Monday, 5 August 2013

In which I receive a response from the BBC

I have just received a detailed reply from the BBC's  Editor of News Features.  I haven't considered this in depth as yet, but will post my thoughts later.  In the meantime, here is the text of their reply (edited to protect the identity of the person at the BBC who contacted me):

"Dear Mr Robinson,


Many thanks for your feedback on the HARDtalk programme in which Sarah Montague interviewed Thomas Hampson which we received on Friday August 2nd, and which was posted online with Mr Lebrecht on 1st August.

I’m sorry that you clearly didn’t appreciate this programme.

First of all I think it’s important that I explain the format of HARDtalk. It is, as the name suggests, a challenging interview format, where guests are questioned in detail about their role, view point or actions. It should be a robust and at times provocative interview backed up by detailed evidence and research.  Its audience is both domestic (on BBC2 and the News Channel) and international; it is watched and listened to by many millions of people around the world on BBC World News and World Service Radio. We therefore have to be relevant to our audience whether they be in London or Jakarta. It is a programme of international renown for the quality and detail of its research, and the ability of its highly qualified presenters.

With that background explained I would like to take this opportunity to address some of the points in your letter and to explain the rationale for the questions we put to Mr Hampson.

In this case, as you mention in your opening paragraphs, questions of subsidies, demographics and appeal have long been asked of opera and are ‘valid questions’ for the industry. As you also acknowledge, opera has an ‘image problem’, which includes a notion that it is elitist. This is not a just an isolated view put to Mr Hampson by Sarah Montague, but a question that occupies the international opera establishment. In 2011, Lyndon Terracini, Opera Australia Artistic Director, spoke about the need for opera to avoid being seen as elitist. He said:

‘If any arts organisation is receiving $20 million per year in funding from government, then it is not acceptable in a democratic society for that company to only play to a small number of people who are members of an elitist club. In fact any arts organisation which is in receipt of public funds is obliged to justify that funding by doing its utmost to be inclusive of all members of society’.[PEGGY GLANVILLE-HICKS ADDRESS: LYNDON TERRACINI, 2011]

The Arts Council England 2008 report on patterns of attendance in the arts found that there continued to be psychological barriers to people attending arts events (including opera). They said:

‘…some people feel uncomfortable attending arts events and do not perceive arts attendance as an accessible or appropriate lifestyle choice. Qualitative research supports this argument. The arts debate, the Arts Council’s first public value inquiry, found a strong sense among many members of the public of being excluded from something they would like to be able to access, a belief that certain kinds of arts experiences were not for “people like me”’. [Arts Council Report, 2008]

The Arts Council concluded in the report that, ‘The importance of social status in influencing levels of arts attendance suggests that arts venues need to continue to work to be welcoming and accessible to a wide range of people.’

At the start of the interview Mr Hampson acknowledged that he believes opera is relevant to people of all walks of life and, therefore, we rightly put to him the perceptions of opera as ‘elitist’. This is well documented; for example, John Berry, English National Opera’s artistic director, who said opera novices should not be afraid to take the plunge. "There are lots of people who are put off by the way opera is presented - they think it’s too stuffy, too posh, too expensive ‘and from the Welsh National Opera website: ‘Many people think its elitist, too expensive, boring, outdated, you have to dress up for it and incomprehensible’. Terry Gilliam, the director and Monty Python member, staged his first opera at the ENO last year and joked that he would be happy for audience members to turn up in suits of armour. "I thought opera was for a bunch of old farts - the bourgeoisie in dinner jackets. I thought it was an art form for the rich and successful and almost dead". And Mr Hampson said in the interview that the ‘casual entrance to opera is limited’. This was a valid area for intelligent discussion and an issue which is clearly being addressed by those within the international opera establishment.

To address your point about our questions regarding the high cost of opera; as you say in your letter, opera is a very expensive art form to produce because of large casts, choruses and orchestras, performances and rehearsal facilities, sets, costumes and lighting. The total subsidy given by the Arts Council England to the Royal Opera House in 2012-13 was £25,208,100. This is nearly ten million pounds more than was awarded to the Royal Shakespeare Company (£15,675,270), which you suggest, in your fourth paragraph, to be a comparable organisation in terms of running costs. And while this subsidy may not be expensive in terms of cost per member of the population, it is considerably larger than the funding provided by the Arts Council England to other arts organisations. It is also an issue which Mr Hampson raises in this interview and is a wholly valid area for discussion.

In terms of ticket pricing, it is true that there is a wide range of ticket prices available. However, it is a fact that 60% of tickets at the Royal Opera House remain above £40. The average price to attend the New York Metropolitan Opera this year will be $156. A similar question about pricing would also be asked of a sports personality or another performer in an area where ticket prices are high, if they were to appear on HARDtalk.

In terms of the age of opera attendees, you say that 40% of the audience attending the Royal Opera House in 2011/12 are aged 45 or younger.  This still leaves 60% of the audience at 45 or older. In 2011, the average age of a subscriber to the New York Metropolitan Opera was 64.8, with the average age of all attendees at 57.7. The age demographic of those attending opera is of concern to those inside the opera establishment. For example, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, Peter Gelb, said in an interview in 2011 that he was concerned about the survival of opera:

What fuels me is the fear of the art form not surviving. To think that an art form or an institution like this is immune to the possibility of extinction would be a big mistake. I have to do everything in my power to make it interesting in an environment in which arts education is virtually non-existent. How can we possibly keep this thing going when the audience at the Met was literally dying of old age?’ [CNN Money Interview, 2011]

According to Opera Australia figures, during their Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour season, a ‘bold gesture to take opera beyond the theatre’, 42% of their audiences were over 55 and 59% had an income of more than $100,000 Australian dollars.

There was no suggestion during the interview that the audience should be below a certain age to attend an opera, but as the figures above demonstrate, the demographics of opera attendance continues to exercise the industry. This was clearly a legitimate area of discussion. Indeed much of Mr Hampson’s work outside performing focuses on using technology to open up music and opera to wider audiences and this, therefore, was an area we wanted to discuss with him, and to ask him why he feels this is important. 

In terms of the number of people who attend opera, less than 5% of those surveyed in the  Department for Culture, Media and Sport ‘Taking Part – Statistical Release’ had attended an opera in the year 2011-12, compared to more than  a fifth of respondents who  had attended a ‘play or drama’. According to Arts Council statistics from 2009-10, 8.3% of adults in the UK had attended an opera, compared to 16.5% who had attended a classical music concert or recital, and 32.5% who had attended a play. The 2008 Arts Council England Report separates arts attendees into different groups according to their engagement with arts, from ‘little if any’ to ‘enthusiastic’ engagement. Of those people who were classed as ‘enthusiastic attenders’ of the arts, 64% had not been to an opera in the past year. Similarly in the United States, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts found that 2% of the adult population had attended opera in the last year, rising to 4.9% of adults who watched or listened to a recorded or broadcast performance. These figures are still low compared to participation in other forms of art – for example, in comparison the NEA report found that 20.8% attended performing arts festivals.  Mr Hampson is vocal about his belief that opera is relevant to everyone and, therefore, it was justified to ask him questions about the level of opera attendance.

The section of the interview that focused on understanding the context of opera performances stemmed from Mr Hampson’s writings on ‘informed performances’. This is a topic that he feels strongly about and has spoken on regularly in the media. We were seeking to identify and clarify what he meant by an ‘informed performance’ and explore the practical consequences of this idea.

As you can see from this our research is as detailed and in depth as I would always expect for a HARDtalk interview. Our evidence is drawn from a wide range of international bodies and expert comment.  It is not just UK focussed which much of your complaint seems to be drawn from. This is because as I outlined from the start, our audience is both international and domestic, and not just the culturally knowledgeable in the UK.  Many of them will never have been to an opera and some of them may well never have heard of the art form.  Being relevant to all our audience is always a difficult balance, and for this reason the interview may have been more broad brush than you, as someone clearly very involved in opera, would have wanted. I’m sorry that this disappointed you but I hope that you can understand why the approach we took was the right one for our diverse audience.  

However you say in your last paragraph that ‘it would be a breath of fresh air if a TV broadcast, just once, could act as a spirited advocate for the arts…’. That is not our role. We do not act as an advocate for any person, profession or organisation – we seek to challenge and explore topics that surround and concern our interviewees. If we did not address the ‘valid questions’ that continue to be relevant to opera we would also be open to accusations of bias. Our role as you also say is to ’inform and educate’ and in the HARDtalk  interview with Mr Hampson I would robustly defend that that is what we did. 

Our audience expects guests to be challenged whichever profession they are from and our interview style is the same whether we are interviewing a politician, businessman or cultural figure.  The style of HARDtalk is, as I have said robust; it should never be either hostile or aggressive as you suggest in your letter. In watching this episode again I cannot accept that either is an accurate description of Sarah Montague’s mode of questioning.

Once again, I am sorry that you did not enjoy this programme. We do take all audience feedback seriously as I hope I have demonstrated in my reply. I do hope you keep watching HARDtalk, and indeed  you may be interested in watching today’s edition with Sir John Tavener for example, which I think was a compelling and revealing interview which you will enjoy.

Yours sincerely

(xxxxxxxxx)

(xxxxx)| Editor| BBC TV News Features
Zone D, Level 3, Portland Place London W1A 1AA
 

2 comments:

  1. Mr. Hampson dealt very well with his adversarial (and ignorant?) BBC interviewer, and your comments are excellent.

    I started going to the opera frequently in my mid-20s, here in New York City (where I am lucky to live). I am now 68, and still go to the opera -- as well as many classical concerts -- frequently.

    Let's hear it for the most "inclusive" art-form there is -- in the sense that it is made up of instrumental music, vocal (solo and choral) music, acting, drama (and often, comedy), scenery, dancing, painting, costuming, oh well, I think I'm out of space!
    Alison Ames NYC

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