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In defence of the Royal Opera House

Last week I was at the opening night of Il barbiere di Sivigli at Royal Opera House which I really quite liked although a number of other critics damned it with faint praise. I was invited, not as an opera critic (which would probably be stretching things a bit although I do cover it when I can) but as an education journalist. And I attended a small reception before the show at which Jillian Barker, Director of Learning, told us about the Royal Opera House’s impressively wide range of excellent outreach work.

Yes we all know the ROH gets around £25m per year (in the 2015/2018) allocation) from Arts Council England and that’s a lot more than most other organisations get – although the subsidy has been reduced by over £12m since 2010 and now represents 22% of ROH’s income, according to chief executive Alex Beard. Opera, given top notch production values, cannot be done successfully on the cheap.

As I sat in what would have been a very expensive seat, pondering all this last week, I couldn’t help wondering why so many people are so self-righteously sniffy about ROH. A very well established musical theatre critic recently told me that he finds the place “daunting” and another senior industry person independently described it to me as “an irrelevant monstrosity in the corner of Covent Garden”

Well I don’t think ROH, where 40% of the tickets are priced below £40, is any more elitist than anywhere else. Yes, it’s an architecturally stunning – literally awesome –  building but so are Theatre Royal Drury Lane and Hackney Empire. Yes you see the occasional traditionalist who chooses to put on a suit or frock for his or her special night out but I’ve often seen that in the West End too. Perhaps it’s those very expensive red velvet curtains which will have to be replaced when the Queen dies and Charles III begins his reign? Maybe people object to opera sung in original language with surtitles, forgetting that the music fits the (usually Italian) vowel sounds in a way which simply doesn’t work in English. The word sounds are part of the musical texture.

ROH is a Bridge as well as a National Portfolio Organisation. Bridge is a nationwide Arts Council programme that connects schools, young people and communities with artists, arts organisations, museums and libraries. ROH delivers the programme in Essex (where its production park at Thurrock celebrates 10 years this year) Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and North Kent. In 2013, for example, ROH Bridge worked with more than 343 schools and other educational organisations plus 143 cultural organisations, enabling over 14,000 young people to take part in projects and a further 10,000 to attend an event or performance. Jillian Barker and her team are working hard to build on these figures by connecting digitally with schools elsewhere. Among many other projects and fields of outreach work Chance to Dance has inspired over 30,000 children since 1991. Participants are aged 6-11 and come from Lambeth, Southwark and Thurrock. “A large proportion” (according to a ROH printed summary) are from ethnic minority backgrounds.

I was inspired by all this and shall make the effort to find out more in due course. Meanwhile can we all please stop castigating a “world class” (yes, it really is) organisation which consistently raises the bar for thousands of people of all ages simply because we don’t like opera or think we don’t? Or even worse because we don’t approve of the opera-lover stereotype we create in our own minds – inverted snobbery at its most repugnant.

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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