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Extraordinary Royal Opera House?

Last week I attended an event at Royal Opera House. In effect it was a press briefing to introduce the new season and raise awareness of the range of ROH’s other work. So I was mildly amused that there was a lounge suit dress code. I think it was a first. I have attended many press briefings in my time but never before have I been told what to wear. And I don’t own a lounge suit anyway.

It was an extraordinary event, held in extraordinary premises (whose current building programme will make it even more extraordinary) featuring people with extraordinary talent, flair and initiative. The learning and participation programme is extraordinary too as is the forthcoming new opera by the extraordinary Mark-Anthony Turnage. Mary Bevan, the eminent soprano, who showcased an extract is similarly extraordinary. Then there was some extraordinary dance for us all to watch, accompanied by pianists with extraordinary talent … and so it went on.  You could say it was an occasion fuelled by repetitive gush and after 50 minutes I was becoming so irritated I wanted to shout: “I’ll buy you a thesaurus for Christmas”.

And that’s a pity because, of course, The Royal Opera House really is a one off in that’s it’s been producing high quality opera in London for three centuries. And it’s doing a great deal of excellent work, gradually breaking down its elitist image and including many people from diverse backgrounds. The event began, for example, with half the ROH Youth Company – singing and dancing a number from Hansel and Gretel. It wasn’t extraordinary. I’ve seen plenty of youth groups doing well over the years but some of these children are clearly pretty talented, the group had been well trained and it was a joy to see participants of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds achieving together.

ROH’s Learning and Participation reaches all over the country. It collaborates with dozens of music hubs. And its digital platform  supports teachers in schools wanting their children to encounter opera – getting them singing in character and creating their own responses to opera among other things.

1,750 primary school children had raised the roof in their enthusiasm for The Magic Flute at that very afternoon’s schools matinee of which ROH runs six per year. We heard too about big recent events at Curve in Leicester and at Hull as part of  Hull UK City of Culture 2017.

And ROH has been at the Production Park in Thurrock for  10 years. Arts Council England funds education projects based there for the Thurrock community and for schools in North Kent, Essex and Hertfordshire.

Over 29,800 people took part in ROH’s Learning and Participation projects in 2016/17 which is not extraordinary but it’s pretty creditable.

And as for the notoriously high cost of simply going to see opera – the provision of which is ROH’s core business after all – according, to a mini-brochure given to each attender at last week’s event it is “Always Accessible”. By that they mean that 30% of main stage tickets are available for £35 or less and 60% for £60 or less. Make up your own mind how extraordinarily accessible that makes it.

Photograph by Peter Suranyi

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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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