"It has to prove it finally knows how to live within its means"by Tom Sutcliffe / March 18, 2016 / Leave a comment
Theatre in London is extremely popular and the floods of tourists from around the world are immensely profitable for major impresarios like Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Musicals, like Phantom of the Opera, can run for decades. So why shouldn’t opera—just another form of musical theatre—test how much the punters will pay? At the annual Glyndebourne Festival Opera, as at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, seats can cost as much as £250 a throw. Given that some operas can sell seats at this price, does the art-form (or indeed any theatre) deserve substantial hand-outs from the public purse?
This question is worth baring in mind when considering the current crisis at English National Opera, owner of the capital’s largest (2,400-seat) theatre, the London Coliseum. But the ENO has for some time been running substantial deficits. This put its competence in question, so in February 2015 Arts Council England cut its subsidy by £5m—a wake-up call administered. This led to cuts in everybody’s earnings at ENO (not just the chorus, which faced contract changes and a slimming down. Their threatened strike was called off and they have agreed a settlement.)
We have been here before. Under Margaret Thatcher in the late 1980s, ENO fell foul of the political feeling that subsidy was bad. ENO was forcefully encouraged to put prices up as far as it could, to test the market, and it has been doing it again for most of the last decade.
On both occasions the result was the same. Increasing ticket prices did not bring in more money. Although top hits sometimes sell out and bring in cash, average attendance has rarely been above 70 per cent at the ENO since it arrived at the Coliseum nearly 50 years ago. Its tickets are still much too expensive. Only 400 tickets for each of its shows cost less than £25 each. As a result of these high prices, there has been serious consumer resistance. Even the capital’s international showcase house at Covent Garden has been marketing itself carefully to ensure seats are filled: sometimes it is now cheaper to go to there than to the Coliseum. ENO’s…