Jump to content

The current state of the Royal Opera


Recommended Posts

A discussion which developed out of the ""new" ROH" thread, which I'm copying over here so the conversation can continue:


On ‎12‎/‎12‎/‎2018 at 17:37, FLOSS said:

 I can understand that the cut in the ACE grant has had an impact on prices for both opera and ballet but in the past the need to raise revenue was dealt with by the simple expedient pf raising ticket prices across the board at the beginning of the season not with the sort of jiggery-pokery, price manipulation and mind games which the Marketing Department is currently employing.


As far as the opera is concerned I am afraid that most of its problems are self inflicted. While it is true that operas cost a lot to stage and the drop in the value of the pound will not have helped the company's finances the real problem with the opera company lies largely with the decisions which have been made with respect to pensioning off old still serviceable productions and replacing them with exceptionally poor ones. It is arguable whether the organisation which stages opera at Covent Garden is a company at all as it consists of little more than a chorus, an orchestra and support services reduced to a bare minimum with no comprimario singers or really experienced in-house singers. In balletic terms this is the equivalent of an organisation which is essentially a corps de ballet an orchestra and ballet coaches without any soloists, first soloists and principal dancers claiming to be a ballet company'


Depending on how you look at things the opera company has either had an extraordinary run of bad luck as far as its new productions are concerned or it has been run incompetently. However you look at things since the 2011-12 season it has managed to stage more than forty new productions very few of which anyone would willingly pay to see again. Both the Carmen and the Cosi  being revived this season fall into that category. The reason why ticket sales for them have been so poor has nothing to do with the  local audience disliking Cosi or Carmen as operas. There were plenty of people who naively were looking forward to a new Cosi when it was staged in 2016-17 but after seeing it do not want to repeat the experience. I am one of them. Staging a new opera production. like staging a new ballet or a new play is always a bit of a gamble because you don't know whether it really works until it has been placed in front of a live paying audience. But to stage so many new productions and have so few which are genuinely revivable takes some doing. A well run opera house should, at any one time, have at its disposal any number of good revivable productions of core repertory works which will still draw audiences and a few classic productions which even the most demanding of singers will be happy to appear in. The Zefferelli  Tosca was just such a production as were the Visconti Don Carlos, the Mosshinskey Peter Grimes and the Copley La Boheme, and of these, only the latter production was built to last. When it was commissioned the director and designer were told that their Boheme had to last at least as long as the production it was replacing. Such productions enable a company to undertake worthy efforts such as taking a calculated risk by staging works like Henze's Boulevard Solitude  which are unlikely to sell out. The ROH staging of Don Carlos and the full evening Les Troyens in the 1950's both started as calculated risks which paid off  and helped to establish the prestige of the company .and raised it in less thantwenty five years to being seen as a world class company. Solid revvable bankable productions are an essential element of a company in financial and artistic good health as they guarantee a company a regular income stream season after season.


A well run opera house should not need to make repeated trips to the bargain basement for its casts nor does it need to import its comprimario singers from half way round the world. It ought to be able to bank on at least 50% of its new productions  being sufficiently good to justify one or more revival and a few being so good that they will make it to a third revival, the point at which a production begins to go into profit.Unfortunately very few of the Royal Opera's new productions have risen much above the level of third rate provincialism. The new productions tend to be ones in which the director ignores the guidance provided by the composer and librettist and replaces the opera  they composed in their naivety , with the work they would have created if they had possessed the superior sensibilities and knowledge of the director. This may sound incredible but when it came to staging a new Idomeneo the opera management engaged a director who actually wrote in his programme notes that he disliked the opera and proceeded to demonstrate it with the production he staged. In replacing its older marketable productions it has staged any number of "exciting", "challenging", "accessible" and "relevant" productions but it has staged very few that bear repeated viewing let alone ones which people might look forward to seeing revived. Each failed new production represents money thrown down the drain and a great deal of money has been thrown away in recent years. As a result the opera organisation must be losing considerably more money than it can realistically hope to recoup in the immediate future. Evidence that the opera side of the organisation is in a bad way and that it is not that highly esteemed company it considers itself to be is provided by the fact that its new Lohengrin, with a good cast, failed to sell out and the first revival of its new La Boheme played to a half empty house at a weekend matinee at the end of its initial season. The fact that last summer was an exceptionally good one is no explanation for a poor house as keen opera goers ignore both good and bad weather if a work is being performed which they want to see. 


As far as La Traviata is concerned it is a pretty dull affair which just feels as if comes back annually. It is just possible that it has all but exhausted its potential audience in London and beyond. High ticket prices do not help to sell performances in old productions which are not classics of their kind. What the management laughingly described as Carmen bore little resemblance to the opera which Tchaikovsky described as a perfect opera. The new Boheme is a poor thing which did not sell out on its second appearance at the end of its initial season. The new Lohengrin was daft but not objectionable. Against the background of years of poor productions and the hike in ticket prices I don't think that it is any wonder that Pique Dame is not selling that well. Tchaikovsky seems to play a significant part in the staging of his opera which does not bode that well.


I think that nearly everyone who has posted on this topic has expressed concern about the policies which the marketing department is pursuing. I don't think that I am looking back on the past with rose coloured spectacles but my memory of the old pre-closure opera house,  was that its audience was far more socially and economically diverse and local than it is at present as far as the Amphitheatre audience was concerned. But then the management did not behave as if they were running a business.Ticket prices for the upper part of the house were kept affordable with the posh part of the house bearing the brunt of any price increases which were needed. This was a deliberate policy as both David Webster and his immediate successor wanted to keep the building genuinely accessible to those with a real love of opera and ballet. Performances were genuinely accessible to ordinary people on ordinary incomes. Postmen, shop workers, railway workers, secretaries, nurses, teachers and students could afford to attend performances. It did no cost an arm and a leg  to try opera or ballet for the first time or to experiment with unfamiliar composers and choreographers  because you were not going to bankrupt yourself in the process. Perhaps it is simply the fact that the newly Opened Up Opera House was unveiled at the time that we became aware of the jiggery-pokery being employed by the  Marketing Department in its ticket pricing policy  but somehow it does not feel as if the people running the newly refurbished opera house are as concerned with the needs of their core audience as they are with generating income at every turn. It is not simply that the new public areas still look and feel like an artist's impression of "Open Up". It is almost as if with its airport terminal look the ROH organisation is more concerned with processing people and parting them from their money than it is with the artistic activity in the building.Now while it may be true that last time I looked the large white stuccoed building on Bow Street was being still being described as an " opera house" rather than "Beard's Eatery"  or "Alec's Grub " its anonymous airport style design and its bland, beige, boring décor in the new public areas suggests that its primary function is to feed and water passing tourists and get as much money out of them as it can. If you were cynical you might think that the entire "Open Up" project was only ever intended to give the illusion of accessibility to those not already in the know about ballet and opera while the management was actually trying to restore its pre-war exclusivity based on the ability to pay.




On ‎12‎/‎12‎/‎2018 at 18:28, Dawnstar said:


This is a brilliant post, FLOSS. I've only been operagoing at the ROH for 14 years, not long compared to many on here, but even in that time the productions in the last few years seem to be noticeably less appealing, with this season particularly bad. Up until this season I had not seen the Royal Ballet live because by the time I'd paid for seeing several operas a year (SC restricted view but still £50+ per ticket) I didn't feel I could justify ballet too. This season there are so few operas I want to see (thus far only Simon Boccanegra, which is a longstanding & traditional production, & nothing else till April) that I've finally got round to seeing the RB! At least with the RB productions if you book for a "traditional" ballet then you seem pretty safe in getting a production which is comprehensible & attractive, which cannot be said for an awful lot of the recent opera productions.


On ‎12‎/‎12‎/‎2018 at 18:41, David said:

A masterly exposition that expresses what many of us are feeling and have been trying to say. Thank you Floss.


15 hours ago, David said:




The way in which Stefan Herheim subverts Queen of Spades in his production to focus on Tchaikovsky himself and his sexuality is a good example of what I find so unacceptable in recent Royal Opera productions. I know it has received some good reviews from critics on the continent but I care too much for the work to see it so abused. I am curious though - we know programmes are organised years in advance. Is this I wonder a dying gasp from the previous regime or an example of what we can expect from Kasper Holten's successor?


14 hours ago, Mary said:

David, I know what you mean -  the trailer put me off- and it is an opera I know and love.

Don't tell me, let me guess- it's all about Tchaikovsky being 'tormented'-yes?

Of course! There could never be any sense of  joy in composing such divine music could there- and no doubt his -I am sure- 'repressed'- gay identity is a terrible agony etc because in the arts these days noone is ever 'glad to be gay' as we used to sing.


I realise Tchaikovsky's life was difficult in many ways, but the complexity just gets reduced down to stock concepts in this kind of production, and  why does the biography always have to take over the actual work he wrote?


Academic anyway:  I can't afford it!


12 hours ago, Sim said:

I started going off opera at the ROH a few years ago when I saw their current Rigoletto.  The audience is subject, during the overture, to male sodomy, orgies, etc. etc.  Do they think that today's audience is too pathetic to use their imaginations?  Everything we need to know about the depravity of the Duke of Mantua's court is right there in the overture music.  All we have to do is use our imaginations.  Like with everything else these days, it would seem that it all has to be fed to us in sound and visual bites.  Maybe yet another example of condescension?  Get the young ones in by feeding them a diet of easy sex.  


11 hours ago, Dawnstar said:

I'm starting to wonder if someone at the RO dislikes Tchaikovsky, as we've already suffered Holten's awful (IMO) Eugene Onegin & now this Queen of Spades. If the director thinks he's being original by putting Tchaikovsky on stage then he isn't, as about 25 years ago I saw a very confusing Nutcracker production where most of the characters at the party were turned into members of the Tchaikovsky family.


2 hours ago, loveclassics said:

Didn't Ken Russell cover the composer's emotional problems/issues years ago in his film?  Why ruin Tchaikovsky's  work by saying the same thing all over again?  Word to producer/director; 'been there, got the t-shirt...."




Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
  • Create New...