Since I first posted my letter on my Facebook page, it has been shared so many times I've lost count. My Facebook and Twitter accounts have been going crazy with notifications. And my scribd page has now exceeded 86,000 views.
Inevitably, I've received some feedback - though not, as yet, from the BBC - and thought I would respond here to a few of the points which have been raised. I've been very, very impressed at the civility of the comments I've received from those who disagree, and it's so satisfying to learn that it is possible to have a debate on the Internet without descending into trolling!
In no particular order, here are a few quick follow-up points.
- I don't in any way intend to attack the BBC as a whole. Radio 3, Radio 4 and BBC4 are absolutely fantastic, on the whole, and the Proms concerts are an institution which I would defend to my last breath. My ire is reserved purely for coverage which stoops to relying on stereotypes which were perhaps never true and which certainly aren't any more, and sadly in my experience this is all-too-commonly found in television coverage as opposed to radio coverage.
- The BBC has shown that it can produce absolutely fantastic arts broadcasts - Antonio Pappano's 1-hour film on Tosca which screened on BBC2 at New Year a couple of years ago, for instance, approached the viewer as an intelligent, interested adult who wanted to know about the history and plot of the opera, and managed all of this without feeling the need to mention any of this ridiculous social stigma which has built up. The general high quality of broadcasting makes it all the more disappointing when a nationally-respected news presenter relies on such ridiculous, outdated generalisations in so public a forum.
- In no way do I intend to imply that opera is beyond reproach or debate. There are some very valuable discussions to be had here. I also recognise that the "Devil's Advocate" interviewing style is a legitimate tactic, and HARDtalk's signature style, though I personally find it irritating. My objection here is that this goes beyond "Devil's Advocate" into presenting falsehoods as truth. The introductory piece to camera - where the interviewee is absent, and which acts as a brief introduction for the viewer - states "opera is one of the least watched art forms... possibly the most expensive... Can one of the most elite and expensive art forms have worldwide appeal?" In doing so we are presented as fact the ideas of elitism and expense, and invited to assume that there is a lack of appeal and little that can be done about this. The whole tone of the show is rigged in favour of the opening hypothesis from the start.
- Would anyone who is not already an operagoer really learn anything from this interview to dispel their preconceptions? I certainly don't expect interviewees to be invited in for a cosy chat where everyone agrees on everything. That teaches us nothing. But equally, an interview only works if there is a genuine two-way discussion. Here, Montague clearly had her "lines to take" (in fairness these may be dictated by the director or producer, and not her actual opinion) and was determined to get through them no matter what Hampson said. This makes her look aggressive, ignorant and rude, while Hampson must have the patience of a saint to keep his cool like that.
- The repeated use of the word "elitism" invites us to assume that opera is inaccessible to all but the most privileged in society. This is demonstrably untrue, as I have argued in my letter. There is nothing structurally or institutionally preventing "non-elite" viewers from attending, even if we still have a way to go in actually achieving a truly representative audience. Opera houses are doing their utmost to reach out. And yet it only takes a few lazy, prejudiced interviews to undo that hard work and deter people from attending because they feel, inaccurately, that they wouldn't fit in.
- As noted by one of my friends in response to this,Sarah Montague expected Hampson to respond to many of the institutional problems, whether real or perceived, of opera funding; as an independent professional, he isn't a representative of the Royal Opera and can't reasonably be asked to account for its relationship to the public funding bodies. The people to speak to here would be the directors, the managers, the publicity and outreach officers, and the people who fund the opera. We shouldn't attack an artist who is simply following his vocation and trying to bring an appreciation of opera to people worldwide regardless of their background.
- The second half of the interview is much less aggressive, and perhaps I should have been clearer in my letter, though I still felt there was an air of "it'll never catch on" scepticism to Montague's questioning. Here, the interview touches upon the influence of new digital media on listening habits. Why not start there? It's a fascinating topic. Why precede it with 15 minutes of inverse snobbery? What does that achieve?