Just in: Under-18s can go free to English National Opera

Just in: Under-18s can go free to English National Opera


norman lebrecht

December 17, 2018

Eager to impress the Arts Council with its outreach credentials (and burdened with rows of empty seats), ENO has announced a free-ticket offer for under-18s at eleven Saturday-night performances, from now until Spring 2019.

Under-16s must be accompanied by a responsible adult.

Any paying adult will be allowed to bring four under-18s for free. Teachers ca bring ten.

More here.



  • Been Here Before says:

    This is a great way to run any business to the ground – charge one group of customers a fee and give away the same product or service to the other group free of charge. The final touch of genius is to publicize the scheme, so that all (potential) customers are aware of it.

    A message to the ENO from a potential customer: I have been thinking about attending one of your operas for a while. However, knowing that there will be a bunch of noisy teenagers in attendance who will not be paying a cent for their tickets, I will definitely spend my GBP 100+ elsewhere.

    That Cressida girl may have been clueless about opera, but at least she knew something about running a business.

  • V.Lind says:

    They’ll love Akhnaten.

    Maybe Man of La Mancha…

    Actually, La Boheme, The Merry Widow and — to some extent — The Magic Flute might appeal to young uninitiates. If they are prepared to give them a try. All reasonably accessible, and variously moving, amusing and magical. Hope it works for them.

    • Stephen Diviani says:

      Man of La Mancha seems a very odd choice and a difficult sell. Hopefully it won’t be ENO losing money on it.

  • Don Fatale says:

    Does this really make any difference or is it posturing and fund hunting? I was concerned that it might affect the opportunity of full price paying customers from obtaining tickets… but frankly it won’t, until they started paying under 18’s to go.

  • anon says:

    I think we just found Cleveland Orchestra’s secret formula to be able to boast that they have the youngest audience in America.

    There are a lot of old(er) folks who love classical music but can’t afford it. Better let those folks in for free than waste free seats on the unappreciative young dragged in by their parents or teachers (10 free student seats per teacher!)

  • Stephen Diviani says:

    There’s a great quote in The Guardian piece from the new English National Opera CEO, Stuart Murphy: ‘We were founded on the belief that opera is for everyone (…) Removing cost as a barrier to entry for under-18s is a seismic leap forward for ENO and for opera as a whole’. Perhaps, although the free seats are in the Gods and the ‘under-18s’ must be accompanied by an adult who must pay full price. It all seems a bit desperate to me, with a touch of virtue signalling thrown in. The main reason for ‘the rows of empty seats’ is that the ticket prices are too expensive and a ‘barrier to entry’ for many punters; it’s one of the main reasons I stopped going to ENO.

    • James Cook says:

      Another reason is the forcing of worthy but unappealing contemporary opera by establishment composers who tick all the boxes and win all the prizes but only a few people actually like

      • Stephen Diviani says:

        There may well be some truth in what you say, but that doesn’t account for not being able to sell out a traditional production of La Boheme at this time of year.

  • Mark Hildrew says:

    ==The main reason for ‘the rows of empty seats’ is that the ticket prices are too expensive and a ‘barrier to entry’ for many punters;

    Yes, well said. This new gimmick is a poor solution

  • Dominic Stafford says:

    The Paul Hamlyn Week did a similar thing for Covent Garden in the 80s and 90s and was hugely successful and transformative.

    I imagine most people posting here have no idea how many tickets an opera company has to give away free, or at vastly reduced prices (for many different reasons), for every single performance.

  • David Rohde says:

    Minus some of the resentful attitudes expressed at the beginning of this thread, I agree with the bulk of the comments that this move is actually very questionable. I’ve seen some of this dynamic play out in the American market, and if all that is achieved is to expose students to the demographic hole among adults in classical music audiences across Anglophone cultures, then it can act as a step backwards. For ENO to call an idea “seismic” that is in fact rather lazy and unimaginative just gets in the way.

    I’m far more impressed – granted, speaking with more authority about the American scene – when I see classical music presenters work hard to integrate and cross-sell their pops (increasingly “rock and pops”) programs with their regular series, when they avoid sterile debates about “new music” in favor of neglected composers from the entire Western Hemisphere of the past 125 years, and when they learn to stop using the patronizing and ambiguous term “young people” in favor of creating an actual contemporary vibe around their concert and opera events (starting with absolutely no pre-show lectures and program inserts about donations!).

    Norman recently had a link to an article by Joe Horowitz that speaks to university programs that go well beyond stereotypical “outreach” and have true relevance in this area. By now I’m far afield of the ENO issue but as a general marketing principle, discount programs that play on perceived or created scarcity compared to time-to-curtain are far better than giveaways. And the very fact that the ENO program, as opposed to one or two others cited by the Guardian, is specifically reserved for Saturday night sends a particularly strange message. I can understand the rationalization that regular weeknights aren’t the best for school students, but that alone is the kind of subtle concession that serious culture isn’t meant to be a part of people’s daily lives that can sabotage the entire project.

    • Michael Volpe says:

      At OHP we have three ‘accessible’ tickets schemes – free tickets for 7-18, free tickets for 65+ (coordinated with local age related charities to help reach financially challenged individuals) and our Inspire £20 tickets. These are all available at every performance. In total they represent about 11-12% of each house. So I won’t criticise ENO for offering access like this. You can argue the context in their case – general ticket prices across their house, subsidy etc. – but having done this for twelve years, we are hardly likely to slam them for the concept.

      I wonder if it really matters that this might – as some have suggested – be a house papering exercise? If they have unused seats then why not give some of them to potential future audiences? I see lots of people talking about business models of opera companies but not many of them seem to understand it quite as well as they think.

      As for discounts, these are – and have been for ENO in particular – damaging to the industry. If a house can factor in discounts or differential pricing (Members and non-Members for example) then fine but we made a decision four years ago that we would never discounts shows and as such people at least know there is little point waiting. Of course, if you ‘over-price’ to begin with then you may find yourself in difficulties – but the real problem has come when moderately priced shows are then discounted to fill seats. The cultural industry has educated audiences to wait and to expect to pay prices that are too low. In the UK this is especially the case and opera audiences must expect to pay a fair price for an expensive product. What that price is depends on how you see your company and your product; VFM is always a good starting point and to some degree, this is the issue ENO are battling with and which has led to scepticism of this scheme; a little unfairly I would suggest because it is not in fact related – it’s an outreach scheme. And this is relevant because in the UK, lots of discount ticketing schemes (including our £20 tickets) are used by opera fans rather than newbies/explorers, and the exposure of our young people at an early age to the lyric arts in particular is extremely patchy at best. Enabling very young children and their parents to explore the artform is a link in the chain of all the work many of us do in schools and with schools matinees etc. And is actually one way of ensuring that we are identifiably reaching new audiences, albeit very young ones.

      • Stephen Diviani says:

        Fascinating post, thank you. What a minefield! Oh for the days of decent public funding and ENO’s general standby, available just before the performance, which is how I could afford to see so many productions during the glorious ‘Powerhouse’ years. I lived in the West End, so the system of standbys worked for me, but didn’t work for the punters who needed to book in advance because of work commitments and/or travel. Still, the Coliseum was always full and had a buzz about it. Mais où sont les neiges d’antan? and all that……………….

        • Michael Volpe says:

          Here are some stats from our 2017 scheme

          The average age of the children from the written responses were between 10-13 years old (50%). Roughly 10% were between 14 and 16. There were none under the age of 8.
          • Most of the children heard about the scheme through their teacher (23.1%). The next biggest result was from the Royal Borough (17.3%). Other popular answers were: the OHP website, the OHP brochure and family members.
          • 70.6% of the children had seen between 1-5 operas before. 21.6% had never been to the opera before.
          • For 42% of attendees, it was the first time they had been to OHP
          • 55.8% had been to the opera before on the scheme (so coming back!)
          • 77.4% of the children found the whole experience & enjoyment factor to be “very enjoyable” (the highest rating)
          • 98.1% of the children would visit a production of an opera again in any theatre
          • Finally, 96% of the children felt like they understood the opera

      • David Rohde says:

        Thank you for that thoughtful response, Mr. Volpe. Context is everything, as you recognize. I’m struck by how the page of ticket plans you posted above for Opera Holland Park (as you know, in American English “scheme” has an unavoidably negative connotation) follows a progression you wouldn’t really see in the US. In many American situations the opera and classical audience is already half 65+ and three-quarters 55+ if not more so. If you just throw up your hands and say “kids under 18 free!” then what you’re doing is subtly demonstrating to students when you bring them in that attending opera and classical concerts is not a normal adult activity. I know the rationalization that “if we just get them there by any means, somebody will be inspired for a lifetime” and yes, that does happen. But that’s too individual and isolated a reaction to justify the risks and failure to put in more comprehensive work on overall demographics.

        I actually agree with you about discounts as you present it. So let me put more context into what I meant by adding the idea of “time-to-curtain,” thus implicitly comparing opera tickets to airlines and hotels (however distasteful that may be!). I recognize that how this plays out depends entirely on the perception of the overall demand for tickets from that presenter of opera or concerts. This is one of the reasons that, unlike other participants here, I don’t mind Norman’s harping on the audience statistics and often embarrassing seatmaps at the Metropolitan Opera. What happens now is that the Met’s first instinct if you dare to become a new audience member is to set a telemarketer on you demanding donations. I’ve had friends from the very vibrant musical theater community in Washington (where I am) do what I suggest the Met has to target – the hordes of crowds at Broadway theaters who need to be enticed just once during a multi-show “theater trip” to head uptown to Lincoln Center instead – and their reward is that deadly lecture from somebody they don’t know about how ticket prices only cover a fraction of the Met’s costs. It’s a giant turnoff and a huge disincentive to returning to the opera, and they’ve said so on social media. You can see the negative feedback loop that’s developed, and the point is that the whole context of discounting is just one of many things that change based on the basic cultural health of the organization.

        Stephen Diviani’s reply here speaks to this a bit as well, although I also note his complaint about public funding. While I don’t disagree, I have to say that in the American context, as soon as I hear whining about the National Endowment for the Arts I know that we’re not going to make any progress in the discussion. I’m not knocking it – I myself have performed in shows and institutions that receive some NEA and state-level support – but I just find that automatically reaching for this complaint can be a barrier to discussing the core cultural issues that critically affect these marketing decisions.

        • Michael Volpe says:

          Interesting reply David
          Let me address the under 18’s point. We have a sort of tagline that we try to make the extraordinary, ordinary. We don’t present operas to young people in a vernacular style for example. You may have seen this film I made…which despite the title explains a bit of our philosophy https://youtu.be/coz6CUlXi38

          The core message isn’t ‘try opera, you need opera in your life’ but more try something that you’d never imagine in order to spread your wings more generally in life. Our schemes offer a progression – a ladder for those who may latch onto the art form. The young people in the film have since said many times that they just feel able to try any kind of cultural pursuit. You see, in the UK this is the first battle we have to fight. We all follow quite strict guidlines about equality of access and these schemes help provide that for sure. Many donors want to see us doing it too. We know many people using it simply cannot afford to introduce their children to opera under normal circumstances – at keast £2-300 for a family. It is high risk! We know of many families who brought their children, not knowing how they would react, but now bring them on normal ticketing as they have grown past the age of qualification. It works.

          I understand the aggressive fundraising can turn people off for sure. We all do it in one level or another but our membership schemes offer real, tangible rewards and are moving away from ‘donation’ to more loyalty programme.

          Flexible pricing – I modelled, four years ago, a system for us to introduce based on quite strict formulae and not disimilar to airlines. We decided against it as times changed and we reconsidered our strtaegy to introduce more rewarding loyalty packages – the time needed to operate it without a hugely expensive system that did all the algorithms for you was a bit of a turn off anyway. We of course are a seasonal festival, not a year round theatre so our focus is slightly different to nationally funded, full time house and what you say about creative pricing is all true. We take the view that we get the pricing correct in the first place and believe in its value. It is an extremely sensitive issue right now given how profoundly audiences have changed their behaviours in recent years. We run at 98% so we are getting something right!

          • David Rohde says:

            Michael, I want to acknowledge your reply and thank you for the conversation. Based on your data here and the follow-up thread that Norman started, it has to be noted that to some extent we’re talking about different scenarios. You have succeeded in making the sale to families who are already inclined to want to go to the opera but are concerned about the cost given that they presumably need three or four tickets or more. From that standpoint, I suppose it doesn’t really matter whether the child’s price is technically zero or not since what does matter is the overall cost to the adults who are buying the tickets. I’m primarily talking about the effect of outreach programs where organizations pat themselves on the back for bringing in “young people” for whom opera wasn’t on their radar at all, but in doing so expose a demographic hole in their audiences. Following that up with a further commitment to opera, or classical music in general, is not an easy proposition when the students do not see relatively younger adults modeling opera attendance as a regular, paying activity.

            A clarification about the point regarding the Met’s telemarketing: I have no objection to “aggressive” fundraising. In fact this website often discusses the challenges of “development” or “advancement” or whatever term is current now, and reports news on the most capable people to run these operations, which is absolutely important. My problem with what the Met is doing is not how aggressive it is, it’s how UNIVERSAL it is. The mere act of going to the opera there makes you a “mark” for donations, and in the negative feedback loop I described, the worse the audience statistics, the more desperate this seems to become. This is exactly the wrong thing to do, and delivering lectures about what ticket prices cover trivializes the serious investment of money and time that people on the margins of enthusiasm for opera make in finally deciding to go to this famous opera house. I believe that can have serious negative consequences no matter what deficit is staring the Met in the face this or any other year.

  • Saxon Broken says:

    The main issue at the ENO is that English language opera rather than using the original language is past its sell-by date. This is especially true in such a cosmopolitan city as London.