Taking opera to the masses
An elitist image and high prices have kept opera inaccessible – OperaUpClose’s Dominic Haddock is keen to orchestrate change.
You might expect a trip to the opera to experience Bizet’s Carmen to cost somewhere in the region of £200 for the best seats in the house, but at the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds, the top price ticket is a modest £26.
Comedian Chris Addison, who has been performing a speaking role in L’Étoile at the Royal Opera House, recently told Channel 4 News that you could buy tickets to this opera for just £6, ‘which is cheaper than going to watch Arsenal, and no one’s waving a big flag in front of you during the good bits!’
However, Dominic Haddock, Executive Producer of OperaUpClose, the charity that has brought Carmen to Bury St Edmunds, does not believe this is a particularly good comparison. ‘Yes, you can go to Covent Garden for under £10, but if you do, you’ll be sitting a long way away from the action and not getting the full experience,’ he says. ‘It’s a big part of why OperaUpClose was started – by a group of artists and producers who loved opera but weren’t going as much as they would like because the tickets were so expensive.’
The charity, which was founded initially as a company in 2009, immediately set to work to find out why regular theatregoers were not also buying opera tickets. The general response was: ‘It’s not for me.’ Many were uncomfortable with the grand surroundings. Then there’s the opera itself, usually performed in a foreign language; even if it’s been translated into English, the diction can be an issue.
OperaUpClose has tried to resolve these problems by staging performances in English and taking its productions to small and medium-sized venues around the country – mostly to theatres, but also to arts centres, festivals and schools.
It even performs in workplaces to company staff, as well as private parties and weddings – in fact, anywhere that will help to expand the audience for opera. The artists’ acting skills and clear articulation mean it is possible for the first-time opera-goer to follow a storyline simply from the performance, rather than the synopsis in the programme.
But perhaps the biggest transformation has been to ticket prices. OperaUpClose started off by charging £10 for all its tickets, then gave 10% of tickets away via charities to ensure that people who would not normally get the opportunity to see a live opera due to cost concerns could do so. Now the company has taken to the road and ticket prices range from £10 to £26. Sustaining prices at this low level is impressive, especially when you consider that ticket sales account for 70% of the charity’s funding.
‘It means we have to be commercial,’ says Haddock. ‘We have to produce work that people want to see. We also run a very tight ship. We question every single thing we buy.’
OperaUpClose is able to control ticket prices by scaling down the cast and orchestra. Carmen, for example, has eight singers, and the ‘orchestra’ consists of a piano, violin, cello and flute. This does not compromise the quality, however. ‘We rely heavily on good reviews for marketing, so we work with great designers and use the very best singers and musicians,’ says Haddock. ‘I think Carmen looks a million dollars, but it doesn’t cost a million dollars.’
Despite the need to be commercial, OperaUpClose believes in developing new talent. Because the shows are staged in smaller venues, younger singers whose voices have not yet fully matured but who are the correct age for the role, can perform the key parts. ‘The character of Mimi in La Bohème is in her mid-20s, and for a person to die so young is very moving. But the role is normally sung by someone in their 40s or 50s, making it considerably less powerful,’ says Haddock.
The charity also runs an annual competition, called Flourish, to select and produce a brand new opera. Composers and librettists from around the world are invited to write a piece for up to seven performers, including the musicians. Extracts from five shortlisted operas are then performed in a showcase at Kings Place in London and the winner is given a year to develop the piece into a full-length opera, which is then produced by OperaUpClose.
The 2014 winner, Ulla’s Odyssey, was written for a family audience. It tells the story of 14-year-old Ulla who sets off to sail round the world single-handed with only her cat for company, encountering mythical creatures en route.
Children as young as seven have been to see the opera. The charity also runs workshops for schools, involving members of the cast and orchestra, to help children understand what opera is; to recognise the different voices and instruments, and why the composer would use them in a particular moment or place. ‘To do that with seven-year olds is amazing,’ says Haddock. ‘We want to catch them before they think opera is not for them.’
For more information about tickets and supporting OperaUpClose, visit www.operaupclose.com
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