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The Big Question: Are opera and ballet elitist?

First in a new series of live-streamed events to feature debate, performance, and audience questions.

By Chris Shipman (Head of Brand Engagement and Social Media)

5 March 2013 at 3.46pm | 23 Comments

Thanks for all your comments about our first Big Question debate. We will upload highlights - these will go live in the fortnight post the event. Follow us on Twitter if you would like to be notified when the video is live. [Updated 12 March]

The question of whether opera and ballet are elitist are examined in the first of a series of events called The Big Question at 20.00 BST (8pm in the UK) on Monday 11 March.

The series will see an eclectic group of artists and thinkers meet to discuss topical issues and explore the many connections between life and art. The event is live-streamed on this very page on the ROH website, as well as on the Telegraph website, and we hope to be joined by an audience from across the UK and around the world.

The first Big Question will take place at the Royal Opera House in partnership with the Telegraph and feature a panel debate, audience questions and live performances. Artist in Residence Liam Scarlett will be working with dancers from The Royal Ballet, and music will also be performed by our Youth Opera Company.

Chaired by Telegraph Arts Editor Sarah Crompton, the panel for 11 March will include composer Mark-Anthony Turnage, Written on Skin director Katie Mitchell, The Royal Ballet's Gary Avis and novelist Dreda Say Mitchell.

Tickets for the event are £10, and up to four tickets can be booked per person. To help make the debate as wide as possible, we would actively encourage people with no experience of opera and ballet - or those who actively dislike the art forms - to come along.

Do you think opera and ballet are elitist? Let us know what you think.

By Chris Shipman (Head of Brand Engagement and Social Media)

5 March 2013 at 3.46pm

This article has been categorised Ballet, Opera and tagged debate, discussion, Dreda Say Mitchell, elitism, Gary Avis, Katie Mitchell, Mark-Anthony Turnage, The Big Question

This article has 23 comments

  1. There is a certain of amount of snobbery in Opera, I personally find. It is a class-motivated art form. I am Caribbean, without a formal music education, currently financially-challenged, and from a working-class background: I do feel it. I have not been able to afford an opera ticket for a very long time, and even in the context of opera groups wherein I sing, music discussion groups, I do feel the discrimination, the classifications. However, I do feel this music genre is a great inspiration for many, whatever their social class, ethnicity, and financial status. This powerful media should be much more accessible. Without the patronizing, possibly...

    • John Roycroft responded on 9 March 2014 at 11:17am

      How can a collection of sounds be working class, middle class or upper class? I happily listen to the Mikado, Motorhead, John Coltrane and Daft Punk in the same day. All music can be listened to for free on Youtube and elsewhere. Cost is no longer an excuse for limiting your experience to certain art forms. I suspect that the class divide regarding opera and ballet is a uniquely British problem. When Gary Linekar played for Barcelona, he said that he saw the same people at the opera as he saw on the terraces at the Nou Camp.

  2. Robin Smith responded on 7 March 2013 at 1:07am Reply

    Try booking seats in the Lower Slips (they are in the Amphitheatre section of the website). They are affordable (I paid £12 for Monday night's Tosca - there are tickets even cheaper with more restrictive views) and the view is good (if you are prepared to lean forward a little) and the accoustic excellent.

  3. It depends what people mean by 'Elitist'. As far as I am concerned, it is the PERFORMERS who are the elite, not the audience - at least I hope so, because that's why I go to see them......but yes., there does seem to be an attitude among some people that opera is for 'toffs' and only rich people go to opera.....well, to set the record straight, I am a pensioner and live in a council flat in Kilburn. I spend my pension on opera...(lieder, chamber music, orchestral concerts....)

  4. Is there any more convincing way to suggest that you can only care about opera and ballet if you've got money than by charging people to attend? I'm aware that having money is not equatable to being elite, but you're clearly not that interested in making this accessible otherwise it'd be free. Perhaps the ticket price funds the performances during the evening -- but do I have to fund your outreach programmes and resident artists in order to have my say?

    I'm the artistic director of a new opera company -- we've sold out warehouses full of first-timers watching new opera -- and I believe that there is nothing inherently elitist about these art forms. I'm quite interested in coming to the debate, because I work to change the prevalent opinion that opera is for a particular demographic, but it looks like out of principle I'll have to stay away. If the most generously ACE funded arts organisation in the UK can't donate a single evening to the future of its art forms, then why have the debate at all? I think you've already got your answer.

  5. Countervail responded on 7 March 2013 at 11:58pm Reply

    There are a couple of ways to consider this. Historically, neither art was elitist, it was entertainment for the people. It's only as it's become institutionalized where it's become elitist. Opera and ballet became entertainment only to those that could afford it, where it was as much the spectacle of attending as partaking. The simple fact that about 90% of all current productions from top tier companies were created decades, if not centuries ago speaks volumes. That's not to say there's anything wrong with it, but it's mind blowing when arts administrators can't seem to fathom why it's hard to develop new audiences. Face it folks, once you've seen the Mona Lisa in person once, there's not a whole lot of incentive to see it more than once, and especially multiple times in multiple locations. Yet how many opera companies have La Boheme scheduled in their repertoire next year? How many ballet companies are going to drag out Swan Lake again? Another reason why there's really more interest in opera SINGER or ballet DANCERS, because there's at least something fresh and interesting to get into instead of trying to restage old show in a new way. So yes, opera and ballet are elitist. It's in current company's best interest to be elitist as it's the only way to stay alive, and at the same time it's ensuring these arts absolute demise making sure there is no reason to modernize.

  6. Simon responded on 8 March 2013 at 1:33pm Reply

    We charge a fee for the studio audience as experience shows that this ensures that people attend – however the debate in its widest form is most certainly free as it will be streamed live on the Telegraph website for anyone to view at no cost at all. To ensure that the debate doesn’t just exist in the studio there will be plenty of opportunities for people to contribute to the debate through social media. We may not have communicated this clearly enough at the outset so we hope this clarifies the situation and look forward to your participation on the night.

  7. no it's not, I love Opera and Ballet, the only reason I don't attend, is that, I am unable I use a mobility scooter and live in Essex, If i had the ability to get there I'd be there.

  8. I am one of the opera singers who regularly performs at Covent Garden Market in the lower courtyard, just across the square from the ROH. From the response I get from the many passers-by; and the regular emails I receive from people, I can guarantee that opera, as an art form, is not elitist… Arguably almost everyone who stops to listen is entertained and moved by the beauty of the music. If opera was elitist then people would ignore our performances and get on with their business, unable to connect with the genre. On the contrary I have many people take the time to email me to let me know how moved they were. How they never believed they liked opera but how they've been proved wrong.
    I think, in general, people who feel uneducated in the form of classical music are intimidated by going to book tickets at somewhere like the ROH. They don't realise you don't need to have been formally educated in classical music to enjoy it. I’m not sure how you can convince people this isn’t the case but these debates are a good place to start.

  9. In a sense they are elitist, because they're expensive. Productions cost so much to create - even when charging small fortunes for tickets, opera companies still suffer chronic financial problems! But expense aside, are the art forms themselves innately elitist? No! Everyone can enjoy them, just like everyone did enjoy them in past centuries! Heck, some of the most beloved operas criticize the elite and speak out in favor of the working classes! ("Marriage of Figaro," anyone?) That's why I work hard in my "Opera Quest" classroom program for children to introduce opera to the widest possible audience, encourage parents to take every opportunity to see an opera at low cost (rush tickets, family packages, etc), and encourage those who can't afford to see a live performance to mine their local libraries for DVD and sound recordings. Admittedly, I come from a wealthy background, but if I could enjoy opera on instinct as a little girl, before I knew anything about it's "elite" reputation, than anyone can enjoy it.

  10. Metod responded on 8 March 2013 at 5:41pm Reply

    I come from Croatia, small country on the edge of the Balkans, a bit dipped in Middle Europe and sun burnt by Mediterranean. For a country of roughly 4 million people we have 4 national opera houses (!). They are all unfortunately of mediocre standards with few exceptions, but in the end we are nowhere on the cultural map of Europe. And yet, there is an elitist stuffy air even in our opera houses. How can something like that be of an elitist nature? The answer is simple - it’s just matter of bad taste. Bad taste knows no boundaries. I’ve seen it all around the world, from Opèra National, La Scala, Bavarian Staatsoper, you name it.
    I assure you that, if the members of, for example ROH ensemble were elitist, or even snobbish, the performances they have wouldn’t be varying from good to absolutely wonderful.
    The ideas of the managers of famous opera houses can be suspicious. Naturally it is more prudent to put a lot of Verdi, a nice Puccini and just a bit of Wagner, to attract more audience, instead of Janaček, Berg, Monteverdi or Berlioz. And there is you elitism. Just allow yourself a bit of generalizing physiognomy and compare the audience of Verdi, Wagner or Hindemith.
    So, the music and the musicians are not elitist. The sponsors are, but we can’t survive without them…
    Tradition is elitist. Tradition ist Schlamperei!

    Thank you for enduring my text…

    P.S. Of course the tickets are expensive, but so are those for football games or rock concerts. A pint of beer in London is excessively expensive, if you ask me!

  11. Francois responded on 9 March 2013 at 2:47pm Reply

    I think it is a wrong debate, indeed it is mostly media (television reporters, newspapers reporters, etc.) and opera managers themselves who LOVE to voice out that opera and ballet are elitist forms of Art, and the most they self-flagellate in communicating such messages, the most they generate that legend.

    In financial terms, from an audience point of view, it is not more elitist than a rock-star concert, a musical or even some sporting events: you pay 100 pounds to attend the Lion King or Sister Act, and sometimes up to 150 pounds for a rock-star concert. To compare to ROH, where for ballets more than 1/3 of the theatre is accessible for less than 40 pound and for opera there are many seats with reasonable view for less than 15 pounds. So where is the elitism? Do we usually say that rock music, variety, the Musical is an elitist Art? Do we say that it is elitist to pay more than 200 pound to attend the final round of a world-cup of any sport?…

    Intellectually it is also a legend that opera and ballet would be elitist: just ask around you, just ask people who go to a Coldplay concert why they do not attend a Swan lake at the ROH. Their answer will often be: “oh I would love to, I just don’t dare”. It is a question of education: people feel intimidated because their education in classical dance or classical music has usually been weak, since artistic education at schools has been gradually decreasing. Hence people think that this art of form is not for them, that they may not understand or feel at ease at such performances. A nice illustration is that, usually, when asked whether they would like to attend a performance at an Opera house, they answer “yes, but preferably contemporary dance”, because most of them, chiefly young women, have one day or another taken courses in contemporary dance, therefore that language speaks to them, they feel educated.

    So to kill this legend of elitism, opera managers may 1/ stop to self-flagellate and assert that opera is elitist, 2/ communicate on the fact that it is neither more expensive nor more demandable to attend a performance of opera or ballet, 3/ emphasize on education programs : the ROH is doing this very well, but stand-alone its efforts may not be sufficient, partnering with stronger media channels, schools, universities etc. is necessary.

  12. AliX responded on 11 March 2013 at 11:32am Reply

    I agree very much with Jane Ennis in that it depends what people mean by 'elitist'. It is vital that the performers are the elite of their professions, in the same way that we expect professional footballers and surgeons to be the elite of theirs. I come from a working class background, but was always encouraged as a child to enjoy the arts in all forms, even though we could never afford ballet or music lessons. I too am now retired and choose to spend my pension on going to ballet and opera and visiting art galleries and museums. I would always expect to see the best, but in no way do I consider that I am part of an elite, and people who consider they are the elite because they attend are deluding themselves. I do however have an issue with the various levels of Friends, as this shows that if you have money, you can have priviledged early access to popular (more famous?) performers, which leaves people like me on a limited budget with a much reduced chance of getting tickets in my price range. The best thing that the ROH has done in my view is live cinema relay. I couldn't afford to see Eugene Onegin at ROH, so was delighted that I could see it at my local Vue for £15.00. Please keep it up, and ignore the critics who sneer at it as not being the 'authentic' experience.

  13. Robert responded on 11 March 2013 at 12:10pm Reply

    I was going to go to the cinema tonight but after reading a five star review for Written on Skin decided to try and get a last minute ticket. I've just bought a £10 seated ticket and there were still £3 standing tickets available. I'll be getting to see the opera for less than the cinema ticket would have cost me, that to me isn't elitist, it's really accessible.

  14. Carol responded on 11 March 2013 at 2:15pm Reply

    I am unable to watch the live streaming tonight. Will a video be made available after the event?

    • Chris Shipman (Head of Brand Engagement and Social Media) responded on 11 March 2013 at 4:40pm

      Hi Carol,

      We'll have an edited highlights package (with performance) afterwards but not straight away we're afraid. We'll have an editorial round-up of the event tomorrow, however.


      Digital Content Producer

  15. Jay Krush responded on 11 March 2013 at 4:36pm Reply

    If they are an elite, it's the best kind: One that is open and welcoming to anyone who wants to join, to learn and to grow, that hungers for members. If you take advantage of budget and rush tickets they often cost less than pop shows. If someone hasn't had any education in music or dance (and this applies to more and more Americans as arts programs in the schools are cut), there's all the background you'd need to get started offered free via Google and other search engines. Membership in this "elite"? Just being willing to join.

  16. Matteo Gallanti responded on 11 March 2013 at 11:23pm Reply

    yes it is a form of art for rich people

    i know that you can find a ticket at 10 pounds, but the best seats are at 200

    but lets be honest... it has been like that for ever... it was in court theatres, and in the XIX century the rich were staying in the boxes and the servants in the upper floor

    • pddw responded on 14 March 2013 at 3:32pm

      @Matteo Gallanti "... i know that you can find a ticket at 10 pounds, but the best seats are at 200...."

      Variably priced seats are common practice in all theatres and stadiums (for opera, ballet, pop concerts, classical, sports events, stand up comedy, monster trucks etc). Prices usually reflect view and proximity to stage.

      The same is true of mobile phone, internet or TV packages - you have a variety of tiered services at varying prices. None of this qualifies as 'elitist' per se.

      At the ROH a £10 seat is typically NOT a 20x worse experience than a £200 seat. I'm sure the cheaper seats are subsidised by pushing up the price of the more expensive seats. If you can afford £180 you can probably afford £200, but many people who can afford £10 won't be able to afford £30.

      Therefore, with respect, your ticket price differential criticism/ argument is invalid and is actually a demonstration of the ROH being 'anti-elitist'.

  17. Fiona Fraser responded on 17 April 2013 at 1:07pm Reply

    Ballet and opera are not elitist - and certainly affordable. According to a recent survey ballet is the 2nd most popular activity for children after football, and dance in general the fastest growing leisure pursuit in the country. I am a postgraduate student and I visit both the ROH and Coliseum on a regular basis, buying tickets for just £10. ENB and ROH have a true commitment to bringing ballet and opera to the nation through tours and broadcasts as well. A far better target for such accusations would be the West End blockbuster musicals, whose ticket prices are exorbitant.

  18. I don't think much that opera is closer to Europe impressive say than to America massive only and only in the old sense that let richness be important for the people watching effortlessly and that you need to protect any attendance taste instead of secure the unlimited score know.

  19. Michael Spilman responded on 8 September 2016 at 1:32pm Reply

    With reguard to opera and classical music no as the 3 tenors especially Pavarotti have brought it to the masses .Can anyone recall a 3 tenors of the ballet world ?.

  20. Kit responded on 13 March 2017 at 4:10pm Reply

    No 3 tenors in ballet. However, Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nuryev brought joy to lots. Most people also know Darcey Bussell

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