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Artillery Row

Of course we need opera

Click-hungry editors should stop enabling philistinism

“Everyone needs opera”, announced a series of posters that were plastered all over the London Underground in 1993. Oh no they don’t, retorted journalists, gleefully milking the irony of English National Opera’s latest advertising campaign, which was launched at a moment of financial crisis for the company. This sort of marketing was manna from heaven to a media that was busy disseminating the newly fashionable idea that opera was elitist. It is an obsession that the press, like a dog with a bone, has refused to drop since. Every editor knows that the magic words “opera” + “elitism” = clicks.

So every time there is a report into the current state of the opera business, the press seizes upon the most sensational detail that “proves” that no, not everyone does actually need opera. In the latest variation on a theme, The Times reported the findings of a recent survey into patterns of opera-going under the headline “Half the nation wouldn’t notice if every opera house closed”. Well there you have it: the people have spoken (or rather, c. 1,840 of them have — 46 per cent of around 4,000 polled by Public First on behalf of the Laidlaw Trust). The Royal Opera House must lock its doors immediately. And as for ENO at the Coliseum… On second thoughts, let’s not tempt fate.

Statistics, in the hands of people with an axe to grind, can always be deployed to drive malign agendas. 33 per cent of respondents to the Public First survey, the findings of which will be reported in full at the Laidlaw Trust’s “The Business of Opera” conference in October, said that opera should receive no public subsidy. That sounds bad. But a larger proportion — 44 per cent — said they believed it should. Reports such as this are not necessarily helpful: they tend to stir the pot of arts antipathy, prompting a lot of “below-the-line” grumbling. “Half?”, scoffed one Times reader, “90 per cent seems more realistic”. 

Other readers had a moan about “London minority interests” (tell that to Opera North) and how subsidy should go to things people “actually want”, like football, a highly original comment people have been making since at least 1920. Of course the point is a specious one. If a pursuit is as popular as football, it doesn’t need subsidy; subsidy is required to support cultural activities that have a multitude of benefits but cannot sustain themselves through the commercial market, for reasons that have nothing to do with their worth. 

Public First interviewed people at random, as opposed to those with an existing interest in classical music. Therefore, it is not really surprising to learn that opera is not up there in popularity with Ed Sheeran or Beyoncé. Nevertheless, there is some surprisingly good news in the findings. Most striking is the fact that, according to a press release posted on LinkedIn, 61 per cent of 18-34 year-olds polled said they would consider going to a performance of opera in the future, a higher proportion than those interviewed in older age groups. The Trust states, “Notably throughout the research, we find that younger people in the UK are (at least, according to themselves) more open to attending an opera”. This is encouraging, and frankly remarkable, given how often we are told that the audience for opera is ageing and basically on the point of death.

42 per cent of respondents to the poll said they had never met an opera fan, and yet 41 per cent of that group said they would still be keen to go to see an opera at some point in their lives. This suggests a healthy open-mindedness, which is cheering when you consider how remote opera is from most people’s daily lives today, thanks to a lack of exposure via education or the media. The Laidlaw Trust states: “in our research we had the opportunity to present participants with clips from actual opera performances. We found that this tended to make people more, rather than less, positive about going”. But of course: access is everything and you can’t expect people to love something they have never experienced. As a perceptive reviewer wrote in The Evening Standard way back in 1946, saying that the British didn’t like opera was rather like saying they didn’t like the Sistine Chapel — many people had simply never had the chance to see it.

Just because something is a minority taste or pursuit does not make it elitist or undeserving of funding

In any case, we need to get beyond the prevailing, simplistic view that things only have worth if they are approved by a majority. It should be patently obvious that sales or viewing figures do not necessarily guarantee quality. There are many extremely rich musicians whose performing skills are mediocre at best. And millions love to watch Mrs Brown’s Boys, a sitcom so bad that its own makers, the BBC, had poked fun at the genre in Extras only a few years before its launch. 

Just because something is a minority taste or pursuit does not make it elitist or undeserving of funding. As one perceptive commenter wrote in response to The Times’ provocatively titled article, “Many more than half the population would not notice if the British Library or National Archives at Kew were burned down. But the totality of our culture would be hugely diminished”. A decent and civilised society (and yes, the word is an unfashionable one) surely has a duty to support and cherish forms of art and cultural artefacts that are rare, precious and beautiful, or intellectually stimulating, even if they cannot cover their costs when thrown on to the open market. 

Time was when we had enlightened (another unfashionable word) individuals in charge of our arts and broadcasting organisations who understood that mass appeal does not necessarily equate to quality. In 1972, the BBC’s Director of Programmes argued against using TV viewer figures as a metric of worth. He said audience size was “Nearly always…quoted as though it were a measure of quality. Oddly, some regard a high figure as an indication of excellence, whereas others see it as proof of precisely the reverse”. His name? One David Attenborough.

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