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Classical music has a serious communication problem

Until state-funded arts organisations like the Royal Opera House can advertise their work to people who don’t already love their art form, they will never attract broader audiences.

Performers onstage during Terry Gilliam's production of Berlioz's "Benvenuto Cellini" at the English National Opera. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
Performers onstage during Terry Gilliam's production of Berlioz's "Benvenuto Cellini" at the English National Opera. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

It’s pointless arguing with Harriet Harman’s assertion in a speech yesterday that state-funded arts organisations like the Royal Opera House should work harder to ensure a representative slice of the taxpaying populace is experiencing their wares. But that didn’t stop the classical music establishment having a good go. Sections of it, at least, were frothing defensively by mid-afternoon. One of the central planks in their counter-argument was that opera and classical music simply can’t be elitist or patrician because state subsidies keep ticket prices low. Right. Sure. So it’s just a cosy coincidence that the Royal Opera House is generally populated by well-manicured and educated white folk. . .

This week, in fact, the Royal Opera House will again open its doors to a group of homeless people. They’re not in the foyers and bars, but on the stage, performing in a production of Poulenc’s Dialogue of the Carmelites conducted by Simon Rattle. Next month the Royal Opera’s orchestra and chorus will join the communities who live around its production hub in Thurrock for a performance of Verdi’s Requiem. Engagement and “the public good” are priorities for even the most grandiose of arts institutions like never before. So why is the opera audience proving so stubbornly socially stagnant? I’d point at least one finger in the direction of an unlikely villain that has never really been properly dragged into the elitism debate: the total ineffectualness and inappropriateness of large-scale classical music advertising.  

Two years ago the British-Egyptian actor Fadi Elsayed claimed he’d never seen an advert for opera, ballet or classical music in London, a comment to which I responded with the facetious retort that he should have gone to Specsavers. But looking back, I can see exactly why Elsayed said what he did. The only instrumental ensemble in London with the financial clout to enjoy a sizeable brand presence on the Tube is the London Symphony Orchestra. But you can forgive Elsayed for thinking their ads – featuring unrecognisable individuals dribbling speech-bubble pleasantries under the industry-speak acronym “LSO” – were promoting a low-interest bank account.

Ads for opera range from the totally unfathomable – as in English National Opera’s recent poster for its Cosí fan tutte which won’t tell you a thing if you don’t know the opera (or, even, if you don’t know that opera is live theatre in which characters sing out their feelings with beauty and rawness over a live orchestra) – to the borderline conceited – as in the Royal Opera’s pre-Christmas poster for Carmen emblazoned with a strapline that was both smart-arse and vague while also managing to give the story’s ending away (presumably born of a belief that the three million people who use the tube really should be familiar with the narrative layout of Bizet’s opéra comique).

What opera needs is a new audience intake, people who aren’t on the mailing list and don’t have the CDs at home. These are the people to whom mass-media advertising should be attuned – the eight million in London who won’t think “ah yes, Terry Gilliam directing Berlioz’s outlandish and traditionally maligned Benvenuto Cellini, that’s bound to be interesting” because they don’t know who Berlioz or even Terry Gilliam are. But that’s what too much opera advertising does. It follows the industry’s favourite communicative norm: conceived by people who already love the art form for people who already love the art form.

In his speech to the Association of British Orchestras conference in January, the journalist Paul Morley urged the classical music industry to embrace its radical brilliance and begin to take pride in the fact that its offering is arguably more thrilling, shocking, emotionally overwhelming and (if you want it to be) intellectually nourishing than a lot of the other stuff on stage in the UK. Instead of endlessly telling people that they can now wear jeans to watch opera – wow! – we should be picking up Morley’s mantle and attempting to communicate what a poleaxing experience that opera can be. In the cutthroat world of big-city advertising, any attempt to achieve “cut-through” needs to be unpredictable, shocking, or possessed of some sort of compelling micro-narrative. Put the raw ingredients of any opera in front of the creative bods charged with making insurance companies and airlines appear so rhapsodically tantalising on tube ads, and they’d have a field day.

As hard as it might be to stomach for those of us who believe in the universal power of the art form, if we think opera’s audience in London is representative of the city’s populace then we’re living in a parallel universe (or maybe Kensington and Chelsea). Arts education and artistic relevance – not marketing – will ensure opera thrives in this country in the future (things look pretty good for the latter, not so much for the former). But in the meantime, our state-subsidised orchestras and opera companies must start telling the public that they have the capacity to move, scare and pin them to their seats whatever their current level of understanding. Only then will we persuade more taxpayers to reap the extraordinary rewards of the tiny investment that’s made on their behalf.