How opera is extending its reach

Participants from Opera North’s In Harmony project. Photo: Tom Arber
Participants from Opera North’s In Harmony project. Photo: Tom Arber
by -

Cressida Pollock, chief executive of London-based English National Opera, recently observed that the majority of performing arts audiences in the UK are “white, middle class”. She added: “When we look to attract… new people into our audience, we have to acknowledge that we usually end up with a white, middle-class audience.”

This issue is arguably particularly acute for opera, which still has associations of social elitism and inaccessibility for many people. In a report published by Arts Council England for 2013/14, only 4% of adults surveyed nationally had seen an opera, versus 23% who had seen a play or a drama.

So, is opera behind the times? And what are opera companies doing to get more diverse audiences?

Statistics such as these don’t convey how many opera performances are actually available to audiences during a year – particularly outside London. Some regional venues might programme just one opera (if at all), versus a season of theatre. And the demands of a traditional opera production, with its sizeable chorus of singers and orchestra, rules out theatres that lack the stage space or a pit.

Nonetheless, opera companies around the UK are aware of the need to do more to attract new audiences.

“That accessibility comes through removing some of the barriers,” says Carolyn Sims, ENO’s director of marketing and audience engagement. Based on feedback, she divides these into “three kinds of categories: ‘it’s pricey’, ‘it’s elitist’ and ‘I’m not sure it’s for me’.”

With some tickets for major London opera productions coming in at more than £200, pricing can certainly be a socio-economic factor. In response, opera houses are increasingly offering discounts and offers. ENO, for example, now sells 500 tickets for every performance at £20 or under. And while these are sometimes for the back of the balcony, “we don’t put people behind pillars,” stresses Sims.

ENO also runs Opera Undressed. This is a sponsored event for 200 first-time operagoers, which usually revolves around a performance of a well-known opera. These events include a pre-show talk and a chance to chat to the production’s cast and crew. Now in its fourth year, Opera Undressed has, Sims reveals, a “35% return rate from the first-time attender, to see another production within the year”.

Schemes such as these, along with Q&As and talks, attempt to demystify opera – to overcome people’s ‘it’s not for me’ barrier and show that it can be enjoyable. Statistics such as ACE’s “highlight, in a way, where your opportunity is”, says Sims. “To be able to say: ‘Well, if you’re going to see Miss Saigon, you can see Madam Butterfly.’ ”

The Royal Opera House – which adjusts its pricing levels according to the newness of a production – runs Welcome Performances for families who have never been to a ballet or an opera. “And we run activities in the morning before,” says Christopher Millard, director of press and communications. “Singalongs, dressing-up – things like that.”

Initiatives tailored to younger people are a key part of most opera companies’ outreach and education work (and increasingly key to receiving funding support). Leeds-based Opera North’s In Harmony project – a community residency programme backed by the Department for Education and the Arts Council – has given children at two primary schools their own instruments and developed their musicianship.

In Harmony is adding another school, reveals David Collins, Opera North’s director of external affairs, following its success so far. “We couldn’t say it was all down to us, but the SATs results [at Windmill Primary School] increased by 20%,” he says. “There’s something massively valuable about giving kids access to music at a young age. And, at some point, that’s going to build a future audience for opera, I think.”

The Royal Opera House’s Il Barbiere Di Siviglia. Photo: Tristram Kenton
The Royal Opera House’s Il Barbiere Di Siviglia. Photo: Tristram Kenton

This groundwork is crucial when government funding of music in state schools is suffering big cutbacks. A lack of proper education where opera is concerned, about its history and its potential, can only exacerbate young people’s sense of its lack of relevance to them. And when such an education is increasingly the preserve of private schools, opera is at risk of yet more social division being incubated for the future.

Opera companies can only accomplish so much against the prevailing tide of a government’s education policy. But one area it can improve is programming. Theatre regularly involves the commissioning of new writing or reinterpretations of classic texts that speak to a modern audience. From English-language performances to contemporary settings for productions such as The Pearl Fishers, opera is doing this.

But what of those traditional operagoers who sometimes baulk (loudly) at radical versions of their favourite pieces? How does a company such as the Royal Opera balance audience development with the needs of its longstanding audience base? For Millard, it’s about “providing something for everybody”, while maintaining a clear dialogue in which you are prepared to explain your artistic choices.

The Royal Opera is currently enshrining this spirit in Open Up – an extensive refurbishment project due to be completed in 2018. The Linbury Studio theatre and foyer will be expanded and connected to the rest of the building, “bringing more light and space for us to programme activities throughout the day in the public areas,” says Millard.

“And that’s always one of the challenges – to get people to step over the threshold,” he continues. “Opera can appear rather intimidating, with its large, grand buildings.” His hope is that making the Royal Opera more open and accessible at various times of the day “will help to break that down”.

Another way to rid opera of such baggage and attract new audiences is to take it out of its usual surroundings. In recent years, both the Royal Opera and ENO have successfully collaborated with venues that ordinarily cater to quite different crowds. Last year, for example, the Royal Opera staged a production of Orfeo – incorporating a gaming app designed by teenagers – at the Roundhouse.

Elsewhere, Opera North performs at community centres as part of its Whistle Stop Opera programme, bringing condensed forms of its productions to people who might not step into an opera house. Indeed, companies such as Opera North, Welsh National Opera and Scottish Opera are playing an important role in a sector arguably still too focused on London.

English National Opera’s The Mikado. Photo: Tristram Kenton
English National Opera’s The Mikado. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Taking opera around the UK is key to diversifying audiences and bridging cultural divides. But while there are many touring theatre companies, only a handful tour opera. English Touring Opera (see feature, p31) is a leader in this regard. It commissions new operas alongside classic work, as well as inviting local choirs to sing together.

This autumn, ETO soloists and the Old Street Band will collaborate with local choirs to present Bach’s St John Passion. “And some of these people, especially the gospel choirs, have never done a classic Bach before,” says ETO’s head of marketing, Andrea Perseu, who adds that people are “more open to new experiences than we give them credit for”.

But, Perseu concedes, touring full-scale opera often limits the venues it can visit. And this was the impetus for OperaUpClose, in response to statistics such as ACE’s, to leave the King’s Head Theatre, London, in 2015, and tour stripped-back productions around the UK. Its new version of La Traviata, focused on Violetta, has just five singers, for example.

“There are many more venues in this country that lack a pit than have one,” observes Dominic Haddock, OperaUpClose’s executive producer. “So the moment we started touring, there were places crying out for some opera that had never physically been able to get it into their building.”

A smaller production not only makes tickets cheaper and can be shorter (where length puts off some people), but can also pivot on a kind of creative flexibility more often seen in theatre – one which leaves room for greater social relevance.

For Haddock, this is key. He dismisses rumours of opera’s demise, “but it could be more reflective of our society”.

The days of mandatory black-tie attendance are long gone. From various outreach and educational schemes, collaborations and touring productions, to an increasing number of cinema screenings, opera companies are attempting to diversify their audiences.

But there is still work to be done. The issues of accessibility, relevance and availability that also affect theatre are heightened with opera. And this includes the art form’s diversity on stage and behind the scenes, as Haddock points out: “If the people creating it are more reflective of society, socially and economically, then the work itself will reflect society.”;;;;;;