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.
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?