Outrage at Covent Garden chairman’s elitist remarks

Introducing the ROH’s new day-long bars and shops, the oil magnate Ian Taylor told an ES interviewer:

‘I had a real desire to knock out all this elitism … we want to make clear that what we offer is still really top quality, that we are not in any way dumbing down the programme. But I want everybody to feel they can come here and enjoy the ballet and opera as much as they want to, or nor at all.’

Not a particularly controversial remark. But it has provoked fury among regular attenders.

One example from www.balletcoforum:

Dear Mr Taylor:

We’ve never met but you can look me up in your database if you feel the need.  I’ve just done a rough tally and see I’ve spent more than £12,000 on ROH tickets in the past five years.  Your restaurants and bars have had a good innings, too: about £10,000 over the same period.  Now that may be an insignificant little sum to a mam who ‘made his many millions in oil and gas commodities,’ but to me it is a considered choice to forgo other pleasures and put my disposable income into the Arts.  That would be your Arts,Mr. Taylor, ballet and opera at the ROH.

Now many would consider me  a valued customer and I say this not because of the amount I spend but because of the regularity of my spending.with the organisation of which you are Chairman.  But according to tonight’s Evening Standard, I’ve got that all wrong.  It would seem I am part of the despised elite which you are ‘determined to knock out.’ …

It’s about pleasing most of the customers most of the time, Mr T.

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  • Unfortunately “elitism” is part of the customer base. People do go to performances, restaurants, etc. – to say that they were there, and share it on social media – and not necessarily because they know good singing/playing, or can tell what good cuisine is. But you have to be thankful for everyone who buys a ticket, for whatever reason. And maybe they will eventually develop an ear, and find out why the expensive seat was really worth it.

  • Why do arts organisations in the UK have this strange idea that you are overcoming elitism if you can get people to wander in off the street to buy a coke, a bowl of soup, or just get out of the rain?

    It only works if they decide to buy a ticket but I’m not sure that many actually do. Never mind though, it makes the place look democratic (whatever that means in this case) and presumably pleases the Arts Council.

  • No, that’s not necessarily controversial, although the paragraph is odd. Why would he be so pleased that people could visit & essentially spend no money on what the ROH actually has to offer (surely his priorities should be to the paying customers)? I guess it’s useful to know where the free toilet facilities are if you get caught short though…

    Also, why say he’s determined to knock out elitism but in the same article state that the Ring Cycle prices were too cheap? Bizarre. FYI there absolutely weren’t 31% of seats available under £30 for The Ring. I think I could stand with an extremely poor view for £52 (or £13 per performance). That was the cheapest. The next band was quite a bit more. The reason it sold so quickly was likely due to demand. I had friends who hadn’t attended the ROH in years getting excited over this.

    I think the annoyed responses are also linked to an article Lucy Sinclair did for Arts Professional, in which she stated that regular attendees should decrease because they weren’t spending enough on seats. Essentially making frequent visitors feel unwanted.
    This is now the second article to insinuate seats are too cheap, as well.

    I read both articles & the comments on the balletcoforum & have to agree with the posters on there. Very odd to alienate your most loyal customers.

    • “Why would he be so pleased that people could visit & essentially spend no money on what the ROH actually has to offer (surely his priorities should be to the paying customers)?”

      I think the idea is that revenue from the shops & restaurants benefits the ROH, so people coming in just to shop &/or eat is good for the bottom line. If they also attend a performance, then so much the better.

  • That customer completely misread his statement and overreacted.. so much so I had to re-read a few times to confirm we were reading the same statement.

    Nothing at all wrong with his statement – it doesn’t state that those who currently go are necessarily elitists, but rather he wants to eradicate the elitism that is often perceived to be attached to the ballet (and opera, orchestra, etc)

  • The author of the quoted comment seems to be trying hard to be offended. I certainly don’t take Taylor’s comments to be critical or even unappreciative of committed supporters of the ROH. There is something of an air of elitism about the ROH and its audience, simply as a result of the fact that tickets are expensive. I’m not sure if there are people not going because they perceive it as elitist, but if making it clear that anyone that buys a ticket is welcome results in some new audience members, what’s wrong with that?

  • First of all, Taylor’s remarks were not elitist, but anti-elitist, and the reader’s response was not outrage but common sense.

    Let me just add that I happily spend on the ROH tickets because it is the exact opposite of the Southbank Centre. Contrary to what some on this forum think, opera is not a democratic art form. It is a luxury good, like caviar and Armani suits.

    I will gladly spend my disposable income on these tickets so that I can enjoy an evening listening to world class performers in a civilized environment. Ian Taylor definitely gets it wrong – the ROH should be made even more elitist, not less.

    • The problem with that sentiment is that opera is supported by an arts grant (it certainly isn’t fully funded by ticket and restaurant revenue). If you want to continue to go to the opera, then you need to persuade those funding it to continue to subsidize it. Ultimately, it is funded by taxpayers, and the politicians who make the decisions on their behalf want to be elected. Hence opera has to have more than “elite appeal”, or at least pretend it does.

  • Most ordinary folk don’t go to the ROH because they don’t bloody well like opera, nothing to do with the old chestnut of “elitism.” They will pay top buck for concerts by Springsteen, The Stones, U2, Radiohead and the like, so it is often not a matter of cost. Opera (of which I am a fan……well most of it) is a minority interest, always has been, always will be, so stop this old war cry of bringing opera to the masses, it won’t work!

  • I read the article. This seems like a very strange reaction to some very reasonable remarks. To be offended by the idea that the company wants to increase revenue by making its public spaces more open to the general public (not just ticket-buyers) is strange to me. I’d think that anyone who likes the ballet & opera would be in favor of the ROH trying to get itself onto a better financial footing, especially since government arts funding seems to be on the decline everywhere.

    Reading the comments on balletcoforum, though, (here’s a link to the actual post + replies: http://www.balletcoforum.com/topic/18875-dear-mr-taylor/ ), it’s clear that there’s some history of regular non-wealthy audience members being subject to dismissive remarks by the higher-ups in the ROH’s administration.

    It’s true that bean counters have limited use for people who don’t provide a lot of beans, and since performing arts companies famously make only a small portion of their budget from ticket sales, people who don’t do anything but buy tickets are not worth much, even though they’re ostensibly the reason for the company’s (and the art form’s) continued existence. I thought most ticket-buyers knew this… but then again, I thought most bean-counters had better manners than to say it out loud in interviews.

    • Bruce, thank you very much for taking the trouble to check this story out carefully. A number of people here have been misled by Norman Lebrecht’s summary: the outraged reaction (of many people, incidentally, not only the one quoted) was not just to a short “statement” by the Chairman of the Royal Opera House (as several people here claim) but to a two-page foot-in-mouth own-goal interview with the man. One sincerely hopes this Chairman went off piste and spoke out of turn, or, like many successful businessmen, is a clumsy speaker who makes a mess of his sentences when not parroting jargon. If Taylor meant what he is quoted as saying, God save the Royal Opera.

      Like you I recommend looking at the comment thread you link to, and which Lebrecht drew from, if only as this has some interesting remarks – by, well, me actually – about the Arts Council (the largest “customer” of the Royal Opera by far) and the anti-artistic agenda this body is currently forcing on to arts organisations in England. This seems to be the trap Taylor finds himself inside, which may be an explanation for his contradictory and lumpish remarks.

  • It’s somewhat bewildering to read about a Chairman of the ROH, who, it seems, “did not listen to much opera” previously and now wants to do away with elitism at the house. What on earth is he on about? The food and drink is on the expensive side, but there’s nothing elitist about the seating : you get what you pay for. Maybe there are no cheap seats with a good view of the stage but there are cheap seats (and cheaper standing, although nothing to compare to Vienna)and if you are prepared to pay a bit more and become a Friend or Supporting Friend you can usually get what you want and it’s up to you how much you are prepared to pay for a better view of the stage. What’s elitist about that?

    Will opening the house to the world make much difference? For some time now there have been kids, often students, enjoying the facilities at the Barbican/Festival Hall/National Theatre. They work, socialise and even hold meetings : good luck to them. But do they go on to see the shows?

  • I am not yet a regular opera-goer (I tend to spend more time and money at the Wigmore), but on the occasions when I have been to Covent Garden, I have really felt the sense of excitement and purpose that comes with being inside a building where *everybody* is there for the opera. As others have commented, the ambience at the Barbican and the Southbank is ruined by the horde of people with laptops there for the free wi-fi and free charging points.

    I am gradually taking a greater interest in opera as I grow older, and hope that, by the time I become a regular opera-goer, Covent Garden will still have that sense of excitement and purpose. Or will such a wonderful ambience become confined to the Edinburghs (there was an absolutely superlative concert performance of /Siegfried/ at the Usher Hall back in August), Aixs, and Salzburgs?

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