is this. It has more to do with consciousness itself, rather than class or etiquette IMHO.

    My concern is that opera and ballet, and the arts in general, will seek to accommodate themselves to this new fractured, dissociated, extroverted, low-attention-span, shallow, herd-mentality consciousness (and the resulting narcissistic tendencies it produces) which are fast becoming the mark of this age.

    In fact it’s already happening. The increasing number of ‘interactive art exhibits’, gimmicky arts productions and mass participation arts events are a sign of this trend. We’re talking about interactive tweeting during the performance – that sort of thing! (OK I made that one up, but I’m sure it will happen soon enough….)

    And that concludes my rant 🙂

    Oh yes… one last thing….. I take issue about the lottery funding. I regard that as taxation by stealth. Buying a lottery ticket is like buying a chocolate bar. If money spent is taken by the government and spent by the government it’s tax. Those lottery funds are government (arts council) controlled. That makes it tax in my book!

    I’d much prefer private lotteries (or whatever fundraising activities) organised by private groups (perhaps theatres and companies themselves) as a way to raise funds. FWIW I view all tax as theft…. as well as the main reason why the arts will ALWAYS be underfunded.

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