Is opera really all that expensive?

La Scala opera house, Milan

The Proms season has begun, so it’s time for the media to laud and damn high culture all at once. I didn’t get far in a little Guardian discussion between Roger Wright, the director of the BBC Proms, and Laura Barton, a writer on rock music before this little nugget popped up (from Barton):

Away from the Proms, the problem I have with classical music is the lack of democracy – not just to do with how much it costs to go to the opera.

The cost of opera tickets is a kind of totemic measure of ‘elitism’, so casually invoked that it is seldom enquired into. Hundreds of people are involved in every opera performance. There are likely to be between 150 and 200 musicians if it’s a large orchestra with a hefty chorus and a decent number of soloists. There are also backstage people managing the scenery, props, and lighting. These people have to be present at every performance, and they have to be paid each time. There is, then, an inescapable labour cost in opera that far exceeds that required in theatre, or – a more interesting comparison, I think – football. It’s a comparison that Wright makes, and which Barton acknowledges, but it is passed over as a small point not worth examining in their discussion. Yet the figures are interesting.

A BBC sports blogpost from last year investigates the ticket price costs for football matches. The argument is specious.

It’s the football fans’ favourite anecdote to bemoan the price of tickets. But expensive or not, 16 million people watched Football Leagues games last season. Not all of them could have been the wealthy middle classes, munching on prawn sandwiches from the corporate boxes.

That football is expensive is relative. Head to Iron Maiden (remember them) at the Manchester Evening News Arena recently, and the cheapest price was £43. At Old Trafford and the Etihad Stadium this season – to watch the Premier League champions and the world’s richest club – it could cost you as little as £28 or £25.

Even at Arsenal where the most expensive ticket will cost you £100 – just 1% of tickets available – they hardly struggle to sell seats.

The measure, then, of whether football tickets cost too much is simply whether they sell. Absent here is any awareness of the sense that for many people, football is the most important or cherished form of entertainment and that they would happily compromise on other things – holidays, quality of housing, nutrition – in order to attend matches. Absent, too, is any measure of the true cost of putting on football, and the extraordinarily level of naked capital generation – the direct transfer of money from many of the poorest in our society (football’s fan base, numerically) to the very richest. There is in short no political analysis of the economics. If the football clubs can get away with it, the ticket price is OK, on this view.

So what are the football and opera ticket prices that people allude to but never really focus on? Here is a snapshot of ticket prices for Arsenal games, taken from their website. They range from £10 to £123.50.

Maybe those are London prices. Here, then, are ticket prices at Manchester United (£16 to £52):

The Old Vic theatre in London has prices ranging from £11 to £58:

And here are Welsh National Opera’s ticket prices at their Cardiff home for a popular (and therefore more than usually expensive) opera:

£5 to £40 for a world-class opera performance, by a company that tours widely round the country, where its ticket prices may be even lower. Ticket prices at Covent Garden are higher – to attend an opera of the Ring you will have to pay between £15 for a standby ticket on the day to about £200 for the best seat in the house – but at English National Opera I’ve never seen a production with a ticket price over £90-odd, and seats in the massive Coliseum balcony range between £12 and £25 for their current production of The Magic Flute.

I wouldn’t make the fatuous argument that as long as tickets are being sold there is nothing wrong with the price of opera tickets. The Royal Opera House in particular – in fact, here it is pretty much out on its own – has scandalously high ticket prices, and often stages very boring productions. But ENO and WNO, and a range of fantastic regional or touring opera companies present interesting, original, and high-quality – Premier League, if you like – opera performances at prices that are often lower than for theatre (which has far fewer people to employ for every performance) or football (which employs a couple of dozen people on pitch). Only Covent Garden can rival the prices of Arsenal ticket prices.

Barton notes that the working-class interest in classical music seemed to drop off ‘probably’ around the birth of rock. The implication is that this is because the working class found a medium that spoke to them more vitally than classical music, and even that the new form was essentially more democratic, morally better, not tainted by ‘elitism’.

Elitism is, of course, the word used to mean ‘The cultural form in which the power of a privileged few is maintained.’ It is a deeply dubious designation. But if we change one word in that definition, so we have ‘The economic form in which the power of the privileged few is maintained’, not only do we have a concern that is infinitely more pressing – because economics exert a much more total control over human beings than cultural entertainments – but we find quite different targets for scrutiny, and football and rock music would be rather higher up the list than classical music.

One of the most important reasons why rock music is more popular than classical is that it is more immediately enjoyable and is therefore more saleable. Classical music, even really freakish stuff like Schoenberg or Birtwistle – is certainly not immune to the pressures of commodification, and CDs sell in their millions, with a few artists, and even fewer record company chief executives, becoming very rich as a result. But the commodification of popular musical forms is in a different league altogether. And again, plenty of pop music (I use that term to include every sub-genre, for brevity) resists its commodity form, and has lyrics and performers who strongly oppose the politico–economic order. Pop isn’t monolithic, and certainly isn’t uniformly a mere tool of capital, generating easily digestible and instantly discardable pap commodities that must be replaced within five minutes. But its greater amenability to commodity exploitation is a characteristic that clearly marks it out from classical music, and it is that, not just questions of taste, that gives it its cultural position today.

According to Marx, the difference between the capitalist and the worker depends on the different cyclical relations they have between money and commodities. The worker has a commodity, their body, which can be sold for money (through paid work) in order that they can buy more commodities: the worker’s cycle is C–M–C. The capitalist, however, has money, which is used to buy commodities (the work of workers), which in turn generates more money. Although the capitalist also buys commodities, he or she doesn’t spend anywhere near as much of their available resources on them. Bill Gates could buy a hundred yachts quicker than a Sainsbury’s checkout operator could buy a nice barbecue. The capitalist’s cycle is therefore M–C–M.

Cultural products like pop and football, which are immensely popular among the working class, demonstrate with uncomfortable clarity the differences between these two cycles, and the way in which these cultural forms can exert economic control over the majority on behalf of the very few.

But in this case it is football, whose real costs are or should be low, that seems to exert the most nakedly unreasonable economic force here, yet it escapes the obloquy customarily hurled at classical music. Ticket prices paid for opera compare extremely favourably to those paid for football. The fact that opera tickets are often (not always) subsidized doesn’t make much difference: anyone can buy them and benefit from the subsidy (though, again, at the Royal Opera House, unless you’re a very expensive category of ‘Friend’, and so capable of buying tickets during the privileged period before they are open to the general public who haven’t paid hundreds or thousands of pounds to show their ‘friendship’, you might not be able to buy any tickets at all).

Opera companies aren’t run by saints and are just as capable of exploitation as anybody else, but can we drop the easy supposition that opera tickets are somehow expensive? Even relative to football they are not. And their costs can quite easily be justified by the costs of staging. Not so with football. When we’re faced with a cultural form that so obviously extracts money so cruelly from millions of people who could do without the exploitation, it’s time for liberals to start thinking a bit more about the positions they hold. Stop making ‘elitism’ the principal cultural target. Attack the thing that really hurts people economically. Attack football.



  1. Have enjoyed reading this very much, it’s a discussion I often have. I love travelling & I’m a big fan of Formula One & used to go to lots of races in Europe. Last race I went to was Monza 2010 & my Grandstand seat was £500. At the Nurburgring in 2009 my seat in the Mercedes Stand cost £600. In 1995 the grandstands at Monza were sold out & fans were trying to bribe the marshals to let them in; in 2010 the grandstands at Monza were almost empty – I wonder why … ? I know F1 can’t really be compared with football because the costs involved are much higher but until sports promoters stop being so greedy I won’t go again. I think opera is good value for money especially houses like Munich & Amsterdam. Even top price tickets for the recent Les Troyens at ROH weren’t as much as for a Grand Prix.

  2. When you consider how much smaller opera auditoria are to stadia, and the ratio of ‘actors’ to audience’, the value for money seems suddenly even better. Oh, and some operas last more than 90 minutes …

    Similarly, the indirect subsidies paid to football clubs via infrastructure, city planning, police, TV rights etc. shouldn’t be ignored.

  3. I used to have this argument with my peers years ago, i.e. why was I off spending seemingly absurd money going to the opera as opposed going to the football or playing golf. Then the prices went majorly north at the football and the golf. Not far short of a grand for a season ticket. £95 for a green fee. Strangely, I don’t get this argument any more.

  4. I am both a football fan and a classical musician. I go to concerts and the opera and have a season ticket at my club.
    I feel that both represent excellent value for money, but this is probably because I don’t support one of the “brand” clubs. When you look at ticket prices outside of clubs such as Manchesters United and City and the London clubs, they’re actually far more reasonable.
    As such, looking only at those clubs gives a slightly skewed view of things.
    My season ticket for my football club (West Bromwich Albion) costs me £350 a year. With 19 games a season, this represents a cost of £18.42 per game, which while more expensive than concert tickets is about par with the cheapest opera seats.
    I also think this piece underestimates the behind the scenes costs of football – as well as the players and coaching staff (which are more numerous that you probably think) there are the administrative staff to support them and the physicians. Add to the the costs of stewarding and policing on match days, as well as customer services, and that’s a lot of people. Additionally, many clubs run academies – West Brom even has its own foundation to use football in the community – so there’s really a lot more going on than people realise, much as with opera.

    Ultimately I think the two have far more in common than they have different, and discussions about the merits of the two are entirely subjective. I do feel, however, that setting the two against each other negatively is not helpful in terms of breaking down barriers between the two.

  5. What would you say to Barton’s statement that the lack of democracy in opera is not all about the money? I’m sure you would agree that opera house culture is what makes people feel inadequate.

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