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BBC receives protests over Hard Talk attack on opera

We know of two opera chiefs who are writing to the BBC, objecting to the crass and misinformed caricature of the art expressed by Today presenter Sarah Montague in a Hard Talk interview with Thomas Hampson.


sarah montague

Here’s the first letter we have received from a member of the public. It contains a detailed rebuttal of Ms Montague’s loose cliches.  If you want to send your own sentiments to the BBC, the producer’s name appears at the top.

Read here.

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  1. Sarah Montague is a friggin idiot!

    • A. Wellwisher says:

      Wrong end of the stick I’m afraid, because the clue is in the title: HARDtalk. It’s a devil’s advocate style interview format, with right of reply -every episode the same style.

      You’re all looking rather silly and out-of-touch right now with your letter writing and flapping. Not good for Opera!

      • Errr. No. Even a “devil’s advocate” has to do their homework and background research, which Sarah Montague clearly hadn’t.
        Her sole premise — stated at the very beginning and relentlessly repeated throughout the 25 minutes – was that opera is expensive and elitist.
        She had no evidence or proper statistics to back her statement up.
        She simply repeated endlessly a cliched, biased, uninformed view of opera and didn’t have the decency tor intellectual rigour to listen and respond to what Thomas Hampson was saying.

        That’s not playing the devil’s advocate. That’s the very lowest form of “debate”, puerile name-calling and tabloid journalism at its worst.

        Sarah Montague should be ashamed of herself as should the BBC for dressing it up as “Hard Talk”.
        Hard talk indeed. More like Shit Spout.

        • Donald Judge says:

          I haven’t heard the programme and have only very occasionally heard hard talk. Those programmes I’ve heard seemed to be well researched and well conducted. Reports suggest Ms Montague fell short of these standards or maybe the issue was of insufficient substance to merit the time and effort expended. No one is saying the debate shouldn’t take place and the Arts asked to justify their funding – in the UK they earn the government £7 for every £1 invested – and above all to be relevant and attract new audiences. If as is suggested Ms Montague had no firm evidence, that isn’t acceptable journalism.

        • Musiker is right – she had obviously planned what she was going to say, and had no intention of modifying it in the light of Hampson’s replies. He handled it very well, was unfailingly courteous in the face of her silliness – he is a brilliant man and a gifted musician. (And stunningly good-looking, but I try not to let that influence me!) She came out with absolutely every tired old cliche imaginable – like opera audiences being old and grey-haired. Well yes, I’m old now, but I wasn’t 50 years ago when I became an opera-lover. (And my hair isn’t grey, because I henna it…..) She started from a false premise – ‘opera is elitist and expensive ‘ and was obviously not listening to Hampson.

        • Edgar Brenninkmeyer says:

          I heard the broadcast. Hardly hard talk, with Sarah Montague revealing an astonishing, if not almost offensive, lack of depth and imagination. She went on repeating the usual and worn cliches, and was clearly sub par in the conversation with Thomas Hampson. Maybe a one year subscription at the ROH (at a price she can afford) would help her a bit? It would bring her up to speed on the basics of opera as an art form still relevant today… In addition, some reading would be useful. Listening to Mrs. Montague, I had the impression she was very badly prepared. 1 – 0 for Mr. Hampson.

          • I am completely in agreement with you, Musiker, Edgar, Jane and Donald. Devil’s Advocate is all well and good, but it has to be based on informed viewpoints, not lazy prejudices which can be demolished in 5 minutes of Googling!

            Devoting so much of the interview to the same old issues gets us nowhere and runs the risk of telling the lay viewer “There IS a problem, otherwise these questions wouldn’t keep getting asked”, when this is demonstrably untrue.

        • Tim Raymond says:

          It IS – at least frequently – expensive and – hopefully – elitist. What’s wrong with being elitist? Nobody with any degree of intelligence cares what Montague thinks anyway.

    • I totally agree.

  2. John Hames says:

    Good letter. If I suspended while I was watching the interview my aghastness at the moron level of the questions, or rather the smartarse assumptions behind them, I could see that Hampson quietly wiped the floor with her, but we really shouldn’t be having to belabour the BBC for putting out such a lousy piece of work: they should examine their own quality control and have a bit of self-respect. When is someone going to nail this “elitism” garbage on air once and for all? When is a broadcaster going to say “classical music” with a bit of enthusiasm rather than looking as if they’ve just trodden in something? All very disappointing.

  3. Alexander Robinson, come out and reveal yourself — and keep writing, blogging, whatever: you are too good to be wasted on letters to the BBC. A propos of Don Carlo, “no one expected a PhD in the Spanish Inquisition” — that’s class writing, that is.

    • Thanks for the compliments. I rather enjoyed writing that line – in fact the whole experience was cathartic! I’ve expanded upon my position and replied to a few of my critics on my new blog.

      I took the view that humour is the best way to get noticed, and it seems to have worked – now over 120,000 views. I’m really quite overwhelmed. When I put it on Facebook I thought a few friends might find it amusing. Little did I know!

  4. Alexander Robinson says:

    I am the author of that letter. I should highlight that I got the producer’s name wrong in my first version: I was so irate that I didn’t want to watch the credits, but simply googled “HARDtalk presenter” and also searched Twitter. I have now updated the letter to remove the erroneous name. My sincere apologies for any confusion or distress caused.

    The correct name can be found if you freeze-frame the video at around 24:29.

    Of course, I also meant the 2011 census, not 2010.

    • Dear Mr Robinson, I’ve just put a link to your letter on my blog (Lady Effingham of Blindingham). I think it’s brilliant and I’m deeply impressed at the work you’ve put in. It distils a lot of what I have been trying to say over the years, as a blogger but also through a little community radio show I do called Classics From Scratch. It is as ‘normal’ to listen to classical music as to any other kind of music.

      I was introduced to opera by my opera-loving Dad – he took us to see La traviata when I was only 11 and I’ve been hooked ever since – well before that really as it was always playing in the house. How did he get to know opera? Well he was conscripted into the army just after the war and posted to Italy, that’s how!

    • Alexander, I’ve also linked to your letter on my blog and quoted it.

      Your letter is a superb piece of writing. My experience was similar to Catherine’s – always heard opera around the house as a boy; nothing elitist about it at all. Many thanks.

      • Thank you so much for your kind words. As I’ve said elsewhere, I truly never expected this letter to have such an impact! I suppose humour is the best way to get noticed…

        The question is, will we hear from the BBC? Somehow I doubt it. At most I expect we will get a bland, anodyne response along the lines of “duty of balance… impartiality… general audience… ‘Devil’s Advocate’… blah, blah, blah” which ignores all the deeper points we are raising here. Then again, I didn’t expect my letter to go viral, so stranger things could yet happen.

  5. James Brinton says:

    The letter was far, far better than the program.
    I especially enjoyed, “After all, it’s not as though there’s anyone there – the Director-General, say – who used to run an opera house or anything.”
    I seriously question Montague’s value to the BBC; her performance was lousy journalism and rotten PR for the Beeb.. A fresh-caught liberal-arts grad from the benighted USA could probably have done better with a hour of research. Anyone with the IQ and intellectual curiosity of a snail could have done better, probably.
    I suspect that this will not be the last time Montague embarrasses the BBC.

  6. James Brinton says:

    BTW, it’s not the producer’s name but the writer’s name at the top of the letter.
    But then, perhaps the letters should go to the director-general anyway. :-)

    • I originally had the producer’s name, but then realised, firstly, that I’d got the wrong producer (mea culpa – the result of angrily searching Google rather than simply watching the credits. By the end of that interview I was ready to put my fist through the screen.) Secondly, once the letter topped 3000 views I realised that I’d started something and didn’t want to be in a position where we could be seen to be inviting abuse and harassment of the producer – even if the broadcast was shoddily-researched. One has to be careful on the Internet.

  7. I watched this interview, and I am completely surprised at how gracious and polite Mr. Hampson was. Well, I’m not surprised that he was gracious and polite, I am surprised that he could contain his good humor during the attack by Ms. Montegue.

    I was ready to slug her after the first few questions. Every person, musician or not, who has seen it, has gotten back to me with the same reaction. What a complete ass she is.

    Hats off to Mr. Hampson.

    The BBC should be ashamed.

  8. Alexander Hall says:

    The only other thing I would personally want to add, having read this excellent and well-argued letter, relates to employment opportunities. Those who complain about the costs should consider the fact that there are many, relatively “humble” trades represented on the payroll: electricians, carpenters, stage-hands, box-office staff, cleaners and ushers. These are all jobs for people who might otherwise not be in regular employment. I think opera-houses certainly make a significant contribution to the economy, not least in the number of foreign visitors they pull in.

  9. Alexander Robinson says:

    And of course, I mean “producer”, not “presenter”! Staying up all night crafting polite-but-angry missives has clearly taken its toll.

  10. Those protesting this interview are missing the larger picture, it seems to me. Try to imagine a major broadcaster in the USA granting a 25 minute interview to an opera singer! We only have 3 cities in the top 100 for opera performances per year. Very few Americans even think about opera, so this show is refreshing.

    Montague’s questions were not particularly challenging (even as an opera supporter I could do far more devastating job.) And she allowed Hampson to dominate the discussion with his defense of opera.

    The biggest threat to opera would be not facing the questions she poses. The genre has not developed a significant new repertoire in a century. It is expensive, and in the States it is oriented toward the wealthy. So people need to discuss the problems facing the genre. Programs like this are a blessing. If only something like this could happen in America, and in such an intelligent context where someone like Hampson gets to discuss the relationship of opera to society for close to half an hour. Bravo BBC!

    • “The genre has not developed a significant new repertoire in a century. It is expensive, and in the States it is oriented toward the wealthy. So people need to discuss the problems facing the genre”


      There IS something incontinent and uneconomical in both monetary and other senses, in an artform that takes the length of time, the resources, the people, the money, to tell its stories. Those enormous, ugly sets to distract from the acting, to convince the audience that there is anything remotely of merit aside from the actual music itself.

      I have no problem with disproportionate subsidy. Some things cost money. But it has to be the least evolving art form in terms of how it reaches its audiences; or, indeed, in any terms.

    • Jonathan Kubiak says:

      I would dispute that it is expensive. I sat front row of the Met in 2011 while visiting New York for the opening night of Don Giovanni. I paid $37.50 for my ticket.

      The difference between the US and the UK is that the US provides very little public money to support the arts, but relies heavily on private donation (the personal donations were millions – I was left aghast!).

      Also, there seems to be far better pay conditions for American artists. Just see the size of the Met’s SALARIED chorus in the program. There must have been 400 singers on the payroll. The London Symphony Chorus, on the other hand, pays just its section leaders. Everyone else gets session rate.

      • Carole Cameron says:

        actually LSC is amateur, not paid: in the States it would be referred to it as ‘volunteer’.

      • The budget of the Met is $325 million per year. The budgets for major European houses average about $150 million. The LA Opera spent $30 million on its Ring Cycle. Opera is expensive.

      • The MET does employ around 80 salaried chorus members (according to their page). Additional singers are brought in for the supplemental chorus on a contract per-service basis, and paid according to the terms of their AGMA (union) contract. As a singer who’s worked in both the US and Europe, I would say that the pay conditions are far better in Europe than in the US, simply because of the number of performances. It’s easier to earn a living as a singer when you’re singing 15 performances in the run of a show, rather than 3 (the average at a regional house is 3).

    • Donald Judge says:

      WHAT?! No significant repertoire in a century? Since 1913?! So Britten and Adams, to name but two, are not significant? Not to mention all the small scale accessible and relevant opera being written – Adam Gorb’s Anya17 about sex trafficking being just one that impressed and moved me recently. As for expensive, I’ve recently paid around £50 to see all THREE of Opera North’s Britten productions next season in Manchester. I wonder what seeing three MUFC matches would cost… And people can see opera by videolink in cinemas for the cost of a bottle of wine…

    • Stephen Swanson says:

      “The genre has not developed a significant new repertoire in a century.”

      Oh dear, so I suppose Gianni Schicchi, Bluebeard’s Castle, Turandot, The Love for Three Oranges, The Cunning Little Vixen, Wozzek, Lulu, Moses and Aron, Porgy and Bess, Peter Grimes, Albert Herring, Amahl and the Night Visitors, Billy Budd, The Rake’s Progress, Dialogues of the Carmelites, Vanessa, Einstein on the Beach, and Nixon in China don’t constitute a significant repertoire! I guess the genre really is antiquated, then.

      • Donald Judge says:

        Hear hear!

      • Some of these works are very good, and some master pieces, but sadly, they will not insure the future of opera. Lulu, Wozzek, Moses and Aaron, Dialog of the Carmelites, and the Rake’s Progress, for example, are great works, but they do not have a wide audience even among most who support classical music. And again, I find that unfortunate. Wishful thinking won’t help, but rather sober, cold, hard clarity.

        • Among the top 50 most performed operas, Strauss and Puccini are the only 20th century composers, along with Emmerich Kalman’s little known “Die Csárdásfürstin at 44.” These works were written on average about 80 years ago. For details see Operabase.

          • Stephen Swanson says:

            You left out Franz Lehár (The Merry Widow was first performed in 1905 and the composer lived well into the 1940s) and I suppose if you want to get nit-picky Verdi, Dvořák, Humperdinck, Leoncavallo and Mascagni all lived into the 20th century. Also if you’re looking at most-performed composers (rather than individual operas) you will find, Britten, Janáček and Weill in the top 25 (along with the afore-mentioned Strauss, Puccini, Kálmán and Lehár).

            If we’re going to talk Operabase statistics, perhaps we should also go back to your statement that only three American cities are in the top 100 for opera performances in the world. That is technically true, although you neglect to mention that the United States is second only to Germany in the world in total opera performances per country.

          • Yes, but the USA has four times the population of Germany — which is why we only 3 cities in the top 100. Performances per capita is very important in terms of accessibility.

            Whatever counting method we use, it would be difficult to use composers like Lehár, Verdi, Dvořák, Humperdinck, Leoncavallo and Mascagni to demonstrate that opera is moving forward even if their lives stretched into the early 20th century — unless one has remarkably conservative and traditional tastes. Britten and Janáček hardly help, even if they are very fine composers.

          • And not to belabor the obvious, but the low numbers for the USA might also explain why so much of your career has been in Switzerland, Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands, as it is with so many American singers.

          • Stephen Swanson says:

            “…low numbers for the USA might also explain why so much of your career has been in Switzerland, Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands, as it is with so many American singers.” Ah yes, you probably are thinking I’m the wonderfully-named Stephen Swanson who sings around the world. Sorry to disappoint, but I’m just a simple bass player from Spokane. I’ve never met the singing Stephen Swanson, but his primary employment does seem to be in the United States. That he is appreciated around the world shouldn’t diminish the role he has had in his own country.

            As far as the “accounting method” we use in determining whether opera is “moving forward”, I used the 20th century as a temporal guideline simply because that’s what you did. Whether an audience has conservative or adventurous tastes doesn’t remove validity from an opera that doesn’t happen to fall into one camp or another. Jake Heggie and Michel van der Aa are putting out vastly different kinds of operas right now, but because one composer is more conservatively inclined doesn’t mean that his work is not pushing the operatic tradition in his own way.

            It’s also vastly premature to bemoan the lack of wide audience for recent operatic work. Every generation has those who will complain about the music of today as being a bunch of noise. We won’t know what posterity will deem to be our time’s cultural benchmarks for a very long time. There was once a very myopic theatrical agent by the name of Carlo D’Ormeville who attended the premiere of La bohème and telegraphed his associates in Milan “BOHEME FAILURE IT WON’T MAKE THE ROUNDS.”

          • Germany had 7230 opera performances last year, while the USA with four times the population only had 1730 – or one quarter the amount.

            Germany had one opera performance for every 11,341 people. The USA had one for every 180,924. Germany thus had 15.9 times more opera performances per capita.

            That is why so many American singers (including Mr. Swanson) spend very large amounts of their careers in Europe. On the other hand, I recognize the American need to deny any secondary status. Nothing to be done.

            I have doubts that Berg and Schoenberg will become standard repertoire and maintain the future of opera. Nor Heggie, Adams, and Co. The time lag explanation doesn’t work for me in this case. I don’t have a crystal ball, but innovations in music theater will probably cut far deeper and move away from what could accurately be termed opera. The principle issues are expense and a form so ponderous it has had trouble adapting to modern theories of theater. I could elaborate, but it would accomplish little against the insistent orthodoxy of opera fans. For those interested, I have a long essay on the topic here, along with a video that illustrates some of my ideas:


          • Mr. Osborne,

            Where are you finding your USA numbers? Opera America members counted almost 1,100 PRODUCTIONS. No opera production in the world has one performance, and usually not two. So, saying these 1,100 productions each did 2 performances, that 2,200 right there. There are many companies not members of OA.

            I believe you misunderstand the US system which includes at least dozens of small companies, many of which are semi-professional but superb, or others that are educational and also superb.

          • Mr. Osborne,

            You also, of course, are ignoring the HD screenings, which reach at least 150,000 each screening – and sometimes double that figure. Frankly, these should be included in some way. Residents of Kansas are, after all, watching an opera performance, although it is from NY.

            I apologize, but I believe your characterization of the US and opera is simply based on what seems to me to be a 20th century, very Eurocentric, subsidy-advocating model.

          • Opera is the most visceral of all arts forms. That Americans have to experience it in movie theaters through speakers is in reality of measure of our lack of culture. With 83 fulltime, year-round opera houses, Germany doesn’t need video broadcasts. Opera should be experienced live.

          • My numbers are from Operabase. In the USA, many productions are done with pickup musicians in rental facilities. Perhaps they haven’t been counted. On the other hand, these productions, given the circumstances, are rather poor, often semi-professional, and do not compare to performances in fulltime, dedicated opera houses using fulltime professionals — though once again, I know that Americans will have difficulty considering such factors.

          • Fabio Fabrici says:

            @Janey: Germany also has video screenings in theaters – e.g. from the MET. La Scala etc. – which are hugely popular and hundreds of smaller off-scene and semi-pro theaters, all of that in addition to the regular opera scene. So your argument doesn’t work to your advantage. ;)

          • Fabio Fabrici says:

            Janey, for statistics where the US is #1, you can use the website

            Opera productions is not listed, but these, enjoy :):

            Crime > Murders with firearms
            Crime > Total crimes
            Economy > GDP > PPP
            Education > Average years of schooling of adults
            Environment > CO2 Emissions
            Food > McDonalds restaurants
            Health > Obesity
            Health > Teenage pregnancy
            People > Divorce rate
            Transportation > Motor vehicles

          • Mr. Osborne,

            ” though once again, I know that Americans will have difficulty considering such factors.”

            It seems to me that the reason you relate to Ms. Montague is that you understand yourself to fit her portrayal of opera audiences. Thank the Lord in the US we do not have such elitist views of opera and what it should be. It has been my experience that attitudes like yours would rather condemn opera to a museum than bring it into the community.

            I would much rather see some of the marvelous opera productions from those companies using “rental space” than that ridiculous Bayreuth Ring in your precious Germany. A space does not make the opera.

          • Fabio,

            Your second comment is off topic and unnecessary. It is an attempted political attack on the US.

            Your first comment does not answer the question at hand – or misunderstands the question.

            Productions shown in Germany from the Met and La Scala do not count as German productions, so of course, they would not be included in German statistics.

          • Actually, the space does make opera. Opera stages are very unique. They need a pit, and special acoustics and sight lines. They need specialized forms of stage machinery and good lighting systems. They also need large, well equipped scene shops and studios for rehearsal, costuming, etc. There is no substitute for an opera house.

            And as I mentioned, opera is a very visceral art form. There is no component more important than the physical presence of all that vibrating flesh. To be polemical, I fear that video broadcasts as a substitute for real, functioning opera houses anchored in communal identity was brought to us by the same culture that put cheese in a spray can.

            On the other hand, perhaps video will lead to new developments in opera when composers begin to write operas specifically designed for video which which might become an entirely different genre than stage opera.

            As for the Bayreuth Ring, there is indeed an interesting correlation in these discussions between orthodox tastes in stage direction and people who also do not want to see opera challenged or questioned. As I say, and in spite of any excesses in Regietheater, I think this has led to stagnation that has harmed the art form.

          • Actually, opera is far less elitist in Europe than the USA. Ticket prices for opera in Europe, even in the best houses like the Vienna State Opera or La Scala, are about one quarter the cost of the tickets at the Met, San Francisco Opera, Chicago Lyric, Santa Fe, etc. As a result, the demogrpahic of participation is far wider.

            At the Met, donors are given priority sales before subscriptions are put on the open market. After they buy their subscriptions, few of the best seats are left. The entry level donation for priority seating is beyond middle class incomes, especially when the high prices of the subscriptions are added to it.

            Another odd tradition is that most of the front area orchestra level seats at the Met have brass name plates on their backs named after donors. It’s as if the wealthy literally own the best seats.

            Should non-profit arts institutions privilege the wealthy in this way? Should only the wealthy be able to afford the best seats? What price do we pay in the USA for orienting opera around the wealthy? How does this system compare to Europe where the best seats for orchestra concerts and operas can be paid for with middle class incomes, where local houses that run all year are almost everywhere, and where the demographic of participation is far wider? (There are nine fulltime opera houses within two hours of where I live in the Black Forest.)

            When the Met used to do opera in Central Park in the summer, the crowds would reach 60,000. Tellingly, the program was eliminated as a cost cutting measure. And to top it off, the NYCO (“The People’s Opera, as it was once called) has had its budget more than halved and is now even homelss. It’s time opera faced some serious questions.

          • Fabio Fabrici says:

            Janey, my comments here to you are simply tongue in cheek comments about your attitude here. You sound like you can’t accept the simple fact, that opera as an art form is underdeveloped in the US compared to other countries on this planet, as was shown en detail by Mr. Osborne. You should simply accept that and move on.

          • Mr. Osborne,

            It is ironic that you criticize “people who also do not want to see opera challenged or questioned,” suggesting it has led to stagnation given your rejection of any new ways to present it.

            Do you not believe that insisting opera only be presented in approved spaces, with approved orchestra pits, approved “stage machinery,” etc. is stagnating? We may only enjoy opera in places that resemble those created 200 hundred years ago?

            Naturally, it would be wonderful to have opera houses everywhere, and to have everyone feel comfortable attending operas in them. Are you suggesting that areas without opera houses should simply forget about ever seeing opera? Are you saying that opera companies should not explore new ways to present it by going into the community instead of insisting people trek to their approved, special houses?

            Does anyone wonder why people like Ms. Montague view some opera fans as “elitist”?

          • Fabio, your characterization of me is incorrect.

            I agree that opera in the US deserves more public support and there are many problems. I object, however, to what I see as snobbish and sometimes anti-American comments (not based on anything to do with opera) that dismiss many of the good things being done by American opera companies. Yes, the US does it our way. That sometimes is not as good as Europe, but sometimes, it may be better. We must view the entire picture through as unbiased a lens as possible.

            I would be ecstatic to see a company like the ENO in the US, for example. On the other hand, would I want US companies to be so dependent on subsidies that they fail at the next recession or are reduced to begging the government for handouts (La Scala, for example)? No. Opera can stand mostly on its own, although public investment at some level is helpful and more importantly signifies many positive things about our society.

            I will never accept claims, however, that US is somehow second rate culturally based on figures found in Operabase.

          • There are about 12 or 14 opera houses in Italy supported by the government, not just La Scala. And as I mentioned, there are 83 in Germany.

    • “Try to imagine a major broadcaster in the USA granting a 25 minute interview to an opera singer!”

      I’m pretty sure Renée Fleming has had a few (even if that includes some cooking with Martha Stewart etc.)

      • I hope you’re right, but pretty sure isn’t quite what we need. When and where and did they actually talk about opera in an intelligent manner as in the above interview?

        • The interviews I have seen with Fleming, and I’m sorry I don’t remember which programs but they were major networks, have been very interesting. They have focused most on what it takes to be an opera singer in today’s world, a topic that is necessary and interesting given the misunderstanding of opera created by the crossover singers. And given the myths perpetuated by many in the media about opera singers.

          I have seen similar from Voigt, Domingo and Hampson. Even shorter interviews where an opera singer is presented on a program that features many kinds of pop culture and skews young are important. I believe these, plus longer interviews, are exactly what we need. Placido Domingo’s 10 minutes with Stephen Colbert were funny and wonderful. I appreciated that he explained that there were many American and English language operas – something rarely understood by the media. I wish Fleming wasn’t the only singer invited on things like the late shows, however. There are other singers!

          I could not find the most recent program I watched with Luisi, Voigt and Hunter Morris, but this is the preview and contains an interesting excerpt from JHM.

          • I’m glad to see these interviews are happening (if they are,) even if some might not compare to the BBC in substance or audience size. Colbert and late night shows hardly imply in-depth discussion. Even in the Charlie Rose interview, I see the usual, opera folks speaking about themselves in a somewhat self-aggrandizing manner without facing the many challenging questions that surround the genre. In my view, this is not the kind of discussion that will move us forward. And it is also why these discussions had very little response or resonance. There is more to art than tending the sacred cows.

          • I never doubted you would find fault with the interview, Mr. Osborne. It is, after all, from America.

          • Actually, I haven’t spoken about anything but the low status of opera in the USA, but it could indeed be correlated to larger social issues. One would be the bankruptcy of Detroit with its 78,000 abandoned homes and the possible auctioning of 2.5 billion dollars worth of paintings from the Detroit Institute of Art.

            Even though Detroit has the 24th largest metro GDP in the world, it ranks 276th for opera performances per year. (See Operabase.) Perhaps we should indeed place the opera issue in a larger social context.

          • Mr. Osborne,

            Being a statistician, however, I know you would not use the Detroit situation to stereotype the entire United States, assuming it represents us all. Correct?

            Where do you reside, Mr. Osborne, by the way? And for how long?

          • Fabio Fabrici says:

            “There is more to art than tending the sacred cows.”

            That’s so very very true.


            the cows still must be kept alive first of all…

          • @Janey. I live in Europe about 8 months a year, and about 4 months a year in my house in Taos, NM.

  11. Great letter. I would love to see the BBC respond to this.

    • Thanks. I’m genuinely astonished at how widely and how fast it has spread. I am not hopeful that we will get a meaningful response, but I think there is value in the fact that people are now discussing the issues that SHOULD have been raised in that dreadful interview.

  12. Susan Brodie says:

    Well done, Thomas Hampson and Alexander Robinson. If this is what passes for journalism at the BBC they should change the name of the program from HARDtalk to CHEAPshot.

  13. There is a fundamental flaw in Mr. Robinson’s letter. He uses appeals to reason, worldliness, and culture as justifications for the acceptance of opera (Shakespeare is also old, you like Dickens, don’t you? Therefore opera is in good company).

    Maybe in Great Britain that kind of argument works, but I’m leery of giving the dingbats at the BBC who let that travesty occur that much credit. Unless of course the whole program was meant to be one big ironic performance piece, in which case I say, bravo BBC! (that’s Italian [a southern European language] for hurrah, or something like that)

    • I have little faith in the BBC news team behind this, sadly. I’d love to think that there are some BBC staffers who work on Radio 3, the Proms, etc. who (secretly) back everything we’re saying here.

      BBC employees, are you out there? Do any of you want to weigh in (anonymously)? I would love to know what you think!

  14. Mike Schachter says:

    I am sure she was screened to make sure she has a stock on mindless right-on cliches before she got her current job.

  15. Kenneth Griffin says:

    Well, this interview has touched a nerve! Thomas Hampson makes a claim about his artform, BBC News invites him to explain his claim in a long broadcast interview, he accepts and performs more than adequately, and the perverse outcome is that all the insecurities of opera supporters about their personally favoured artform flood to the surface,

    • So true. Classical music supporters need to move away from defensive bluster to creative arguments based in reasoned fact.

      • Thanks, as always, W.O. for your thoughtful comments and willingness to speak the truth, even when it is against the tide.

      • Reasoned fact – like that in my letter?

        What annoyed me – and appears to have struck a chord with so many others – is that Montague opened the broadcast in her piece to camera stating, as fact, that opera is expensive, little-appreciated, and so on. This biases the whole interview against Hampson and opera before it’s even begun. She clearly had a series of questions to get through, regardless of Hampson’s responses, and it makes her look arrogant, ignorant and rude, belittles Hampson and insults the intelligence of the viewer. The premises of her questions are laughably easy to disprove, to the extent that they really shouldn’t even be raised in what is supposed to be a serious, intelligent interview.

        Thomas Hampson did a superb job and gave very eloquent and moving answers despite, not because of, the tone of the questions. HARDTalk is normally so much better-researched than this and Montague so much better-prepared. I don’t mind confrontational interviews so much as lazy, ignorant resorts to stereotype.

        • I think your letter is fine, though from my perspective challenges and defenses of opera that explore less commonplace arguments are more interesting. Opera is indeed expensive, and especially in the USA, under appreciated. So the indignity here is very specious — based on disagreement rather than distortions of fact. On the other hand, it is no surprise that opera fans are often rather thin skinned and react with righteous indignity when the genre is questioned. Ironically, this is one of the reasons that the opera has become relatively stagnant. Artists should always be ready to face challenging questions, both superficial and profound, and use the opportunity to explain their viewpoint. As we see with all of this discussion, Hard Talk has done a real service to opera. People are thinking about it.

  16. Istvan Horthy says:

    Since the interviewer’s questions produced some very intelligent answers from Hampson, I don’t see what the fuss is about. I found the programme very stimulating and interesting, which it wouldn’t have been if all the interviewer’s questions had been as obvious and bland as the points made in the listener’s all too sensible letter.

    • Hampson produced intelligent answers in spite of the questions, not because of. That’s the point.

      • To expand on that, I don’t recall a single question from Montague that was prompted by something that Hampson said. As pointed out in the letter, the questions had clearly been prepared in advance.

        • This is precisely one of the points I sought to make, and it appears that many, many people agree. I don’t mind aggressive questioning but there has to be a two-way discussion.

          Here Hampson was placed on the defensive from the start (and why must the validity of opera constantly be questioned? We don’t see this sort of discussion taking place with, say, sport or cinema). Montague paid no attention to his answers – which, as noted above, were extremely intelligent and thoughtful – but simply pressed ahead with her agenda, making her look arrogant, dismissive, ignorant and generally unpleasant, as well as perpetuating damaging stereotypes about opera. Opera houses work so hard to dispel all these ridiculous myths, yet it only takes one lazy bit of reporting to undo so much goodwill.

  17. Mark Shulgasser says:

    Re Sarah Montague: check out her wiki entry. For all her professed populism she is flagrantly a corporate tool, twice recently strike-breaking, with particularly cynical machinations.

    • When you say ‘recently’ you mean 3 years and 2 years ago. And aren’t people allowed to go through a picket-line? It’s a free country, right? And what has it got to do with the subject in hand anyway?!
      Having an opinion of someone entirely from their Wikipedia entry doesn’t exactly demonstrate the qualities you are nevertheless expecting from Ms Montague.

  18. Kathleen Mere says:

    A Mr Fred Plotkin, contributing to WQXR in the States, has written a very sensible article about this dreadful programme. I’ve pasted a link below in case other readers would like to soothe their troubled minds by reading it..!/blogs/operavore/2013/aug/02/thomas-hampson-hot-seat-hardtalk/

    Thoman Hampson is a hero and Ms Montague – well, we all know what she is and she clearly doesn’t mind who knows it, judging from the unashamed way in which she flaunts her ignorance, bigotry and toital lack of knowledge of opera. She should have stuck to selling shirts.

  19. Stephen Bell says:

    I’m afraid I am more than a little surprised at the reactions shown here to this excellent interview. How many here have actually listened or watched it??

    It may seem to some that this is incredibly incisive and tough interviewing but that is exactly what it is supposed to be. The result is that the subject (whatever it may be) is subjected to some HARD TALKING scrutiny and in doing so can tease out a counter position which in this case was superbly handled by Thomas Hampson.

    I for one would like to hear more of this excellent style.

    • I listened and watched all the way through the interview and it simply made me more and more irate. As plenty of others have noted, Hampson gave wonderful, expressive, thoughtful answers despite, not because of, the questions. Montague clearly had an agenda to pursue and simply ignored him.

      I’ve noted a few additional points on my blog, but here are a few which seem appropriate in response to your comment above.

      In no way do I intend to imply that opera is beyond reproach or debate. There are some very valuable discussions to be had here. I also recognise that the “Devil’s Advocate” interviewing style is a legitimate tactic, and HARDtalk’s signature style, though I personally find it irritating. My objection here is that this goes beyond “Devil’s Advocate” into presenting falsehoods as truth. The introductory piece to camera – where the interviewee is absent, and which acts as a brief introduction for the viewer – states “opera is one of the least watched art forms… possibly the most expensive… Can one of the most elite and expensive art forms have worldwide appeal?” In doing so we are presented as fact the ideas of elitism and expense, and invited to assume that there is a lack of appeal and little that can be done about this. The whole tone of the show is rigged in favour of the opening hypothesis from the start.

      Would anyone who is not already an operagoer really learn anything from this interview to dispel any myths they might believe? What will stick in the mind of the lay viewer is surely the overall contour of the interview – aggressive question after aggressive question, as though Hampson is a politician caught trying to evade the interviewer.

      I certainly don’t expect interviewees to be invited in for a cosy chat where everyone agrees on everything. That teaches us nothing. But equally, an interview only works if there is a genuine two-way discussion. Here, Montague clearly had her “lines to take” (in fairness these may be dictated by the director or producer, and not her actual opinion) and was determined to get through them no matter what Hampson said. This makes her look aggressive, ignorant and rude, while Hampson must have the patience of a saint to keep his cool like that.

      The repeated use of the word “elitism” invites us to assume that opera is inaccessible to all but the most privileged in society. This is demonstrably untrue, as I have argued in my letter. There is nothing structurally or institutionally preventing “non-elite” viewers from attending, even if we still have a way to go in actually achieving a truly representative audience. Opera houses are doing their utmost to reach out. And yet it only takes a few lazy, prejudiced interviews to undo that hard work and deter people from attending because they feel, inaccurately, that they wouldn’t fit in.

      Another point is that many of the questions raised referred to institutional problems, whether real or perceived, of opera funding; as an independent professional, Thomas Hampson can’t reasonably be asked to account for issues of policy. The people to speak to here would be the directors, the managers, the publicity and outreach officers, and the people who fund the opera. We shouldn’t attack an artist who is simply following his vocation and trying to bring an appreciation of opera to people worldwide regardless of their background.

      The second half of the interview is much less aggressive, and perhaps I should have been clearer in my letter, though I still felt there was an air of “it’ll never catch on” scepticism to Montague’s questioning. Here, the interview touches upon the influence of new digital media on listening habits. Why not start there? It’s a fascinating topic. Why precede it with 15 minutes of inverse snobbery? What does that achieve?

      • “Opera houses are doing their utmost to reach out. And yet it only takes a few lazy, prejudiced interviews to undo that hard work and deter people from attending because they feel, inaccurately, that they wouldn’t fit in.”

        The same applies to lazy, stereotypical depictions of opera audiences in movies and on TV, and casual, throw away remarks about boredom and falling asleep. It’s rare to see a relatively young, normally attired audience for any classical performance in a movie. The treatment of chamber music is even worse. People with no interest in opera might not feel inclined to watch a serious interview with an opera singer, but they watch movies, and images like these are bound to confirm false impressions and undermine the difficult outreach work that is so important.

        Unfortunately, I doubt whether TV and film companies would be sympathetic to the problem.

  20. Greg Hlatky says:

    “Even though Detroit has the 24th largest metro GDP in the world, it ranks 276th for opera performances per year.”

    Let’s imagine what’s going on through Kevyn Orr’s mind. “We owe 18 billion dollars that we don’t have and never will. Over the last 50 years we’ve lost 60% of our population. Half the population of Detroit is functionally illiterate. There are 70,000 abandoned buildings, 31,000 empty houses and 90,000 vacant lots. Retiree benefits take up a third of the city’s budget. How could this have happened? I know: we don’t have enough opera performances!”

    • I think there are correlations between culture and the health of cities. Culture is by nature local. There few things that strengthen cities more than strong cultural identities. It stands to reason that when societies take care to see that their citizens are educated and cultured that there will be less poverty and the social ills it produces. The health of our cities and their cultural identities will always exist in strong symbiotic relationship. It is unfortunate this is so little understood in America.

    • Fabio Fabrici says:

      But how could all this happen with such a substantial GDP?
      Actually, it’s not absurd at all to invest into culture in times like this. Where there is culture, investments start, jobs are created, houses are bought and maintained.
      It would require a radical shift of thinking though. Allow debt for investment into culture and education, not for throwing money into the mouths of banksters and military-industrial complex parasites.
      I know, I don’t make any sense. Investing into one’s own future is completely nuts.

      • “Where there is culture, investments start, jobs are created, houses are bought and maintained.”

        Maybe, maybe not. I’d say first class infrastructure comes first.

        I think it would be extremely difficult to sell this idea to people who are struggling to make ends meet.

    • The Michigan Opera is a very good company. They really know how to put on operas, but they are massively underfunded. If they had sufficient public subsidies, they would have a world class opera company within five years. It would quickly become a beacon of hope, competence, and creativity that would play an important role in rebuilding the city. We humans sing our worlds into being.

  21. The BBC has responded to my letter:

    Not had time to consider in depth yet. Thoughts?

    • I find this response truly impressive. The compilation of information and the extensive and thoughtful arguments are very impressive. Once again, I think the BBC shows itself in a very positive light.

    • Alexander Hall says:

      The BBC were never going to eat humble pie on this one and say “Sorry, we got it wrong”. They would have undermined what they regard as their “editorial line”, however misguided that might be. This should not unduly worry you, however. Even before Tony Hall there were enough sensitive antennae in the Corporation who took account of serious critical opinion and in later editorial judgements made the necessary adjustments. Even Mary Whitehouse had an effect on what the BBC did and how it did it. This is where I see the value of your contribution and the overwhelmingly negative reaction to the Hard Talk programme. The lesson that I trust will be learned by the Corporation is that if you deliberately set out to undermine a cultural institution, no matter how elitist some people might consider that to be, you actually end up digging your own grave.

  22. David Stevenson says:

    I think the response of the BBC is fair and brings up points that perhaps could have been expressed more clearly in the programme. I like opera, but it receives a substantial amount of public money to provide a specific cultural activity to a very small percentage of the population. I am not worried about the opera being elite, I am worried about Matilda becoming elite. Why should Matilda be out of reach for those that want to go and see it? Why should families not be able to afford to go to the cinema, while we offer them cheap tickets for the opera that they don’t want. Cultural participation is so important, but we need to worry about overcoming barriers to participation with all cultural forms, not just a small minority.

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