Tuesday, 6 August 2013

In which I share a few thoughts on the BBC's reply

A fuller, more detailed response will follow at some point later - I am quite busy at the moment! - but a few initial thoughts are below.  As I'm sure you can see, this is really much more of a complex issue than the simple, adversarial black-and-white approach taken in this interview would allow.   Of course, a 25-minute programme can't go into quite as much depth, perhaps, but there are ways of maintaining the confrontational approach without insulting the interviewee, belittling the real efforts being carried out by opera companies, and leading the viewer to jump to false assumptions.

First, I'd like to say that I'm very impressed that the BBC took the time to send me such a detailed reply, rather than simply ignoring my letter or issuing a rather bland statement.  However, I'm far from convinced by their reasoning here, and the central issue remains: that of the general tone and impression given by the interview.

I'm fully aware of the format of the Hard Talk programme, and it appears that Hampson was too. However, the heart of my complaint was that - even bearing that in mind - the tone of the questioning was unduly aggressive and came across as poorly-prepared and ignorant.  It does not seem to me that the BBC has engaged with this point.

There is a fine line between confrontational interviewing (which is the signature style of this particular show) and outright aggression, and here my feeling is that the balance went too far in the direction of aggression. "Devil's Advocate" interviewing style is a legitimate tactic. However, my perception here (and one shared by an overwhelming number of those who have written to me after reading my letter and viewing the interview) is that in this case the tone went beyond that and strayed into presenting matters of perception and opinion - which we can argue about ad infinitum - as objective truth. For instance, the opening piece to camera already, to me, invites the viewer to assume that opera is disproportionately expensive and unpopular, and that little can be done to widen its appeal. Elitism and expense are presented as matters of fact. This seems to be rather too subjective -and important - a matter to generalise and trivialise in such a way.

As many have noted (and indeed I noted in my letter) there are plenty of valid questions here, and hiding somewhere in that show was a good interview. Opera does face an image problem, that's for sure. However, I think I speak for many involved in music when I say that at least part of the problem comes from these cliches being brought up by the media time and time again, so that the problem becomes self-fulfilling.

As I believe I noted elsewhere, 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" and was determined to get through them no matter what Hampson said. For example, after Hampson gives a very thoughtful response on demographics, Montague leaps in with words along the lines of "ah yes, but it's still just a bunch of old rich people going to see their friends, isn't it?" - demonstrating a complete lack of interest in the points he just made.

So what of the other points in the BBC's response? I don't have time to go into detail on every single point right now, but I find it pretty unconvincing, despite its length and the fact that at first glance it seems pretty thorough.

Take, for example, the various quotations cited in support of the existence of an image problem. If anything, these suggest less that "opera IS elitist", more that opera directors, managers etc. are aware that there is a perception of opera as elitist which they need to work to dispel, as well as working to ensure that the public subsidy is put to good use.

This is not exactly surprising. Given the importance of their role I would actually be rather worried if they weren't aware of the need to work hard to dispel the image problem and to ensure they do as much as possible to attract the wider public - to do nothing would be complacent.  If you look up the Terry Gilliam quotation in context, it's clear that he's actually saying "I thought opera was elitist, then I turned up to do Faust at ENO and discovered I was wrong."  This is even pretty clear from the snippet quoted in the BBC email.  The reference to suits of armour is from a lighthearted comment where Gilliam is basically saying "I don't care what people wear as long as they come to see my opera".  Similarly, the quotes from ENO and WNO are telling people "don't be afraid - it's not stuffy and incomprehensible. Come along and try it out!"

Does this acknowledge an image problem? Yes, and I think we are all aware that negative perceptions exist. I didn't deny that in my letter.  But does it also suggest that opera companies are working hard to dispel that? I would argue that it does. Yet the BBC premise seems to effectively be "no, they're not". This is incompatible with the evidence.

What about ticket pricing? To take one example: "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."  Well, yes; 100 percent minus 40 percent is 60 percent; I can do arithmetic. But the fact remains that there is a very significant proportion of tickets which fall in a price range comparable to, or less than, other forms of entertainment. Shouldn't we be giving the opera credit for this?

To take another point, "The average price to attend the New York Metropolitan Opera this year will be $156."  Without a full breakdown of the distribution of ticket price ranges, the numbers in each range, and any discounts available, this is meaningless. The "average" price for Olympic medal athletic sessions last year was about £230, but that figure is skewed by the 20% of tickets over £400: in actual fact plenty of tickets were available at much, much lower prices  (http://news.sky.com/story/1081964/london-olympics-many-tickets-too-expensive andhttp://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-11546228).

Of course it would be good to lower average prices across the board, but to pretend - as was effectively the case in this interview - that this is a problem unique to opera seems rather unfair.

Touching on a few other points:

Surely, as I alluded to in my original letter, the age issue is at least in part inevitable due to the demographic tendency in Western societies towards an ageing population? Moreover, articles bemoaning the high average age of opera (and indeed theatre) audiences are nothing new - a friend has sent me links to articles from 20 years ago (which I will try to share later) saying basically the same thing. Unless these audiences are exceptionally long-lived or have access to an elixir of youth, we have to conclude that audiences are being replenished somehow. Not that we should be complacent about it, of course, but perhaps the problem is overstated.

What about attendance figures? "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." This is not entirely unexpected: there are far, far fewer locations in the UK where opera is performed on a regular basis than there are for other forms of classical music or theatre. This also fails to take into account viewing figures for outdoor screenings, cinema broadcasts, live streams online, and radio transmissions, which are opening opera up to ever wider potential audiences. I don't know if any research has been done on that but seem to recall the ROH saying that their cinema viewing figures were far in excess of attendance at the house itself, which is pretty impressive. Can anyone enlighten me here?

Finally, just a note on one of the later comments from the BBC.  "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." Ask yourself this: if you had never been to an opera, or had never heard of it before, what impression would you take away from this interview? Would you be tempted to attend? To me the prevailing tone was overwhelmingly negative and I would argue that it would deter people from discovering opera, so worsening the precise problem which Hampson was given such a hard time about. Does this square with the BBC's remit to educate and inform?

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