Here’s a couple of pie charts for you, showing the income and expenditure of the Royal Opera House in 2014:
The sector to which I’d like to draw our attention is “Box office receipts” on the income chart, making up 35% of the ROH’s annual income in this, a fairly typical year.
What that tells us is that, if we imagine an large-scale opera house which aimed to break even on the box office alone, the tickets would need to be, on average, nearly three times the price of current ROH tickets. Or to put it another way, your £50 ticket to Covent Garden is actually worth over £140 – the other £90+ is covered by state subsidy, sponsorship, overpriced champagne, and so on.
There’s a further layer of subsidy which is perhaps less obvious, and that’s revealed when you look at the range of prices available. Tickets for main stage productions at the ROH start at about £10 (you have to be very quick to get those) and go up to a typical maximum of around £240. Compare that to a commercial West End musical – let’s say Phantom of the Opera, where the spread of prices is more like £20-£100. So while the posh seats subsidise the cheap ones in both instances, the extent to which that happens is far greater at the ROH.
Having said that, in our parallel-universe opera house run on ticket sales alone, if we sold all the seats at a flat rate, I would make a rough guess that they would each need to be sold at £250+ to cover our costs, even assuming we sell out every show. That is to say that even the most expensive opera tickets are still sold at less than cost price.
Some ticket-buyers complain that in practice opera is expensive because while there are cheap tickets available, they sell out very quickly since there are a lot of regular patrons who watch the on-sale date like hawks and snap up the bargains in a flash, leaving late-comers with only the more expensive ones from which to choose. While I see their point, it’s also hard to argue that we should come up with an alternative system where our most loyal customers are punished financially rather than rewarded.
So let’s say that you and I were running the Royal Opera House, or even heaven forbid the Arts Council. On Monday morning we might be having two conversations.
1. To what extent should the better seats subsidise the cheaper ones? How would an alternative ticketing model look where we sold all the seats in the theatre at a flat rate on a first-come-first-served basis? In which case the reward for our most loyal customers would be that they get the best seats, rather than the cheapest ones, and last-minute ticket-buyers wouldn’t pay more, but would have to sit further back.
2. To what extent should the big-sellers subsidise the longer shots? That is, if we put on a show that could sell out twice over, is the best use of our various subsidies to make some or all of the tickets for that show as cheap as possible? Or would it be to increase the price of tickets for those shows, knowing that we’ll probably still sell them all, which would then enable us to make ticket prices for our less popular (or should I say, artistically riskier) shows much cheaper than usual?
Although I’m taking them to hypothetical extremes, these are the discussions which take place every day in the offices of opera houses all over the world.
Let me leave you with this thought: something can be expensive and still represent excellent value for money. If I offered you a brand new top-of-the-range Mercedes for £20,000, your response would not be “That’s a bit pricey!” but “Why and how is that so cheap?” Full-scale opera productions involve a huge amount of work from a huge number of people (most of whom are highly-skilled and very few of whom are paid particularly well), as well as a mind-bogglingly complicated supporting infrastructure. I hope it goes without saying that all of us who are involved in producing opera should always be looking at ways to do it more efficiently and cut out unnecessary expenditure wherever possible (N.-massively-B. without undermining the quality). But opera is, by its very nature, an expensive art form – and while the tickets aren’t cheap, on the whole they’re still incredible value for money.