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Opening the doors to our theatre, and opening minds about opera and ballet

Harriet Harman draws some curious conclusions from a visit to the ROH.

By Alex Beard (Chief Executive)

9 June 2014 at 6.52pm | 13 Comments

Today, Harriet Harman made a speech at The Roundhouse about young people and the arts. Much of what Labour’s Deputy Leader (and Shadow Culture, Media and Sport Secretary) said chimed with our aims as an organization to enrich people’s lives through opera and ballet, and to enable as wide and diverse an audience as possible to enjoy our art forms.

That is why we were disappointed to find that although Harriet referred to the ‘great’ work we do with the local community in Thurrock, Essex, she went on to talk about a visit to watch Dialogues des Carmélites in the following terms,

‘I couldn’t see in the audience anyone who wasn’t like myself – white, metropolitan and middle class.’

She goes on to talk about the responsibility of publicly funded institutions to reach out to bring disadvantaged groups closer to the arts, and to ensure that people outside London have a chance to experience great art.

Lots of our audience have been commenting on the Guardian article trailing the speech - and on social media – to flag all the ways we reach out to young people and disadvantaged groups (for which, much thanks). We wanted to flag just a few of the projects we’ve been running recently:

- On stage during the very performance Harriet attended were a community ensemble composed of drama students, the homeless and the long-term unemployed. They were recruited by organizations including Streetwise Opera and many say that the experience has had a transformational effect on their lives

- This week we are putting on sale the tickets for the opening night of our 2014/15 season. The performance of Mark Anthony Turnage’s opera Anna Nicole will be available only to students and tickets will start from £1.

- Last week we held one of our regular Schools’ Matinees performances, in which over 2,000 teachers and students watched a mixed ballet programme and roared their delight after every piece. We offer schools a travel grant if they need it and 44% of the audience is from outside Greater London.

- We agree wholeheartedly with the importance of the arts in education and that’s why we are training teachers and trainee teachers so that, over the course of their career, they can inspire many thousands of young people about the arts. Our courses include this summer's Write an Opera.

- Our Youth Opera Company meets weekly and performs on the Main Stage of the ROH. Over 65% of the children taking part are from black and minority ethnic communities or non-British white backgrounds. They are terrific performers, selected entirely on merit.

- We work with companies around England to support their touring programmes and assist them in business development, so even if you haven’t visited Covent Garden you may have benefitted indirectly from the support we’ve given Stop Gap Dance or Mid Wales Opera.

We could go on and on, but if you’d like more detail, do take a look at the evidence we submitted to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee on the work we do with Arts Council England.

Consistent investment from Arts Council England, combined with the generosity of audiences, charitable trusts and sponsors has enabled us to develop a large-scale programme of Learning and Participation work and we want to shout about it.

Harriet, do keep banging the drum for cultural entitlement, but do please also come and experience first-hand the screams of delight at a Schools' Matinee. You’d be surprised.

This article has 13 comments

  1. Maria De Witte responded on 10 June 2014 at 7:59am Reply

    Why is the ROH always under attack when they do so much for underprivileged children and (young) adults? Does she knows that other countries do NOTHING to get disadvantaged groups to the arts? The UK is the most advanced country to get people into the arts. Before I came to the UK I had never been to an opera or a museum.Now I ws on stage at the ROH have a degree in opera studies and the National Gallery gave me so much joy.

  2. Robert responded on 10 June 2014 at 11:17am Reply

    I never understand why it is such a crime to be middle class and white. Would she have a problem with a majority Bangladeshi or Black audience, I doubt it. In my opinion just racist, but hey I am not a "right on" london leftie who is embarrased about being white. Seems strange that a politician should want to criticize the largest proportion of the electorate, sure UKIP will be delighted by the Harperson's attitude.

    I have worked hard to qualify as an accountant get a good job and now have the privilege of paying large amounts of tax to the government (and take very little back). I am therefore glad that the ROH is funded by the arts council so I can see some return from those taxes. Opera and ballet form an important part of our cultural heritage and any other city would be proud of having such a world leading opera and ballet company. Unfortunately the london leftie elite think that anything watched predominantly by white people should be excluded from funding just because in their opinion other cultures aren't interested in it (which I think is untrue - they are just less exposed to it through family, school etc, the make up of the royal ballet artists should prove that many different ethnic groups can enjoy ballet).

    The idea that we should abandon something like say the RB's production of Sleeping Beauty because the audience is too white is another example of "wrong" thinking. But then maybe in Harriet's view we should give money to hip hop artists that encourage violence and a misogynist view of women.

  3. Matthew Temple responded on 10 June 2014 at 11:39am Reply

    In 2013/14, I understand the ROH received a £25.6 million grant from public funds.

    1. How much of that money was spent on the initiatives mentioned here?

    2. Did any of these initiatives receive extra money from public funds?

    3. If so, how much?

    • Ellen West (Head of Creative Studios and Digital Products) responded on 10 June 2014 at 6:13pm

      Dear Matthew

      As a National Portfolio Organisation, the Royal Opera House will receive a grant of £25.6m in 2013/14. This funding underpins the work of the two performing companies and orchestra (including productions such as Dialogues des Carmélites and those included in the Schools Matinee programme), a busy studio programme and a wide range of Learning and Participation projects such as the Youth Opera Company, all supported by a shared infrastructure. NPO funding covers 22% of our core costs with the remainder coming from ticket sales, fundraising, merchandise, catering and production rentals. You can find much more information about our income and expenditure in our Annual Review.

      Best wishes


  4. James responded on 10 June 2014 at 12:03pm Reply

    The real barriers to accessing opera and ballet are those flipping revolving doors! Sort them out please.

    • May responded on 19 June 2014 at 10:09pm

      Haha, they can be tricky indeed. I always come in through the front (the old entrance before the building was renovated). The queue before the show starts is also shorter/non-existent there!

  5. Jim responded on 11 June 2014 at 11:51am Reply

    Fine art and opera take time, concentration - they present difficulties therefore. People don't like difficulties. Money is made out of shovelling easy pleasures at them from their earliest years. Adherence to the easy pleasures takes hold, builds resistance to very notion that harder pleasures might yield advancement of the spirit, once understood and embraced.

    Cultivating even a first step - let alone perseverance - in exploring the difficult is itself very difficult, not least of course in homes where no books are read, no fine art is perused, no classical music or opera is heard, no subtle conversation is maintained.

  6. r.a. responded on 12 June 2014 at 6:41pm Reply

    Harriet said: ‘I couldn’t see in the audience anyone who wasn’t like myself – white, metropolitan and middle class.’
    I have two questions:

    (1) How could she tell just from looking at someone whether they were metropolitan and middle class?

    (2) How could she see what the entire audience at the Opera House looked like unless she was seated at the top of the amphitheatre and was looking at the rest of the audience through magnifying glasses - somehow I doubt it.

    It's very easy to make cheap remarks which reinforce prejudices and misconceptions. Maybe if Harriet had spent more time watching the performance of the Carmelites she could have made some positive remarks about the community ensemble which most certainly was not all white and which was received with loud cheers by the audience during the curtain call after the first night.

  7. Dana responded on 12 June 2014 at 11:03pm Reply

    The majority of people who attend ROH performances are wealthy Brits, Europeans and East Asians. A minority of Afro-Caribbeans and South Asians do attend, but it is very rare to see anyone from a working class background in the audience. This is partly to do with ticket costs and partly to do with cultural values.

    It's a sad reality but there is unfortunately some truth behind Harriet Harman's exaggerated statement.

  8. G.G. responded on 13 June 2014 at 8:25am Reply

    As a working-class provincial (or so Harriet Harman would describe me) who regularly attends ROH performances I agree wholeheartedly with the excellent comments made by r.a. above. Until Ms Harman's speech I wasn't aware that, as a working-class person from the Midlands, I look or behave so differently to a 'middle-class metropolitan' that she, at least, can pick me out in an audience (i'll be getting a complex!).

    I will just say, for Ms Harman's benefit, that the one way to guarantee a 'white, metropolitan and middle-class' audience at the ROH would be if the Shadow Cabinet block-booked a performance.

  9. Richard responded on 15 June 2014 at 12:37am Reply

    Hmm, I would also like to echo some of the above comments. As very much a working class man who has attended every ballet production put on in the last year. I'm intrigued to know how Ms Harman could pick me out in the audience.
    Most of my visits last year when I first started coming, were with tickets priced at £15 or less.
    I initially just came as a tick in the box exercise, because I had never seen a ballet.
    But despite my first ballet being Raven Girl. (which I found heavy going!). I was hooked.
    I now buy better tickets but if there had not been cheaper options I would probably never have come to see if I liked it.
    Of course the fact that tickets often start at around £5 and that it is impossible to know what the backgrounds of an entire audience is with a casual glance is irrelevant to Ms Harman's comments. Which I believe are obviously just aimed at boosting her credentials among various groups in her political circles.

  10. May responded on 19 June 2014 at 10:20pm Reply

    A rather misleading and unfair speech from Ms Harman. How can she tell who is metropolitan and middle class just by their appearance. Even "white" is also a fallacy - some of my fair-skinned Arab and Asian friends would be annoyed to be assumed to be something they are not. As a matter of fact, when I've attended performances, sitting in various different parts of the House, the audience has been very cosmopolitan, of all races, nationalities (from the chatter I hear) and backgrounds, and that includes friends who come with me. ROH does a great deal for the less privileged communities with lots of outreach programmes, and their lower priced seats and events are very accessible now, with online booking and details on Facebook and Twitter. It's easier booking or finding a low priced or free event at/from the ROH than a pop concert at the O2 or similar venues. Mrs Harman's comments seem to have been cribbed from 2 centuries ago, just to make a political point. Is it also her aim to alienate a lot of staff and artists at the House who normally vote for her party (but might think twice now)? Carry on, ROH, you're doing a good job.

  11. Lucy responded on 11 July 2014 at 5:02pm Reply

    I also came to the ballet for the first time to see Raven Girl, my parents or school having never taken me to see ballet or opera when I was a child. Since then I have only missed one Royal Ballet production and I've been in to see a few operas as well. I'm a student with limited disposable income, all of which I choose to spend on the performing arts these days, and I wholeheartedly appreciate the Royal Opera House's efforts to make performances accessible to people like me. Comments about everyone who comes to the Opera House being white and middle class surely just further put others off coming and experiencing some really great dance and music.

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