Why Tour?

By Indyana Schneider

Question: Why tour opera?
Counter-question: Why limit opera to one regionally-specific audience?

Links between opera houses, elitism, and exclusivity are well known and frequently discussed. Even the locations of opera houses through history have attested to their superiority – in eighteenth-century Paris, the Opéra (well, the Académie Royale de Musique) was located within the Palais Royal, while the Burgtheater (home of the Court Opera) in eighteenth-century Vienna was right next to the imperial palace.

But these days there are plenty of operas outside opera houses. You can find opera in tree-houses, ships, and pubs (of course).

So by occasionally removing opera from the opera house, we’ve combated barriers to accessibility, right? Sure. But what these examples have in common is that they’re all based in London. Opera in the UK, and an excessively large proportion of the arts, is London-centric. Not only this, but funding to the arts is very London-centric. For instance, though the Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) funds sixteen national cultural organisations, it’s estimated that in 2012/13, 90% of the £450 million available was of direct benefit to London. Arts and Business figures also show that 82% of private sector funding of the arts was awarded to London-based organisations.

Now, in discussions of opera’s accessibility 3 main barriers are often brought up: awareness, price, and GEOGRAPHY. Access to the arts – be it opera, music, theatre, art galleries – should not be a luxury, nor should it be linked to the city you call home. Yet only 3.9% of the UK population have seen a live opera. And the geographical imbalance of funding and access to opera therein justifies critical scrutiny and a plan of action. ‘Opera For All’ remains the resounding slogan.

One way to combat geographical isolation is to convert opera to a medium that is easily transportable – like film. In 2012, 10 Royal Opera House productions were screened in over 700 cinemas across 30 countries. BP Summer Big Screens are sprinkled all over the UK, and are known to screen live opera to over 18,000 attendees. Operas broadcast on the big screens are really very popular.

(Just FYI, this is also true for ballet – the Royal Opera House’s live screening of La Fille mal gardée was the 5th highest grossing film in the UK on its evening)

However, without sounding like too much of a nerd, there is something special about experiencing live opera. I think my shiver-to-notes ratio is far greater when I’m witnessing live opera than when I’m watching on a screen. I think yours is too. And so, this is why we tour. And the arts world is doing it together. More than a third of theatre companies have seen an upsurge in their touring work over the past two years. And it’s not just happening in the West.

Here at OperaUpClose, we’ve tripled our touring schedule over the past year. We frequent new-to-opera locations and target venues that don’t regularly programme opera. At our performance of The Marriage of Figaro at G Live in Guildford, 31% of the audience were attending their first opera. Our areas for touring in 2016 ranged from Oldham (lowest 20% of arts engagement of Local Authorities in England); Coventry and Thanet (lower 21-33%); Taunton Deane and Bracknell (mid-table of Las ranked by arts engagement); to Oxford and Wandsworth (top of table). We’re developing relationships with audiences far and wide and have a strong record of introducing new audiences to opera who come back for more.

Touring opera (even our up-close, no-frills productions) is a lot more expensive than touring theatre. However, more generally speaking, touring is a good thing for opera’s financial sustainability (which I didn’t mention in Opera’s Really Terrible Economic Model) as you can really maximise the return on your investment – the expensive part, creating the production, is done and dusted. But first you’ll need to have established an audience capable of drawing in the kind of paying public necessary to run the tour. These relationships that takes time to nurture.

Help us nurture these relationships and continue to spread our opera productions far and wide? 



Opera's Really Terrible Economic Model

Why we need your help - By Indyana Schneider

Once upon time I was confronted by a blunt question over a cup of coffee: ‘But do you really think the arts should be publicly funded?’ The question took me by surprise because no one had ever really asked me outright. These days I work as the Development Manager for OperaUpClose and my answer hasn’t changed. Of course.

The argument for arts funding is robust and multi-layered. We could get into the extremely effective use of the arts in healthcare, or the physiological benefits of music in children’s brains. We could discuss the various ways which music fosters a sense of community, or the ubiquity of music in every society to ever have existed. Ever.

But for now I’d like to keep it simple. Without public funding, the arts (specifically opera) wouldn’t survive. Because opera’s economic model is really terrible. And it always has been.

Economic sustainability occurs when your income is greater than your expenditure. If you make more than you spend, you’re fine. But expenses incurred in the production of opera – from sets to salaries and everything in between – will always leave a large fiscal hole in opera companies. It would certainly be more fitting to refer to these ‘Not-For-Profits’ as ‘For-Deficits’, though it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

So opera companies are stuck in this omnipresent fight to break even. But why?

Back in the day, the earliest court operas were solely financed by princely patrons. Jacopo Peri’s Euridice (*arguably* the first opera) was performed in Florence at the turn of the 17th century to celebrate the wedding of Maria de Medici and King Henry IV of France. Grand Duke Ferdinando de Medici picked up most of the tab. Opera was a privately funded entertainment service meant to generate pleasure, not profit.

Then in 1637, Venice, the ever-proud republic, opened the first commercial pay-to-view opera house, the Teatro San Cassiano. Though this opera house still benefited from private patronage, Venice had officially introduced a new stream of funding into opera’s economic arena. Skip forward to the 19th century and patronage was largely substituted by state funding. I appreciate that this is a sweeping retelling of an intricate history, but my point is that throughout time, opera has always sought external funding.

These days, financial autonomy in opera resides in box office sales, with a little extra in the way of programmes and merchandise. Though ticket sales cannot possibly cover what it costs to put on a show. The general rule of thumb is that for high-end arts-promoting organisations, around 40% of expenditure is covered by ticket sales – 39.5% for The Royal Opera House and 37.8% for the Metropolitan opera the last time I checked. Interestingly, the make-up of this percentage differs greatly between London and New York. For the ROH, donor income and investment returns cover 17% of expenditure, which differs starkly from the Met’s 65.9%. We rely far more on government funding. So, the diameter of the inevitable fiscal hole is only expanding as governments slash funding to the arts.

Further still, the way to sell opera tickets is to promote opera, which means combatting barriers to accessibility with an Opera For All mentality and action plan. 2013/4 DCMS figures show only 3.9% of adults in England attended opera. Those from lower socio-economic groups are far less likely to engage with the arts in any form and opera in particular.

OperaUpClose encourages people unfamiliar with opera to try it by strategically breaking down barriers preventing them from doing so. We provide free tickets for school children, heavily reduced ticket pricing, workshops, post-show talks, new commissions, and artistic risk-taking. But in doing so, we’re making the omnipresent fight to break even just that little bit more challenging. So you see the problem? The more we try to make opera accessible, to combat its exclusivity, the less financially stable we can be.

Why does OperaUpClose need your help?

Because OperaUpClose is committed to living, vibrant, relevant, exciting opera.

Because it is our mission to provide this art-form for all to enjoy and be inspired by.

Because even if we sell out, we still need to raise £130,000 every year just to stay alive.

Because although opera’s economic model is really terrible, we do it anyway.

Because opera itself is really extraordinary.