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BBC Today presenter: ‘Opera is one of the least watched art forms in the world’

That’s Sarah Montague’s intro to a hard talk interview with Thomas Hampson. I could name ten less-watched.

Ms Montague goes on to say that ‘the only people really watching opera are the richest, most educated in the world’.

Where does she get these clichés? Has she ever been to opera? She proceeds to quote some selective and specious statistics. Tom H does his best at rebuttal, but someone needs to give Ms Montague a really hard time on this issue. A stiffish memo from Tony Hall?
sarah montague

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  1. Where does she get these clichés from? Well, not from her Today colleague James Naughtie, that’s for sure! How very disappointing! Does she not even know and has no one told her how much – or rather how little – the Prommers paid for their tickets to five major operatic events last week in London (even though these were concert performances)?

  2. Opera, and now Theatre beamed to cinemas across the world has surely resulted in an increase in the number of people listening to and enjoying opera. Would be interested to know what those attendance numbers are worldwide.

    • I was thinking the same thing – it’s as if she’s utterly unaware of the cinemacasts.

      • I think you will find Sarah Montague knows about opera on the big screen, given the publicity that we have jn England at least. You can’t miss it as it’s all over the underground stations – and she certainly uses the underground, and not relying on a private chauffeur.

        • This woman is not only uninformed, she is rude and hostile and clearly doesn’t feel comfortable with
          someone as direct as Thomas Hampson. She has done more to undermine lmy trust in the last vestiges of British journalism than anyone else I can remember. Take a hike, Sarah Montague, and I hope you get lost.

          • Which woman are we talking about :) Me or Sarah or both:) Either way not a nice comment to make, and I am leaving this blog as it’s getting really silly.

            Good night to you all, and thanks for the initial fun, but I have better things to do – like learn my music for the next concert :)

    • Rosalind says:

      Christopher Bell, I was going to mention last year’s Grant Park Music Festival concert featuring acts from Cosi fan tutte and Der Rosenkavalier, remembering the cultural diversity of the thousands of people who turned up to watch and listen to…. OPERA…. I remember vividly walking back to my hotel afterwards and overhearing comments from so many people from so many different walks of life and cultures who’d all had a great evening. Ms Montague would have been totally shocked, SHOCKED I tell you!!

      Sad to see BBC broadcasting such tripe. Norman, any chance of getting you on the same programme to provide a response to this?

    • I live in Yorkshire, but come from London. You have to queue to get into the National Theatre when shown on the screen, but not for the opera from New York, which only has a handful of people in the National Media Museum, which by the way was threatened with closure. Same very small attendance in Stratford East London when I used to go, but not the cinema at Notting Hill. Opera North is far from full when I’ve been there. I don’t thing Sarah Montague is talking about Proms or excerpts, but your general opera attendance. In general I am inclined to agree with her up to a point, and I don’t think she is totally out of touch for Britain. I think the scene in New York from what I’ve seen at the Met live is a different ball game where you don’t have the class system. There is a lot of ‘corporate entertaining’ at Grant Park and these newly sprung up places that do operas. But I respect that fact that most of you won’t agree with me!

      • Huh? No class system here???

      • Una Barry… I think you are possibly mixing up Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago with somewhere else (Grange Park Opera?). Rosalind is referring to GPMF, a large outdoor music festival on the lakeshore in Millennium Park Chicago. The concert she was talking about was one featuring excerpts of operas (large chunks as opposed to single arias/duets etc) and as it was a rather nice summer’s evening there will have been a pretty large crowd there.

        Remarkably, its a largely free concert series with free lawn ‘seating/picnicking’ for up to 9000 and free actual seating for 2000. Additional 2000 reserved seating for members who pay a relatively small amount to support the festival which has 32 concerts this year of 21 separate programmes. Fully professional orchestra and 100 voice professional chorus. The festival is funded c 50% by the City of Chicago Park District, 25% by memberships and 25% by sponsorship.

        There is no corporate entertaining at GPMF – the odd low key reception (perhaps there will be bigger things at some later point as GPMF begins/needs to expand its fundraising scope).

        Corporate entertaining of course goes on right across the spectrum. I’m thinking of Wimbledon, Formula 1, Rugby Internationals, as well as Opera, Ballet, Theatre Companies and orchestral concerts. Like it or not, its the world we live in, and as artists we are having to get used to it, and certainly in the USA where there is less state support for arts organisations.

        Appreciate this is not entirely relevant to the thread topic here – Opera, expensive, elitist etc – but was wanting to explain Grant Park’s position (which is pretty unique and a great Chicago institution…) a sort of FYI post …

    • Marshall says:

      I’d like to see some figures on whether there is an increase in opera attendance, and if new people are going to it. I tend to doubt it. It seems the people who go to the HD broadcasts in the US are the regular aging group that go to opera and classical music in general. In fact, most of the HD attendees I’ve heard of and read about and seen, would have listened to the Sat. Met radio before. Addtionally, and this is from Gelb, many opera goers within striking distance of NYC are not going to the Met, but watcing the broadcasts instead-resulting in lower attendance.

      I would like it to be otherwise, but all I ever see is a sea of gray or no hair when I attend any kind of “classical” music in the US. I really wonder if this is going to survive?

      • The “sea of gray” phenomenon is one that we frequently hear about. I’d go so far as to say that we’ve been hearing about it for several generations now. I think the explanation for it is that people who enjoy music, and who are curious about music, will continue to broaden their horizons and try new and more sophisticated types of music as they grow older. I know of no one over the age of 50 who keeps up with the latest rock bands, and very few who are still listening to the bands they did thirty years ago. If they really like music, they’ve moved on to something else, and become more selective, more critical, and more sophisticated, whether they’re listening to rock, jazz, classical, or something else. Because we are no longer taught about classical music in school, and because it isn’t considered “cool”, most of us don’t really discover it until much later in life. So, the art form will likely always have a new gray-haired audience ready to come along, and it will probably never be popular with young people who need to fit in with their peers and reject their parents’ values, but when those same young people are free of those needs, but still have their curiosity about music, they may well come to love opera when their hair goes gray.

        • Marshall says:

          Interesting interpretation-that people grow more musically sophisticated as they age. I was thinking that classcial music people being more serious accept grey, and don’t color their hair. But seriously, there must be some hard figures out there?

          I just don’t agree that we’ve been hearing the sea of grey for generations now. It was not the case when I went to opera/concerts when I was younger. There simply was much more of a cross section of ages. with a new generation coming on-and I used to see more children being taken by their families- that is so rare today. The people I knew who were “serious” about rock for much of their lives, may not listen to the newest, but they certainly listen to the same music of their youth, certainly didn’t get into classical, and their tastes in other typres of music are not more sophisticated.

          You’re right that classical music no longer has any place in, at least, American schools-and I see no reason to think that free of peer pressure and their parents they will go on to other forms. That’s a bit dated-since their parents are not classical music fans in most cases anyway. Sorry to be so negative, but given the walkers, wheelchairs and truly elderly I see, and the almost absolute lack of anyone under 50, I truly fear for the future I wonder if much of this will even be left for the rest fo my lifetime-seeing the changes that have intensified in just the last decade. The cause is very deep, and in the nature of the the consumer society, and its values, that has infested everything.

          • Well, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the older members of today’s audiences were listening to swing and rock and roll when they younger, and wouldn’t have dreamed of going to the opera. Since popular music became associated with youthful abandon by the conservative set in the 1920s, classical music has in turn been viewed by youth as being “establishment”. In fact, I’m sure that a lot of people come to classical music in attempt to ingratiate themselves with the establishment culture, and sadly, I’ve heard people speak of going to the opera as if it were a duty. Of course, these people are not the curious listeners I was writing about.

            I do think that people who are truly interested in music, and are curious about it, are open to listening to new musical styles when they are exposed to them, and quite often find them interesting, enjoyable, and worth pursuing. If they don’t try opera it’s probably because of this idea that it’s elitist.

            People spend a lot of money for rock concerts and Broadway musicals, and even more for sporting events, so it isn’t the expense of opera that’s keeping people away. I saw my first opera on television when I was in high school, and I enjoyed it so much that I continued to tune in for every telecast, and to the Saturday afternoon broadcasts, and I bought records. However, I never thought I could possibly afford to attend a live opera, primarily because people like this newscaster perpetuated the myth that it was “too expensive” and “elitist”. Years later I found out that there were student rush seats available, and even when there weren’t, it was still easy to find a ticket that I could afford. Not everyone there was wealthy, though even then, most of the serious opera-goers were over 50.

            I think the Cinema broadcasts are the best chance of reaching a broader audience, creating new fans of opera, and giving the art a more populist appeal. People who think it’s too expensive and elitist are less likely to balk at going to a movie theater, and they might even find that they enjoy it enough to go to another broadcast, or even to buy a CD. Opera companies are certainly working harder than ever to reach these people. I still think there’s hope.

          • “Since popular music became associated with youthful abandon by the conservative set in the 1920s, classical music has in turn been viewed by youth as being ‘establishment’. In fact, I’m sure that a lot of people come to classical music in attempt to ingratiate themselves with the establishment culture.”

            Joel, you’ve just put your finger on what is (imho) the root cause of the entire much-discussed crisis of classical music and its relevance to the wider culture.

            Ever since the youth culture revolution of the ’60s, classical music has been uncool. (This is hardly news.) As a result – especially because classical music was identified with “the establishment” – for many, many people it became something of a badge of honor to reject classical music. After all, Beethoven is dead, man. (“So’s Hendrix,” was my reply, back in my teens, when my young peers said that to me.)

            So it makes sense that the Bang on a Can folks and their musical offspring are the growth area in the classical sector (to use business talk); they were anti-establishment, or rather counter-establishment, from the beginning. (Well, until they started winning Pulitzers.)

            And maybe it also makes sense that the Los Angeles Philharmonic (which plays a good deal more contemporary music than most of its peers) seems so healthy. As Esa-Pekka Salonen once observed, in L.A., classical music is the counterculture.

        • Marshall says:

          I don’t want to respond point by point to your reply-but there is a lot of wishful thinking there. The toruble with this thread is that no one (to some degree including myself) has done a little research on attendance, sell outs, average age.(The met has figures and at least with subscription holders it was something like 60)

          How do you know that people who listened to pop and rock-work their way into “better” forms as they age. Anecdotally I find that completely untrue. They listen to the same, and what is worse it becomes nostalgia-why old rock groups survive, and in the US new groups who sing like the old thrive.

          The people who spend money on pop/rock, not to mention the enormous expense on sports-why would they spend the same on culture-that’s missing the whold point. I think attending live opera/concerts etc. has become very expensive-but mroe than the seats its conentrated in a few cities in the US-which means if you don’t live there you must travel and spend enormous amounts for hotels etc. I have no problem with $200 Met opera seats-it’s the hotel, food, travel that kills me.

          I think the “average” person has little curiosity about anything-particularly something like art-and the elitist/wealthy appeal of it, which at least dragged somepeople to it is even gone. The visual arts have a larger appeal-they are less time consuming-and cinema-but honestly the appeal of serious film (except for the rare exception when popular and quality cross) is almost as small as opera.

          HD. cinema opera-as I’ve said I think is preaching to the choir. The people who go to them, are largely people who go to opera, and now they can see instead of just listen-but rather than a major trip to NYC they can go to a fairly local TV theater and munch on popcorn while they see the opera. This is a fact-that the Met has detirmined that they are losing in house attendance because of metropolitan area HD venues-and people particularly older find it so much easier and cheaper. I personally have some issues with HD broadcasts-whatever they are doing to bring new people to opera-and that remains to be seen. The volume is a distortion of the human voice-in some venues totally out of control-in general so much louder than these vocies would sound in even an opera hosue much smaller than the Met. Why “pretty” singers with small, pretty voices are so big today. (this yr. I was at a Met HD of Parsifal, and for one act I had to put tissues in my ears it was so loud) Also, as with cinema it becomes a directo’s medium-what you see, how you see it, what is considered important is the directo’s call. Are closeups-that close-really good? The Met and other opera houses may just become giant TV studios-with the live audience an after thought.

          Again, not wanting to be negative, but you have to find statistics to prove me wrong-otherwise it’s just wishful thinking.

        • Derek Castle says:

          Well, Joel, two of my best friends, who are 56 and 62 respectively, and whom I would regard as well-versed in ‘popular’ music, show absolutely no inclination to progress to ‘classical’ music. They spend considerable amounts of money going to hear the aging Mark Knopfler, Bob Dylan, etc. and the aged Leonard Cohen, but never once got bitten by the bug, as I did at the age of 13, almost exclusively through the radio, of Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky….
          Whenever I go to Symphony Hall, Birmingham, and so often see hundreds of empty seats, it makes me sad that England’s second largest city (plus huge environs) cannot fill this magnificent venue. Ticket prices cannot be the issue; there are standby tickets for the less well-off, and students – of whom there a great number, including so-called ‘music students’ – can get in for almost nothing. The ‘sea of grey’ (I’ll put my cards on the table – I’m 71) is there for all to see. Very few people under the age of 50, hardly any under

          • Just went to the Glimmerglass Opera in beautiful upstate NY. A fine performance of the Dutchman.

            The audience was a sea of gray, with a goodly number of truly elderly. (when does that begin) Obviously I didn’t do a survey, but were very, very few people who appeared in their 40′s or even early 50′s. Younger than that were so rare they immediately caught your eye. The only truly young people worked for the company. Matinees, which dominate their schedule are even more full of seniors.

            They have tickets as low as $26, very reasonable for a fully staged opera with orchestra. The company offers special discounts for any one under 18-as low as $10. I saw no one attending who appeared to be that age.

            Given the closings and lack of gov’t funding for the arts everywhere-especially in the US-it will be very interesting to see what happens in the next 20 years-as this group becomes elderly.

    • FCinGreece says:

      Hi Chris, Here in Greece we have regular screenings of the Met in parks and theatres. At first we thought that it might reduce the audiences in the National Opera but we just finished 4 performances of Madama Butterfly with a total audience of 20,000 (yes, twenty thousand) and standing ovations of over 15 minutes for each. So this ‘popularisation’ is a good thing. I was more shocked at the persistence of this woman rather than at the material she was using. And kudos points to T.H. for taking it on the chin in such a civilized manner.

  3. Gary Carpenter says:

    Talk about provincial.

  4. My background is far from rich. And it’s never rose much above minimum wage. Yet for the past thirty years I have been going to opera. I once hitched from Leeds to Brighton to see a production of Shostakovich’s The Nose.

    Through those years I’ve introduced many mates to opera and even when I started going the cliche about opera being for the rich was a dead duck.

    Is this the quality of presenter that the BBC employ? Maybe I’ll apply for a job their because they must want someone with an IQ higher than a sheep.

    • ENO is affordable – I took 52 people to Madam Butterfly once, and continued to run an opera club with a three course meal and a glass of wine, and the ticket for £50 but they were all educated people of a sort, and none of my East End neighbours and friends would come, even if it were free – even less if I were singing in anything :)

      • “and none of my East End neighbours and friends would come, even if it were free”

        Reminds me of growing up in Bradford and the aggressive philistinism in some quarters. Free tickets but no curiosity whatsoever!

        • Yes, I live very near Bradford now. People have a conception about opera in these places, and it’s must not their thing. I even got told by my neighbours that it was ‘middle class crap”. I think America is very different.

          • It sounds like there’s a certain pride in their rejection of opera, as if even considering checking it out would somehow be treason against their tribe.

            You’re right, Una, I think that particular mindset is something most Americans don’t understand.

          • Dan Filson says:

            Opera is one of the few art forms where exposure to one single opera (it has to be the right one, in English and in the right context, e.g. with comfortable seats and not surrounded by tut-tutting snobs dismayed at metaphorical parka jackets in among the dinner jackets .i.e I wouldn’t recommend the Royal Opera House for first-time opera-goers) can hook someone by virtue of making their spirit soar in the way other art forms cannot.

          • “I think America is very different.”

            The bits I know well – Fort Worth and Sacramento (I have family there) don’t seem that different. There are those who go to classical performances at the Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, and those who wouldn’t be seen dead there. Very much a social thing.

          • Dan Filson:

            Agree that the right opera in the right circumstances can hook someone almost like a drug. However, I don’t recognise the ROH audience you describe, gala performances aside.

      • Not any more its not, or at least not unless you wait for the myriad special offers for tickets they have failed to sell at full price. ENO’s top price tickets are now over £100 and grossly overpriced for its target audience.

        For example, tickets for Wozzeck (with Mattila and Keenlyside) at Covent Garden next season will be about half the price that ENO were charging for Wozzeck earlier this year.

        • The last time I went to see Wozzeck at ROH, it cost me £6. They were giving the tickets away az the place was half empty. Puccini, and you can’t get in – £160 if you’re lucky. Wozzeck is far from most people ‘s cup of tea.

          • Dan Filson says:

            I got a ticket for Puccini at the Hackney Empire at a good deal less than £160 – shop around! The Royal Opera House is after all one of the world senior opera venues – you would not expect popular operas to be cheap there, any more than tickets for the Rolling Stones.

        • As for ENO prices, I can get a discount so able to run the £50 package, including meal and wine. If they don’t like the opera, they’ll have had a decent meal for sure! But.opera in English, arming them with a fun storyline makes a lot of difference. So much snobbery that it puts so many off.

    • Denis Joe, you must go see the cinemacast of the Met’s production of The Nose this fall (October 26). It is Brilliant.

  5. Where is she coming from??? She really doesn’t know her facts!!! I’d love her to face up to Sir Peter Jonas on Hardtalk and ask him such banal questions and make such sweeping, uninformed and factually wrong statements. The BBC ought to take her to task, and her researchers as well. Such ignorance does no service to the BBC’s reputation as a cultural flagship!!! Disgraceful!

    • Sir Peter Jonas? I’d like her to ask Tony Hall these questions! He’s the one who introduced low-price ticket schemes at the ROH.

      • But ROH is still very expensive and often sold out – except for Gloriana, which was cheaper. A seat in the Amphitheatre was £46. Now I find that expensive, particularly when it wasn’t all that good!

  6. Gary Carpenter says:

    ’1857 was the first premiere’! When was the second?

    • Emil Archambault says:

      1881, when Simon Boccanegra was presented in the revised version, reworked by Verdi with Arrigo Boito…
      Simon Boccanegra (like Don Carlo) is one of the few operas to have had ‘two’ (or more) premieres…

  7. “BBC HardTalk is one of the least watched television programmes in the world. The only people watching are those stuck in a hotel bedroom with a choice between Fox News or BBC HardTalk.” – fixed that for you.

    But seriously, as you well know Norman, she should check out my statistics! – Todmorden could hardly be classified as one of the “richest, most educated” parts of the world and we filled a good sized theatre with people from that town for 3 nights to watch a contemporary full scale opera with all the bells and whistles. So there!

    P.S. highlights video now up at – a better watch than Ms Montague trying to be controversial if I say so myself :-)

  8. he amazing thing was how Mr. Hampson remained so polite. My hat’s off to him.

  9. Michael says:

    I just tweeted this to Ms Montague. “Opera is one of the least watched art forms in the world” – sources please or is it just badly-researched headline-grabbing? Unless she can come back with some reasonable response to the storm she has created, I’m afraid she will have seriously dented her credibility – for good.

    Can anyone please tell me if the interview is worth 20-odd minutes of my time or will it just make my blood boil?

    • I suspect you should have watched the interview before tweeting, rather than accept Norman’s rather inaccurate, IMO, precis of it. I’ll give you a little snippet – Thomas Hampson talks about the added layer of understanding you can gain from doing a bit of homework (not precisely his words). Why should you be asking others to do your homework for you? I recommend you watch the interview and make up your own mind.

      • All I took from NL’s introduction was his quote which I was and am happy to take as accurate and my point was whether or not a respected news reporter from a world-respected news organisation had any serious basis for the quoted words before putting them before Thomas Hampson, one of opera’s most respected performers. I did not need to watch the programme to make that point.

        As to my request as to whether or not I should watch it, it was hardly a question of “asking others to do [my] homework”. I was asking if – despite the very shallow quotes reproduced by NL – there was nevertheless an interesting programme worth watching. I do an enormous amount of homework in connection with my personal and professional interests: I have always been happy to accept recommendations as to what research might or might not be worthwhile, but – as in this case – try to refrain on making comments on material I have not reviewed.

        • In which case, I highly recommend you watch the interview. It didn’t make my blood boil in the slightest – in fact, once put into context, which in my view was very well put, the quotes make perfect sense and give the correct space for a “justification” (I’m not sure it’s quite the word I mean, hence the quotes) of opera as a living and relevant art form. Sara Montague is clearly engaged and aware of this art form, and of her interviewee in this case – that much is evident from the way in which she conducts especially the second half of the interview. She quotes exactly the stats from the US Endowment for the Arts survey and from ACE that give the headline, and allows Tom H space to rebut – or not even to rebut but to suggest why that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad thing. “2% of 300 million is not bad”!

        • ILoveOpera says:

          Yes Michael, watch the programme, it is worth it. The interviewer may be required to act assertively but this presents a wonderful opportunity for her interviewee to counter these cliches which he does very well. I suspect the way the initial question was put may have caught the attention of some who thought opera was only for toffs but who now reconsider.

  10. Emil Archambault says:

    Actually, if HARDtalk’s objective is to get Mr Hampson to explain how opera is still relevant, then starting with ‘clichés’ and popular opinions is the way to go. Whether you like it or not, people like Tim Benjamin’s friends from Todmorden or like Mr Denis Joe (to take two examples from above posters) are a tiny minority of population. I study Liberal Arts in university (and am thus part of a group of students who are very interested in culture of all sorts); yet, out of 120 students in Liberal Arts, I don’t think more than 15 or so went to classical concerts last year, excluding those forced to do so as part of their coursework.

    Opera is a very marginal art form, which does not enjoy massive audiences. You said yourself, Mr Lebrecht, that the top classical CDs in the US sell around 500 copies a week; now think how many opera CDs are sold per week!

    A few isolated examples do not make a trend. I believe that many of the posters on this blog forget that they are part of a very small group of aficionados, who have the interest of specialists, and who do not dialogue with the greater bulk of population. Do not forget that there is a world outside of Slipped Disc, where people do not recognize Joyce DiDonato in the streets, and do not hum Non Piu Mesta while going to work.

    All this to say, I have yet to see the proofs that opera enjoys a widespread appeal, and is a dominant art form among less wealthy and “educated” parts of population.

    • James Brinton says:

      Your classmates are not a significant sample, statistically or otherwise.
      I knew critical thinking was unfashionable in Texas, but thought it had survived elsewhere.
      I suggest the following text: Critical thinking. (2nd Ed.), by Max Black, Oxford, England: Prentice-Hall. (1952).

      • My classmates (of a number of years back) acted the same way as those of Emil Archambault.

        I’m no sociologist and I know that two examples don’t make much of a trend, but I do know a snide remark when I see one.

    • @Emil Archambault – What are the “dominant artforms among less wealthy and ‘educated’ parts of the population”?

      For that matter, what are the major (or minor) artforms in this country in general? Are you suggesting opera is less popular than going to sculpture exhibits? Going to museums? Going to see a straight play? I am interested in what artforms you feel outdraw an artform that attracts so many thousands to the cinemas.

      The issue is not opera, which is comparatively very successful, but the fact that inverse snobbery has led to a rejection of “artforms” in this country, period.

      • “The issue is not opera, which is comparatively very successful, but the fact that inverse snobbery has led to a rejection of “artforms” in this country, period.”

        Good point.

      • Emil Archambault says:

        @James Brinton
        I never treated it as a representative sample. Where do I draw statistical inferences from this example? Do I generalize and say this is a proportion present in the whole population? NO. Do I treat it as a survey? No. Do I treat it as a statistical trend? No. I used an EXAMPLE, which is intended purely as such. By the way, since we’re on the subject of “critical thinking” (thanks to your sarcastic and clearly ill-intentioned and irrelevant suggestion), attacking an example and pretending to attack the whole argument is a classical example of sophistry. The fact that you have attacked my example as “not a significant sample” does not mask the fact that you have not addressed the actual argument…critically.

        I am borrowing the “less wealthy and ‘educated’ parts of the population” part from Mr Lebrecht’s post. As to the dominant artforms, I think it is no secret that many more people prefer to watch movies, listen to pop/rock music, and yes, go to art museums than go to opera. I believe that many people are inclined to go to museums, maybe more when travelling than at home. Yet, while going to museums feels like ‘something people can do if there’s an interesting exhibition’, opera seems completely foreign to many.

        As for the live broadcasts, here’s what I found on Wikipedia (yes Mr Brinton, I DO know that Wikipedia is not always a reputable source): “According to a 2008 study commissioned by Opera America, most Live in HD attendees were “moderate and frequent opera goers”. About one in five, however, did not attend a live opera performance in the previous two years” (; study here: The MET reportedly sold 10 million tickets in 5 years ( So the broadcasts do attract a lot of people, but again, as Ms Montague points out: it is a tiny proportion of the public that actually goes to the opera relays. The United States has 300 000 000 people; 10 million tickets sold worldwide in five years (many people going several times) is not showing any major impact.

        As to your last point, the rejection of “artforms”, it is sadly true.

        • @Emil Archambault Thank you for your research. I would suggest, however, that suggesting “more people prefer to watch movies” when discussing “artforms” is not persuasive. I would not consider DieHard 3, Grown Ups 2 or any number of other moves “art”. Of course, there are wonderful movies that would fit that description, but certainly the whole of the movie industry could not be considered an “artform.”

          Rather, I would ask how many people attend foreign films? How many watch independent films? I suspect those totals are not large.

          You are probably correct about museum visits, given tourism, but I would love a breakdown by type.

          You mentioned movies and pop/rock as “dominant artforms.” What about jazz? Blues? Do more people attend these concerts than see a classical concert? I doubt it.

          My contention is simply that opera is actually more popular than most “artforms” – and many kinds of music – in the US. It, in fact, is a “dominant artform,” unless every aspect of pop culture is going to be considered an artform. I have seen no evidence to the contrary.

          • James Brinton says:

            I concur.
            BTW, to the extent that pop, rock, and hip-hop are “dominant” art forms, they are dominant because of a multi-billion dollar marketing effort to make them so, an effort to which the young are quite vulnerable.
            Companies in the music business know that return on investment is much higher for these than for other musical forms–artistic or cultural merit has no meaning for them. Thus the investment in making pop ubiquitous to the degree of presenting almost nothing else to the young.
            I am frequently surprised to find people who have never even heard a classical piece. Although in theory, the classical canon is available to anyone, in practice, in a world shaped by marketing, it’s invisible to many people, especially the malleable young.
            If exposed to it, the young love it. I worked with a chamber music group who visited youth prisons and played Baroque music to the inmates. It was like turning on lights all over the rooms; the kids loved it, but had never been exposed to classical music before, and to the degree it came up for discussion their views were uninformed.
            This was not always the case. In the 1930s through the mid-60s, classical music of all kinds was in the mainstream, there was more and better music education in the schools, the homes that didn’t have pianos regretted it, and (in the US) the major broadcast networks had their own symphonies which broadcast regularly. Relatively few are around today to recall the many classical concerts held in the UK in during WW II as moral builders, and how avidly they were attended. Classical music was not, and is not, of interest only to an elite.
            Today, we have American Idol, pitching rap, and advertising to the young that pop is the path to stardom and wealth, and the only music worth focusing on.
            We live in increasingly degraded times.

    • Derek Castle says:

      Emil, how dare you mention ‘Non piu mesta’ just when I thought I’d got it out of my head! (Ms Bartoli is also at fault.) In my opinion, if you love music (and I don’t mean – to generalize – ‘pop’), you’ll love opera. I was lucky enough to come from a poor, post-war, working-class background, but able to go to a grammar school. I started with Gilbert & Sullivan at school (Gilbert who?), progressed to our local Amateur Opera Society’s ‘Carmen’ and ‘Cav&Pag’. Curiosity has pushed me forward all my life. Opera is spell-binding music, as the Barenboim ‘Ring’ at the Proms showed only too well. Not much ‘sea of grey’ there! Productions are pretty irrelevant. What the Wagner sisters (one short of the Three Witches) are allowing self-important ‘directors’ to do at Bayreuth is a national disgrace. Listen to opera without such distraction before spending a fortune on theatre directors’ egos.

  11. Just to give a little benefit of the the doubt –

    Is it possible that Sarah Montague was ware that her questions were rubbish, but asked them anyway because BBC Hard Talk interviewers are supposed to “ask the tough questions” and be somewhat confrontational?

    That’s the image the program tries to present, anyway.

  12. Kenneth Griffin says:

    This is a News interview, where the conventional practice is for the interviewer to challenge the interviewee, who has the opportunity to respond at length in an attempt at justification of their point of view. It’s sensible of the interviewer to quote statistics and facts because the interviewee needs to raise their game above woolly waffle.

    • Michael says:

      It’s one thing to challenge an interviewee, but it seems that what many are questioning here are the “statistics and facts” actually quoted, not to mention the trivial and tedious anti-elitism preconception that seems behind the “statistics and facts” (if you can accurately call them that!).

    • I absolutely agree, Kenneth, with you. I often watch HardTalk, and that is the whole point of the programme, to challenge. It’s not a ‘friendly chat’ beside the fire, but meant to tackle the issues, and with opera there are an awful lot of issues. Many of my friends think opera is just a bunch of Italians screaming their heads off, and they don’t understand it. How do you change that? I have no idea. Lived with it for years!

      • They think opera is just a bunch of Italians screaming their heads off? And how do you change that?

        Take them to see something in English, for starters – Peter Grimes, or Billy Budd, or Semele if it’s being staged. Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick when it makes it to Britain. Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men. (Anthony Dean Griffey as Lenny regularly reduces audiences to tears).

        Harrison Birtwistle night not be as good an option, unless your friends are into death metal or something.

        Better yet, since there probably won’t be anyone screaming their heads off, might be any of the very fine chamber operas that have been written in English in the past 30 or 40 years. I haven’t seen Written on Skin, but I think George Benjamin’s Under the Little Hill could impress anyone who appreciates serious theater, and Anu Komsi’s coloratura will knock their socks off. (Hilary Summers is fabulous, too, but her part isn’t so showy.) Conrad Susa’s Transformations, which sets Anne Sexton’s retellings of old fairy tales, isn’t just involving, it’s also quite witty.

        And these examples are just off the top of my head.

        • I’ve tried to introduce people to opera on various occasions, with mixed success. However, hardly anyone has dismissed it in the way you describe after the performance. They usually accept that it has many virtues, even when it is “not for them”.

          What I have discovered, however, is that it is extremely difficult to predict what people will like. Agree about opera in English most of the time, but would tend to be wary of the late 19th century onwards and much regieoper, with a few exceptions.

          Two people bowled over by Rheingold a few years ago (someone’s unused tickets), and they weren’t even familiar with classical music. Now they go as often as they can afford. Hugely unpredictable.

        • Peter Grimes? I love it but Britten isn’t very appealing for many. Puccini in English, but so many think that us sacrilege.
          But Italians were hearing opera in their own language, not with surtitles.

          • Una, Britten may not be appealing for people who have already decided they like their classical as Mozart and Beethoven and their opera as Mozart or Puccini or Bizet. But I’m thinking of the people you mentioned as queueing up enthusiastically for the National Theatre’s NT Live but are unwilling to consider a Met or Royal Opera cinemacast.

            Britten isn’t exactly Mozart or Rodgers & Hammerstein, but it’s not Berg or Birtwistle, either. I wouldn’t think there’s anything in Peter Grimes that would put off someone who’s interested enough in serious theatre to queue up for NT Live.

            A few years ago, a friend and I took another friend – a game geek (he officiates at tournaments of Magic: The Gathering) in his early 20s who’s quite comfortable with spoken theatre (his mother’s an actress) but who had never seen an opera in his life – to a free screening of the Met’s Peter Grimes in Lincoln Center Plaza. He was blown away; for the next week he was obsessed with watching clips of Grimes online.

            I don’t think that need be an unusual experience. Give a newcomer a music-drama that’s well-sung/well-played and well-acted, in a language she or he can follow, and there’s a decent chance she or he can be converted, or at least come to understand why opera’s a great art form.

            If only the well-sung and well-acted part was something one can rely on. For newcomers to opera, I think the well-sung part is crucial: take an opera newcomer to hear singers who bellow or wobble off pitch and you could turn her against opera for life.

  13. Alexander Hall says:

    She cackles like a fishwife on the Today programme, given half a chance, so perhaps she’s more into the kind of entertainment that fishwives like.

  14. Well, for some perspective, no American television channel would never feature a half-hour interview with an opera singer. Maybe the rare PBS feature, but that doesn’t have nearly the reach that the BBC has. So while her questions may be kind of lame, at least they’re trying to raise some discussion on the issues of declining attendance and accessibility.

    • Charlie Rose’s show – a regular public television program, not a rare feature – has opera singers once or twice a year, I believe. BBC as a whole may have more reach, but do more people watch Hard Talk than watch Charlie Rose? I don’t know.

      And CBS’s 60 Minutes does the occasional segment with an opera star as well, and it has long been one of the most popular shows on the air in the US.

      Stephen Colbert has opera stars on somewhat regularly as well, and he has great fun with them.

      How often have opera singers been booked to appear on Hard Talk before now?

      • If memory serves (always a question), Rose did at least two long segments on the LePage Ring with all of the stars. Wonderful questions. I believe he also interviewed Netrebko recently and has had numerous others on. 30 minutes for all of these, I believe. CBS Sunday Morning does wonderful segments on American opera, a couple of times a year, at least 20 minutes long. I remember Fleming, Voigt, Netrebko, DiDonato, Gelb, and other general segments in the last few years. It’s a popular show; I think perhaps 10 million.

        • How could I forget Sesame Street and Colbert? Consistently fun segments on both of these.

      • I must have missed those Colbert segments – bummer!! I usually catch his show. He’s an opera lover. I’m an opera and a Colbert lover!

  15. So how many people commenting here actually watched the interview – or have we descended to the level of outraged religious masses, objecting about The LIfe of Brian without ever having seen it, but because our Pontiff by proxy has decided it’s bad for us?

  16. fortunately it is l i s t e n e d to with concentration by thousands in Europe on radio: without advertisements, and most happily, solely listening….being spared witnessing the appalling distortions of many current stage directors…Bayreuth the most revolting recent example.

    As Wolfgang Sawallisch commented” I can’t identify with what is on the stage ” when resigning from the Munich Oper…..
    Music is primaril an aural art any way……

    The joy of the weekly radio national broadcasts years ago of the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic remain great memories.

  17. A marginal art form, eh? Please tell that to the 4,800+ folks who regularly sell out the Metropolitan Opera House in NYC. One can sit in the most expensive seats or the cheapest seats (as low as $25) and hear the most exquisite music, see the most exciting productions. Ok, a few aren’t so exciting, but it’s still worth it. The old excuse about not understanding Italian opera (or Russian, or French, or what have you) is dead because the text appears on a little screen on the back of the seat in front of you. You can turn it off if you don’t want to know what’s being “said”.
    I’ve been a subscriber at the Met for years and I’m seeing more and more young people coming to the opera house. People don’t dress up as much as they used to so you see all kinds of different outfits, but the snob factor is fairly well gone anyway. Amen to that. Only on opening nights does the glamor come out.
    Opera was originally meant for the royals in 1607, but over time, and not much at that, it became entertainment for all. I’m confident that the art form is not only here to stay, but it’s thriving as well. The HD productions sell out in the States and more are being added every year. One can even subscribe to the HD presentations!
    The reporter clearly did not do any due diligence on this topic! Talk about willful ignorance…

    • Marshall says:

      First of all the Met seats 3800+200 standing. The better seats are a good deal more than $25-but yes theoretically you could stand cheaply and there are some special discounted seats-but it’s still very expensive. It hardly ever sells out anymore-and in fact the NYC metropolitan area HD’s have cut into live ticket sales. HD sales may be doing well-but to the same now aging group that would have listened to the Sat. radio broadcasts anyway. However, many HD venues (from personal experience) are nearly empty.

      Smaller regional opera houses in the US ( the breeding ground of young singers and dreams) are closing left and right-probably hurt by HD broadcasts.

      I want it to survice and flourish-but I have doubts in this society going forward. The crazy production of Eurotrash and regie are driving people away-and let’s be frank, the dearth of vocal giants-what was always at the core of opera-is also a huge factor.

      By the way I don’t more and mroe young people going to anything of quality-and the trouble with this whole thread-is nobody has really done any homework on the stats.

  18. James Brinton says:

    As a journalist, I refuse to give her cover. There is no excuse for leading an interview with a cliched (and obviously) false attack question. If any of those reporters and editors who used to work for me had done this, I would have set them straight in no uncertain terms. This is BAD journalism, even for a talk show.
    If she had done her homework, this would have been a much different interview; the interviewer who fails to prepare cannot ask the best questions, fails to deliver information to her public, and insults the interviewee.
    I’ve forwarded the video to some pals in management at The Metropolitan Opera who should have the most recent and complete attendance figures world-wide, in all venues.
    I also suggested that they discuss this data with her superiors at the BBC.

  19. While I acknowledge that opera is a minority art form, if you compare it to cinema or other equivalent arts, I think whoever writes the questions for Hard Talk needs to rethink their narrow view of who watches it. It is, of course, true the you can pay a huge amount for an opera ticket (just as you can for a West End show) but it is also possible to get really cheap tickets to the best operas around. If you go further afield than the UK, opera is a widely popular form of theatre and is as much part of theatre going as straight theatre. The elitist cliches do get a little tiring…

  20. Theodore McGuiver says:

    There’s nothing wrong with opera being a minority art form; anything of any value always is. Enjoyed by the best-educated, she says? Gets my vote again, then. Let’s hear it for elitism: art forms that require you to read, learn, listen, concentrate, challenge and ask questions. Or are we supposed to play thick polloi and tune in to any one of those brainless, repulsive TV shows that consider any form of neuron activity as suspect?

  21. Question to the Brits: Can one call a woman a “wanker’?

  22. Average tickets for many of the pop-rock-country shows this summer at my local outdoor arena are about $80, with top artists like Justin Timberlake $150 or so. Which is nothing compared to the Rolling Stones whose tickets were $300 and 600, with top tickets around $1,100 (if you, literally, won a lottery you could one of a handful of tickets for $85).

    On the other hand I can see an opera for as little as $30, with ordinary tickets at about $75.

    It’s not exactly clear which of these ‘art forms’ is for the rich people.

  23. PK Miller says:

    Many of the operas from The Met simulcast to theaters are sold out at the local theater that carries them. For the Ring, Regal Cinema Crossgates had to add a second theater. Ditto for Otello earlier this year. (Handel’s Giulio Cesare was half full but that’s a little esoteric.) I understand even the repeats this summer have been quite popular. Tom Hampson is a gentleman. Bing an opera singer, I would have throttled the woman!

  24. I thought it a disgraceful interview but this is BBC for you nowadays. There was so much Thomas Hampson could have said and explained about this wonderful art form and about his career but he had the misfortune of being interviewed by this poorly prepared journalist.

  25. Where I live, near Washington DC, opera tickets are quite expensive, generally more expensive than symphony orchestra tickets. I would go to the opera more often if the ticket prices were lower. In the US, the high price of opera tickets has fostered the concept that opera goers are wealthy and elitists, not the kind of people that wear jeans and that you could talk to.

    • Pauline, I don’t know about the Washington National Opera or the Kennedy Center, but at the Met there are loads of people in jeans or khakis, especially in the $25 seats up top (where the sound is the best in the house). There’s even more variety of dress for NY City Opera, Gotham Chamber Opera, and the operas presented at BAM.

  26. Kenneth Griffin says:

    I thought Sarah Montague provoked more truthful answers from Thomas Hampson than the apologist guff that the opera world usually spouts to justify its enormous subsidies. She stated the nature of the audience, “the richest, most educated people in the world”, and their small percentage of world population. She didn’t talk about affordability, which is the opera world’s usual defensive tack (“You can prom for £5 / sit on the ceiling for £2.99 / wear jeans sans tiara / etc.”). Instead, she focused on the fact that opera is incomprehensible, alien and alienating to the vast majority. Here, the opera world usually guffs about surtitles and singing in the home language, but Thomas Hampson knew that this wouldn’t wash and talked about the essence being the total opera experience, not a vain attempt to follow a plot. He also acknowledged that the experience is enriched by knowledge, which is true, but also a massive own goal because that’s the whole point about why the world audience is so tiny. The quoted statistics were ascribed to Arts Council publications.

    • American football is incomprehensible, alien and alienating to many other people–as well as violent. Tickets are also expensive. Should Americans eliminate football?

  27. Yup, the people don’t sing the songs of great operas now. Instead, most prefer to hear the purity of solo works or chamber music. Operas have become to cumbersome, expensive, and bring too low turnout for most concert halls to sustain multiple seasons of The Ring, maybe rings of circus acts but not Wagner.

    So the old cling to their traditions and young with less money and new ears choose chamber, solo, or other works who’s prices don’t break the bank (and your date won’t fall asleep!)

  28. Let’s give her a credit, she was quoting US statistics. However, not sure why that should be relevant. One could’ve quoted Chinese statistics and they would’ve been even more appalling. Why not look into countries like Germany, or France, or for that matter Russia. It’s true that sometimes a visit to the Bolshoi in Moscow could be seen as elitist (though only on to the historical building, not the new stage), but the audience of the other 4 major opera houses in Moscow can hardly be classified as the elite in Russia.

    • Actually she was quoting US and UK statistics. In an interview conducted in English, it is apparent that the majority audience will be in the UK and US/Canada and also Australia/New Zealand, and so the quotes are always going to be geared towards that audience. You’ll notice she also talked about it being in a foreign language – as so many operas are for English speaking audiences. I’m sure Thomas Hampson realised this, and didn’t feel it necessary to interject with pedantry. It would be very easy to state that Wagner’s operas are not in a foreign language if you are from Bayreuth, and that Verdi’s are not in a foreign language if you are from Milan – equally that Benjamin Britten’s operas are in a foreign language if you’re from Paris!

      • If I’m not mistaken the show is being aired on BBC World News, the majority audience of which actually is not in the UK/US

  29. What an extremely aggressive, ill-informed, strident and unpleasant woman she is. Thank goodness, in Australia, we do not have to watch or listen to her. Hampson is all class and she is in need of being replaced.

  30. From Vienna says:

    Can’t believe that it was a BBc-Production! I am from Vienna and are surprised that an English journalist has such an understanding of culture. BTW: You can watch operas in Vienna for 3 Euros! Including perfromances with Thomas Hampson und Anna Netrebko. Great compliment to Thomas Hampson for his polite answers!

  31. She is of course right. If you, at least for a little moment, take the word ‘world’ literally, then you must admit that there is only a tiny fraction of world’s population interested in opera at all (that is Western opera!). There are places with large populations where Western opera never played and never will play any role (East Asia, the Arab world, India….). From those interested in opera (and they are VERY few compared to actual population figures) only a small fraction goes regularly to see an opera performance live. This is not only because its more expensive nowadays than it was before, but also, and most importantly, many opera lovers (who actually ENJOY opera, including the music, and not because its chic or the staging is terrific) feel the artistic level has dropped dramatically in recent times. Instead of going to the opera house, they spend their time listening and watching to the flood of historic recordings that capture the best time opera ever had as an art form with wide appeal. It is not really a question of education but more of how much time of your life you are willing to spend with watching mediocre performances in primitive stagings. The operatic world is still very rich, not so much in USA or UK (never was), but in some European countries as Italy or Germany. But in those countries, opera is definitely not so much regarded as elitist culture but cultural heritage that is worth to maintain. Seen as part of the ‘entertainment industry’, opera doesn’t play any role at all, even in those countries.

  32. Hampson isn’t exactly wrong footed by the interviewer. I’d imagine anyone watching this, where opera isn’t on their radar might be gently persuaded by what he has to say.

  33. Perhaps Sarah only reads newspapers

  34. Michael Hurshell says:

    The very idea of criticizing an art form because only a fraction of the audience enjoys it is ludicrous, barbarous, and really offensive. Culture in the highest sense (and there is no higher art form than an opera performance) has always been marginal, measured against the total population. Absurd! When you compare opera attendance to movie theater attendance, you are simply expressing an ignorance about what bears comparison. Shame, BBC!

    • Fabio Fabrici says:

      It’s the natural consequence of the shift of paradigms in our times.

      Old times: Aspiration for the unreachable ideal (out of which true art is born)
      Presence: Race to the bottom who markets best to the smallest common(er’s) denominator.
      Future: ?

  35. Istvan Horthy says:

    A challenging interviewer pushing an interviewee to give some highly intelligent answers. A very enjoyable and instructive half hour, I thought.

  36. OK – so I’ve now actually listened to the broadcast interview in its entirety.

    Yes, the clichés, assumptions, claims and the rest that Ms Montague put forward, which indeed sound tiresome, outmoded and biased, appear to be prompted by the arrogance of ignorance, yet I cannot help but wonder whether this is entirely because she has little or no clue about her subject (in which case one might well wonder why the brief was handed to her) or whether they stemmed from the kind of journalistic provocation that tantalisingly but deliberately eschews the preface “it is said that…”; I suspect that it may be a case of six of one and half a dozen of the other, frankly.

    What matters most, however, is that, apart from the occasional Today-style efforts on Ms Montague’s part to interrupt and speak over her interviewee, Thomas Hampson was (rightly) given the lion’s share of the interview and used it to present a great deal of fine good sense in an engagingly articulate manner, so the programme was far from a mere waste of time.

    But why opera in particular, apart from the obvious fact that Thomas Hampson was invited to put its case? Might it not equally be argued that some people believe that they have at least as much of the same kind of trouble with “classical music” in general, sometimes on account of having been told that “it’s not for them”?
    There’s no doubting that snobbery around opera and other forms of “classical music” has abounded in the past and sadly by no means passed into history, but the interview revealed little sense of the sheer scale and scope of the subject of opera yet plenty of attempted brickbats on Ms Montague’s part; after all, one can hardly speak intelligently about Rodelinda, Die Soldaten, l’Incoronazione di Poppea, Król Roger, Tristan und Isolde, Billy Budd, Intermezzo and Powder her Face as though they’re all so alike that they belong within once sentence as here.

    As to the audience figures, Western “classical music” in general, for all that it reaches millions, is still a minority interest but there’s no obvious evidence that opera of any kind is a particularly glaring example of this; one has only to consider how many operatic productions play to full or near-full houses or how the provincial opera houses of Germany and Italy or British enterprises such as Grange Park and Longborough continue to go from strength to strength to realise that opera is still very much alive and attracting audiences of all ages and backgrounds. Yes, some tickets can be prohibitively expensive, but that’s often because the overal cost of the production is likewise rather than as means of promoting the idea that opera is only for the well-heeled.

    Thomas Hampson made a particularly welcome riposte to the “need to do one’s homework first” argument that reminded me of Elliott Carter who, when interviewed in advance of the première of one of his scores, was asked “how do you expect people to listen to your music?” (and no, it was a genuine and literally intended question, not a pejorative one!); his answer included the thought that he hoped that people would concentrate on it as he had done while writing it. It’s yet another example of the more you put into something, the more you stand to get out of it; if something’s that much worth bothering with and those who have made it possible have expended vast amounts of work and talent on it, the audience needs to make an effort as well. What’s so hard to understand about that?

    That said, when I attended the Solti Ring at Covent Garden in my ’teens, my operatic knowledge and experience was very thin indeed, yet I found myself hanging on every note and feeling almost as though the sheer intellectual emotional and architectonic power of the music was making me concentrate. If someone of that age who was not brought up in a wealthy household or to listen to music could willingly stand all day queuing for a standing place at each of those operas and be thrilled to the bone by every bar of it, who’s to say that it’s all for the nobs? That’s just plan rubbish!

    In sum, then, the only really memorable aspect of the programme struck me as being the platform given to Thomas Hampson to express himself as he did – which is surely what matters most; one can only hope that Ms Montague learned something from that interview and goes out to get the next ticket for a production of Salome that she can come by.

    Gary Carpenter’s drawing of attention to the “first première” gaffe reminded me that, as doubtless he knows all too well, we composers often struggle to get second and subsequent premières of our work(!).

  37. Good Lord, the way Sarah Montague is going on she probably thinks garlic bread is really exotic and only for sinister foreigners. How many more 1950s’ cliches can she throw in, she’ll start accusing that poor baritone of using olive oil in his hair next.

  38. @ Jimbo:

    Far from Sarah Montague’s finest hour though this interview undoubtedly was, I think that your remarks here are less than reasonable; it’s just less than obvious to me why the brief was handed to her to do this rather than to someone with more apparent knowledge of and interest in the subject, but that’s not to say that she’s unfamiliar with olive oil and garlic bread!

  39. Opera is expensive. No one who works in opera or makes opera argues this point. But I would say that using NEA stats to back up her claim about audience attendance is wielding the wrong instrument for the job. She would have been better served to pull up Opera America’s annual financial report, which is full of hard data about actual audiences at actual companies, rather than the hypothetical NEA “if you attend arts events” question. Having grown up in the US with the NEA used as a pejorative to paint all forms of art for specific art works that some found distasteful, I think it unlikely that this particular statistic has real resonance. I would also be interested to hear the statistics on the membership numbers of the ‘under 40′ opera clubs in the US – I suspect they would indicate that opera is attended by a much wider demographic.

    Also, as a person who loves to read, I do try to read the book before I go see a movie based on that book. Does it enhance my appreciation and/or understanding of the movie? Usually. But I don’t think the film industry would face such a harsh critique from Ms. Montague about the need to ‘do homework’ to see a film. It’s not about a language barrier, the complexity of the plot, or even about the price tag. It’s about an open mind and the desire to learn about a world that exists beyond oneself. To harp on the ‘otherness’ of the art form does nothing to enhance the dialogue and is, in my opinion, an easy way out. I applaud Mr. Hampson for his thoughtful engagement.

  40. Roger Williams says:

    What a depressing but entirely typical interview. It seems that all the BBC can do these days is this kind of ill informed, disinterested adversarial to and fro, with no diversion from preset “battle lines” no matter what the hapless interviewee manages to say. Thomas Hampson did his best but never had a change of changing the interviever’s preconceived notions.
    As to cost. – has anyone tried to go to a top flight sporting fixture recently? At around £80-100 for a maximum of 2 hours it makes £200 for a premium seat at Covent Garden look positively reasonable!

    • Derek Castle says:

      Perhaps you mean she’s ‘uninterested’. She certainly not ‘disinterested’, as the views she puts forward are clearly one-sided.

  41. stanley cohen says:

    Clearly she must be of the same strain of benighted idiot that wrote in an op-ed in The Times in the late 90s that The ENO was for music lovers and Covent Garden was for Merchant Bankers. She went on to recall her hair standing up on the back of her neck when at age 8 she was taken to the Coliseum to hear Rigoletto and the Duke sang ‘Cara Nome’ to Gilda. This occasioned my first published letter in the following day’s Times [in the bottom RH Corner] saying that I was sure that the hairs were standing up on Gilda’s neck since it was she who was meant to be singing the aria.

  42. Julie Keitges says:

    Why is Sarah Montague attacking Thomas Hampson, an opera baritone, about her misconception of the business of opera, rather than the general manager of Covent Garden or the New York Metropolitan Opera? This woman is “Foxing” her interviewee. I go to performances of the San Francisco Opera, in their huge grand opera house in the city center for $30.00 a performance. I do sit in the balcony, but they do have drop down screens with close-ups of the singers during their arias, which is better than seeing from the distance of an orchestra seat. And the live streaming operas on Saturdays from the NY Met’s season are frequently sold out at the many venues that stream them around the Bay Area. They’ve had to schedule encores of the live streamed presentations. And these cost under $25. And we have several smaller opera companies operating successfully all around the San Francisco Bay. Somebody take this woman to an opera performance. She’s an uninformed blunderer.

  43. Marguerite Foxon says:

    Sack her or move her to reporting on society balls.

  44. Dom Canusser says:

    Who is this woman and where does she get her information? My dad was a miner with no education beyond 15 years and he lived for opera. Any extra money that was around when I was young was used to purchase opera records or, once in a blue moon, tickets to a performance. He passed his love of opera on to all us kids and we are all grateful to him for it. I am far from rich or elite in any way, but it has never seemed to be an impediment to my enjoyment of the music. Funny that.

  45. When I lived in Italy, everyone I met the libretto, the arias and the busdriver I regularly travelled with sang Puccini arias while driving… in italy it’s part of the texture of the culture. it’s only the stuck up people elsewhere who make such a pretension out of opera. Operas were the soapies of their day… and damn side better quality and depth, take bellini’s Norma as just one example.

  46. Richard Barker says:

    I was never a great fan of Thomas Hampson, there are many other less hyped baritones round the world whose singing I prefer.
    But the way he dealt with this silly housewife from the BBC made me have much greater respect for him.

    • Gioconda says:

      AGREED in both points! But both get lots of attention – so that was probably part of the deal…..

  47. Will Padfield says:

    I am 17 and have managed to see loads of opera at the ENO for really great prices, thanks to really great schemes like the ENO “Access all Arias” scheme. I don’t think I am old and grey haired. This woman is way out of her depth. Why is she getting paid to ask such ludicrous questions?

    • Ludicrous questions elicit intelligent responses in this case, so i don’t quite understand the uproar.

  48. I don’t know who is the most pathetic: the interviewer or the interviewee.
    Hampson exudes arrogance: “Hey, look at how smart I am!”, a good imitator of Fischer-Dieskau, no more. And the poor lazy tenor dares to singer Verdi roles…lol
    The interviewer is not only arrogant, but also stupid, and the British accent makes things worse…

    • “the British accent maks things worse”? How so?

    • What kind of accent would you like her to have? The fact that you call it British is strange. It is English, not British – home counties, and she comes from England, like I do. Would she better with an American accent to match Thomas Hampson then? It’s a BBC programme, meant to be confrontational with the interviewer playing devil’s advocate – that’s the nature of the programme. Please give the poor woman a break, I should think. There must surely be something far more important than discussing Hardtalk :)

      • @ Una Barry:

        I agree that the statement made about Sarah Montague’s accent is gratuitous, unnecessary and unhelpful, as her accent has no bearing on the subject matter. As to her being “English”, she’s from Guernsey, actually.

  49. Sorry, this woman is an idiot. She’d be shocked to learn that MANY opera loves hail from working class backgrounds. For starters, she should read Benzecry’s book titled _The Opera Fanatic_ in which he meticulously documents this phenomenon.

  50. Rosana Martins says:

    Her stupid remarks about opera shocked us all the way in Brazil! One of the most important newspapers, O Estado de Sao Paulo, published an article about it:

  51. Claudine Fear says:

    Does no one understand the art of debate on this blog?

    Great interview allowing Mr Hampson to rebut the cliches and to express himself. This is the whole object. He doesn’t look incomfortable at any point.
    Only criticize if you have heard the interview and not if you have not.

    Listen and learn!

    • @ Claudine Fear:

      No, Mr Hampson does indeed not look unconfortable at any point, but this is not the point that concerned respondents have been making. For the record – although I’ve already stated this in an earlier post – I have indeed heard and seen the interview and I have criticised it.

    • Neither does she!! In fact she sounded sounded stupid, did not do proper research and if it was not for Mr Hampson’s intelligent responses, she would come over as even more stupid!!

  52. What was her point exactly? Even if what she said was true, why would that stop opera from being beautiful, meaningful and important? How many experiences in life, in history, in the wide span of the world are exclusive to just a few people at a given point? But what she said is not true in one provable respect: People from all walks of life love opera, or at least, melodies that come from opera. She surely knows persons in her own circle who do not belong to an elite who love opera. My Italian grandfather came from a family of cobblers, and he was passionate about opera. The fact that this woman has this important platform to spew such inanities is baffling. She seems to be arguing for the generic and the commonplace, not realizing that we all in our own way cultivate the special and the unique, in whatever area we are passionate about. She also confuses accessibility of information about an art form with the intrinsic complexity of the art form. Her attitude is deliberately negative and frankly, illogical. Hampson was excellent in every respect.

    • That is the nature of the programme, to be ‘devil’s advocate’, and so many of you have simply missed the point. That’s why it’s called HARDtalk, and nor Hardtalk!

      • John Hames says:

        I don’t think they’re missing the point. No one is against close and searching questioning, and some of the interviews are very revealing. This one, however, cannot simply be explained as Montagu playing devil’s advocate. To play devil’s advocate requires questioning at the same meaning level as the probable answers, being as well briefed as your “victim”, and generally being up to speed with the subject. Everything Montagu said came freighted with assumptions that no one who knows anything would seriously entertain, and there was no sign that she was willing even to consider modifying them in the light of the answers she received. Quite simply, she knew better, and her tone was a wink in the direction of all those who regard opera and classical music generally as “middle-class crap”. It’s not that people have such views that is depressing, it’s more that that seems to be the default position of even many who should know better. The least one can say is that she was a poor choice to do this interview.

  53. Seems to me there’s a lot of “shoot the messenger” in many of these comments.

    I credit Ms. Montague with honestly communicating the most common complaints and criticisms of opera, and with choosing Mr. Hampson–the most brilliant spokesman for opera, EVER–as interview subject. In addition, she raises the most RELEVANT question facing opera and other classical music managers: “How do we reach them?”

    I do detest the way she interrupts Mr. Hampson, talks over him, and generally demonstrates a rather demeaning attitude towards him. But he is so very articulate (and gracious!!), he actually manages to steer her into a more mature discussion.

    I will say that I’ve been on both sides of this issue. My first experiences in an opera audience left me completely unmoved. It wasn’t until I actually performed in operas that I really understood, appreciated, and (by the end of a couple of weeks of rehearsal) actually adored those operas.

    And if it took two intensive weeks for me to move from being bored and unreached by an opera to understanding and loving it, then SHOULDN’T we give a hard think to exactly the questions Ms. Montague asks? Doesn’t that actually make her, perhaps, the very best person to do this interview?

  54. James Brinton says:

    There seems to be an unspoken assumption on the part of some that younger people aren’t going to opera because of some shortcoming in the art form itself.
    In fact, one can make a good case that lack of attendance in America is due to
    1) the failure of the US school system to offer the amount and quality of music education it once did, and
    2) the ongoing multibillion dollar marketing effort behind high-ROI, low-cost pop music.
    Classical audiences were not always gray haired, and classical music was once far more of a mainstream taste than it is today. several generations have been either denied this music, or propagandized to ignore or dislike it One of the tools marketers have used is a faux disgust for “elitist, high-brow, irrelevant, old-peoples’ music.” Meanwhile the commercial investment in folk, rock, and hip-hop far exceeds anything ever seen before. In the so-called free market, it is not so much that classical music has somehow fallen short, as that it has been driven out.
    The result is the ignorant and prejudiced audience we have now.
    The rot had set in by the late 1960s, and Stanley Kubrick could be criticised by “feisty rock critics” for using “irrelevant, old-fashioned” classical music in “2001.”
    Just ask whether Disney would even consider producing a movie like “Fantasia” today, based on classical music. I doubt they would touch the idea with a barge pole, because after 60 years of failed education and carnivorous marketing, “nobody listens to that stuff.”

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