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

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.

DON HOOPER/ALAMY
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As the falcon flew towards us, its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle

In your faces, twitchers!

The BBC2 programme Springwatch may have made the RSPB’s reserve at Minsmere in Suffolk the Mecca of popular birdwatching, but Cley on the north Norfolk coast is still its Alexandria, a haven for wanderers of all species and a repository of ancient and arcane knowledge. I learned what little I know about birding there in the early 1970s, sitting at the feet of the bird artist Richard Richardson as he gave his sea-wall seminars on the intricacies of behaviour and identification. Richard could put a name to any bird, but he never believed that this process rigidly defined it.

The reserve at Cley has been gentrified recently, with smart boardwalks and a solar-powered visitors’ centre, but something of its old, feral spirit remains. On a trip early this winter, we were greeted by birders with the news: “Saker! Middle hide.” Sakers are big, largely Middle Eastern falcons, favourites with rich desert falconers. No convincingly wild individual has ever been seen in Norfolk, so it was likely that this bird had escaped from captivity, which reduced its cred a mite.

The middle hide proved to be full of earnest and recondite debate. The consensus now was that the bird was not a saker but a tundra peregrine – the form known as calidus that breeds inside the Arctic Circle from Lapland eastwards. We had missed the first act of the drama, in which the bird had ambushed a marsh harrier twice its size and forced it to abandon its prey. It was now earthbound, mantled over its dinner on the far side of a lagoon. It was bigger than a standard peregrine, and in the low sun its back looked almost charcoal, flaring into unusually high white cheeks behind its moustachial stripes.

Then it took off. It swung in a low arc around the perimeter of the lagoon and straight towards our hide. It flew so fast that I couldn’t keep it focused in my binoculars, and for a moment its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle. At the last minute, when it seemed as if it would crash through the window, it did a roll-turn and showed off the full detail of its tessellated under-plumage. In your faces, twitchers!

It was a thrilling display, but that didn’t entirely quieten the identity anxieties in the hide. One or two dissenters wondered if it might be a hybrid bird, or just a large but eccentrically marked common peregrine. The majority stuck with the tundra option. This form migrates in the autumn to sub-equatorial Africa, and days of north-easterlies may have blown it off-course, along with other bizarre vagrants: an albatross had passed offshore the day before.

Calidus means “spirited” in Latin. The Arctic firebird treated us to ten minutes of pure mischief. It winnowed low over flocks of lapwing, scythed through the screaming gulls, not seeming to be seriously hunting, but taunting a blizzard of panicky birds skywards. At one point, it hovered above a hapless tufted duck that dived repeatedly, only to resurface with the quivering scimitar still above it. Then it took another strafing run at the hide.

Does it matter whether the peregrine was a rare variety, or just an odd individual? Naturalists often categorise themselves as either “lumpers”, happy with the great unlabelled commonwealth of life, or “splitters”, rejoicing in the minutiae of diversity. I swing from one to the other, but, in the end, I can’t see them as contradictory positions.

The bird from the tundra was a hot-tempered peregrine to the core. But its strange facial markings – however much their interpretation panders to the vanity of human watchers – are the outward signs of a unique and self-perpetuating strain, adapted to extreme conditions and yet making a 6,000-mile migration that might take in a visit to a Norfolk village. Lives intersect, hybridise, diverge, in the counterpoint between what Coleridge called “uniformity” and “omniformity”.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage