Over the threshold
For centuries, and for a host of different reasons, it has been traditional practice in many countries for a new bride to be carried over the threshold of her new home by her husband. Whether a symbol of ownership, avoiding bad spirits, or the public marking of a new life together for the married couple, this is a significant moment – and it is also an act of trust (or at least power) between several parties. The one being carried is submitting to the prospect of entry into a building, whether willingly or not.
Last weekend, at the two-day event ‘How can we change opera for the better?’ run by Devoted & Disgruntled, the problem of persuading people into a building was a recurring theme. This open discussion for anyone who cares about opera saw an impressive array of major directors, singers, and hard-hitters in the operatic world (including many members of the ENO team – the discussions took place in ENO’s Lilian Baylis House in north London)… as well as providing an opportunity for those who simply love opera to join in the conversation. I sat in on group debates about operatic works in museum spaces, the impact of social media, repertoire decisions and a host of other topics. It was fascinating, informative, at times frustrating but never dull. And a central question was, unsurprisingly: how do we get more people to come along and experience this amazing, passionate, spectacular, beautiful, soul-wrenching art form that we all love so much?
The great irony, of course, is that the more you love something, the harder it is to understand why others can’t see it all as you do and simply book a ticket then and there. It is the same for every activity in our own lives about which we have complete conviction, and which has become so much a part of our existence that we no longer see its context. For example:
But of course you always make sure that the bird feeder in the back garden is full. What sort of person wouldn’t? Well, possibly someone without a garden. Or without a bird feeder. Or who can’t afford the grain. Or who hates garden birds. Or doesn’t ever see any. Or for whom it has never even occurred as a possibility that this might be a thing one could do.
But of course you take your children to art galleries and museums over the holidays. What sort of person wouldn’t? Perhaps someone who doesn’t live near any, or many, such places. Or they’re there but not free like the ones near you. Or you have to drive to get there and they don’t have a car. Or the combined cost of the tickets, journey and meals out is too much, even if the museum itself is relatively affordable. Or the space strikes them as intimidating and they’re worried they won’t know how to behave, or that their children will misbehave. Or they worry that their children will become aware of how alien a space such a museum or gallery is to them too, and feel uncomfortable about that. And so on.
There is a tremendous array of potential reasons as to why certain people don’t engage with certain activities, be they cultural, educational, commercial, political, or something else. Step one is to acknowledge this. Step two is to stop insisting that the way to fix it is to ‘educate’ those people. This is a word often used with the very best of intentions, because it is used by people who love the activity (let’s stick with getting people to the opera), and are desperate to encourage others to come and experience all the great things they do. But it also implies two things: that non-attenders lack something that ‘we’ have, and that’s the sole reason they don’t attend; and that all things can be fixed by persuading someone of a different viewpoint.
There is no simple answer to getting people to come along to opera houses, because there is no single reason why they don’t. You can’t move the theatre closer to someone’s house. You can, however, introduce cinema showings, which is a superb idea to bring great art to bigger audiences. You can help make tickets affordable to more people, but it’s no good just telling that to the outraged Guardian readers who got annoyed with John Humphrys – you’ve actually got to get that message to the people who might not know that they could, in fact, afford to try a show and see what they think of it. Telling us all that opera stories are ‘unforgettable’ and ‘timeless tales’ is completely meaningless, and frankly the intricacies of some opera plots make elements of them migraine-inducingly complicated, if not actually amnesia-causing. Running education events for first-timers before the show is asking a newbie to take a punt and part with money for two tickets rather than one, which must be off-putting to say the least. One of the most brilliant ideas mooted at last weekend’s discussions was that of showing opera ‘shorts’, single scenes from operas either separately or prior to main shows – this could easily be achieved for cinema broadcasts, and in some cases might be possible in live circumstances as well. And if opera houses can work together to spread the word more widely and effectively, so much the better.
Opera is amazing. So is classical music, art, dance, theatre… the list of cultural riches we can enjoy as a society is huge. If we are fortunate enough to have been raised in a way that makes us aware of what is out there for us, and confident and affluent enough to take advantage of it, it can change and enrich our lives. If we want to see that the opera house doors are open for others, we need to think very carefully and practically about how this can be done, and remember that everyone who doesn’t buy a ticket will have different reasons for not doing so. To ask them to try it for the first time is to ask for an act of faith – to allow themselves to be carried over the threshold into the opera house foyer, and beyond to the plush seats and mighty proscenium. And of course, that faith doesn’t necessarily need to come from the house’s own advertising. Got a friend or family member who’s never been to the opera? Bet you have. Think they’d trust you enough to let you take them with you? Then there’s their next birthday present sorted. Go on. Don’t try to educate them. Just see if they’re prepared, in the company of a friend, to have a little faith.