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Opera for the People, in London

Some Reviews of the Savoy Opera:

The Barber of Seville (by Tim Ashley, in The Guardian, April 16), 2 of 5 stars

The Marriage of Figaro (by Andrew Clements, in The Guardian, April 19), 3 of 5 stars

'A Strictly Comic Line'—The Savoy Opera's Barber of Seville in London's West End (by Robert Maycock, in The Independent, April 20)

The Marriage of Figaro: Bright, breezy and a bit racy (by Edward Seckerson, in The Independent, April 21), 3 of 5 stars

Snorts and Guffaws (and Ticket Price Wars)—Raymond Gubbay's Savoy Opera Opens in London's West End (by Louise Jury, in The Independent, April 19)

Barberism in the cut-throat world of opera: The Barber Of Seville (by Michael Church, in the Sunday Herald, April 18), 3 of 5 stars

Barber of Seville cuts through class divide (by Stephen Moss, in The Guardian, April 8)

Savoy Theatre
Here is an article (Cosi Fan Cheapo, May 3) by Mark Rice-Oxley in the Christian Science Monitor that, in spite of the truly awful title, I found fascinating (about a month behind the London press, I know). There is a new kid on the block in the London opera scene, a small company called The Savoy Opera that has been trying, since last month, to offer small-scale productions with unknown singers, "to bring opera to the masses by stripping out the pomp, the opulence, and the cost." It is the brainchild of producer Sir Stephen Waley-Cohen and impresario Raymond Gubbay, and they are offering tickets starting at the rock-bottom price of £10 ($18) and, not mentioned in the article, going up to £49.50, according to their Web site. As you can imagine, the official opera world is quaking in its boots, behind that derisive, sneering 'tude:
But critics argue that the Savoy is peddling mediocre fare, with young, unproven singers, spare sets, and an uneven orchestra. They say it will steal audiences—particularly tourists—away from worthier productions at ENO [English National Opera] and dupe people into believing they are seeing the real thing. "It's a good idea—the more opera the better," says John Allison, editor of Opera Magazine. "There is probably room for it in the market. But what's been put on so far is not up to the standard of the ENO," he adds. "The direction in the 'Barber of Seville' is underwhelming, the orchestral playing isn't that great, the casting is mixed."
That is the sound of fear. The Savoy's producer said that they must fill at least half of the seats in their theater—the Savoy Theatre, just off the Strand, home to, it must be noted, the historic productions of many of Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas by Richard D'Oyly Carte's company—to break even. Apparently hoping to quash the new company in a price war, the Royal Opera House has been offering "a limited number of seats for £10—a formidable discount on the £175 top price." Another sort of expert, Ian Kearns, "an occasional opera goer who is associate director of London's Institute for Public Policy Research think tank," says that affordable tickets may not bring in the the ravenous hordes, that "the majority of people shun opera not because of cost but because it has no 'cultural reach' into their lives":
"Research on why people don't attend things like opera, particularly people from lower income groups suggest it's not cost. It's lack of awareness, lack of interest," he says. "This is what you need to counter. People from outside London are simply not going to pay for a bus or train ticket and then line up for a ticket they are not sure they will get, and then have to leave before the final curtain to get home again anyway."
Please note that the Savoy Opera does not receive any of the state funding its competitors do, so it has to run a single production, Monday through Saturday night, with two matinees on Thursday and Saturday afternoons, for a total of eight performances per week. In response to this research about why people avoid opera, I refer you to my recent post (Elitism and the Arts, February 13) about how profits from the British lottery are being used to subsidize arts institutions primarily patronized by the wealthy.

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