It pains me to bring up the ‘E’ word, when so much perceived ‘elitism’ is generated purely by clumsy discussion of it. Yes, that Guardian editorial was wide of the mark on so many counts – clearly written in under an hour (as this has been) by a journalist with shaky grasp of the bigger cultural picture (well, you can judge for yourselves…). I remain convinced, though, that we do have a problem with elitism in our concert halls and opera houses. Sure, it is being slowly eroded for the greater good. But there are ways in which we are woefully bad at helping ourselves.
It’s an old chestnut to point to ticket prices, reiterating the fact that many tickets for classical concerts and operas are lower than those for West End musicals and Premier League (and now Championship) fixtures. Clearly, that argument is not cutting through with the editors of the Today programme and their kin.
But that argument is also beside the point, because high ticket prices evidently don’t create an atmosphere of snobbery at those football matches any more than £9 tickets expunge uppity, judgmental snobs from concert halls and opera houses. I once sat backstage during an interval at a purpose-built UK opera house and listened to a singer unfurl a diatribe of invective aimed at the people he was singing for that evening. The argument was pretty straight-laced: gilded opera houses and foreign language stories don’t put normal people off opera. People who like opera put normal people off opera.
High ticket prices evidently don’t create an atmosphere of snobbery at football matches any more than £9 tickets expunge uppity, judgmental snobs from concert halls and opera houses
That was his opinion. I agree to some small extent – we all have contempt for the ‘Bravo!’ guy, don’t we? – but would point to more controllable variables that never seem to get discussed. Exhibit A: the irony of buying a cheap ticket to see a show at ENO and having to pay almost the same amount again for a glass of wine in the interval (which you then don’t have time to drink). Exhibit B: wandering around a tight, difficult-to-navigate Victorian theatre only to encounter bars given over entirely to Veuve Clicquot and its orange branding. At least there, you’d be guaranteed a good ratio of actual bubbles to liquid. Seasoned critics have taken to Twitter recently to complain about how expensive and lamentable much of the catering provision at Covent Garden is. That’s the worst sort of elitism there is: paying big money for sub-standard rubbish, and loving it.
Recently, I found myself at a music festival in the well-heeled Colorado ski resort of Vail, where the resident orchestras absolutely represented the elite of America’s music life: the Dallas Symphony, The Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. There were a lot of wealthy people in attendance (so I was told), but it was uncanny how the catering provision of popcorn and hot dogs levelled the audience out. You were actively encouraged to take your beer or wine into the auditorium. Maybe it’s the privilege of a town that revolves around sport, maybe everyone was drunk, but this was one of the most happy-go-lucky audience atmospheres I have encountered and I swear the popcorn was at the heart of it. Funny how when you engineer the atmosphere you want – as Bravo Vail has – the punters tweak their behaviour accordingly.
And yet, the audience in Vail was highly musically engaged (I would be surprised if I ever see such virtuosic air-conducting again). You could say the same about the audience at the Komische Oper in Berlin. Ironically, the company occupies the German capital’s most grandiose opera auditorium by some distance. But then it goes and spikes all that by selling pretzels and beers in the foyer.
Of course, we can talk about education – how the steady expunging of music from state schools will soon mean it’s only the privately educated that knows anything about opera and classical music. That’s elitism, folks! Until then, there’s not much a big cold beer and a pretzel can’t fix. It’s done more for the atmosphere of the Komische Oper than ticket prices or patronising dress codes have.