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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

They think it's all overpriced

By Norman Lebrecht / March 7, 2001

Why opera could soon replace sport as the affordable and accessible pastime of the nation..

THE proverbial leopard is more likely to change its spots than a tabloid newspaper its prejudices, but The Sun's discovery that it is now cheaper to attend a Covent Garden opera than a Premier League football match has provoked a national outbreak of soul-searching.

The relative cost, according to The Sun's ready reckoner, is 23 on average for a Royal Opera House ticket and 25.32 for footie. The most expensive Premiership club, which is none other than Tony Blair's beloved Newcastle United, tee-hee, charges 71 for a standard League match seat and 23 for the cheapest. You can get in to the ROH most nights for as little as 4.

The lessons that flow from these revelations are limitless. New Labour will have to make to an election pledge to restore soccer to the people by subsiding the turnstile at twenty quid a head. The Sun will run six pages of opera each morning, reporting football only when David Beckham plays his farewell tour. BBC TV will show opera three nights a week and soccer only at Christmas. Dream on . . .

Of all false equations, the parallel between popular fun and cultural pursuits is the wonkiest. At a conference in Leipzig some years ago, an American academic wondered why it was that most of his faculty would happily sit through a five-hour baseball match but never a Tristan and Isolde. Simple, I told him. In Tristan, they know the result.

Opera, along with every other classical art form, is judged by the means, not the end - and, in an end-oriented era, that is one of the toughest propositions to sell. Pointless as the outcome of any mid-table Newcastle match might be, it is more readily measurable than the success of a vocally gifted but temperamentally fragile soprano making her first stab at Turandot. There are few spectacles more tedious than a goalless draw, yet soccer fans will shell out half their weekly wage to see 90 minutes of arid ball-chasing in an act of collective self-delusion.

Sport has the kind of mass appeal that art can never attain, by reason of its child-like simplicity. In Italy, crucible of opera, Venice and Bari have had their theatres burned down and citizens have not taken to the streets to demand restoration. If a Serie A soccer ground were to be shut down, there would be a bloody revolution.

The only point of confluence between sport and art is, in fact, the pricing point, which breeds maddeningly irrational resentments. Sports fans get inflamed at the idea of their tax money paying for rich toffs to enjoy "elitist" opera. Wrong on both counts. Opera subsidy gets spent not on the rich, who pay full whack for boxes and stalls, but on providing cheaper seats for the rest of us. The level of subsidy is so low, that if the whole of Covent Garden's grant were returned to tax-payers, it would amount to less than 40p a head, per annum.

What is dangerously elitist is football, where exploitative and greedy directors - did someone mention Newcastle United? - have pushed up prices and driven out true fans, young and very old, who can no longer enter family enclosures for the price of a pack of fags. The same directors are involved in selling their team's ever-changing strip for 40 quid and more to the poorest of the poor. Stand in a Post Office queue any Monday morning and count the benefit claimants who are wearing football club shirts - that's where tax-money is flowing to elitists.

Which is not to say that opera cannot do more to reach a wider public. Newcastle United have a national following because, every other week, they play away. Covent Garden and English National Opera are confined to barracks by crippling overheads and an Arts Council that had refused for years to fund opera tours - thereby exposing audiences outside London to mendicant ensembles from obscure Balkan theatres. Opera in Britain does not enjoy a level playing field.

The relative merit of art and sport has nothing to do with seat prices, which is just as well since the sums are more complex than The Sun allowed. Most ROH seats are priced high for wealthier customers. To take an average from the total house is misleading, unless it is weighted by the number of seats in each price range.

The true cost of watching opera at Covent Garden is, by official calculations: 36 on average for a matinee, 48 for a weekend evening and around 60 for mid-week performances. Perplexingly for Sun readers, it still costs more to see an opera than a soccer match - though that may not be the case for long, given the ever-growing bulge of directors' profits and players' wages.

And there lies the challenge for those who run British opera. When soccer does outprice opera in a year or two, opera must be fit and eager enough to reposition itself as an affordable, accessible, popular pastime - just as it was in Verdi's day.

15 January 1998: [Sport] Players have never had it so good

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999