Last Saturday, the soprano Tamara Stein tweeted:
Shocked how #elitist @RoyalOperaHouse is. £2 for #worldclass #ballet, less than a pint of beer! #sarcasm pic.twitter.com/T9LkPW3HsI
I quoted her tweet, asking whether it’s really price that people find elitist. I meant the question rhetorically—I thought that if people objected to just the price of concert tickets, they’d call it expensive, not elitist—so I was surprised when Stein replied. She wrote:
[Y]es they do. It’s assumed tickets cost hundreds of pounds.
Trading bare assertions about people’s motivations seemed a pointless exercise, so I contacted a few of my friends: people who listen to classical music without being part of that world, to see if price is what puts them off attending more (or any) classical concerts. I also got in touch with a few performer friends to get their opinions on the matter.
People are notoriously bad at diagnosing their own problems with something—just ask any psychiatrist. If you ask people why they don’t go to the opera, people may assert the high cost of tickets, but if they make that assertion without even investigating the price, they weren’t that interested in the first place. Price is just an excuse.
So Stein’s point about price is a misapprehension. £2 tickets are nothing new; they’re as old as the concert hall. If people don’t know about cheap seats, it’s because they’re not interested. Why aren’t they interested? Is it lack of curiosity? Lack of imagination? Deep-seated insecurities? Laziness? All of these causes were suggested to me, but they’re just as superficial as price. If people aren’t curious, why aren’t they curious? If they’re insecure, what makes them feel that way? These suggestions are just ways of blaming the audience for not showing up. They refuse to acknowledge the responsibility of classical audiences to welcome newcomers.
The perceived coldness of classical audiences towards newcomers was a refrain from virtually everyone I asked about the topic. I asked a trained, non-practising mezzo soprano I know what she thought about elitism in classical music. She felt the audience were at least partly to blame. “Your presence is tolerated rather than welcomed,” she told me. “I’ve felt at times like I’m being looked at like, ‘What are you doing here?’” My brother Shane, who writes the blog Moon Under Water, points to system justification: people defend the way that things are (or seem to be), and their own place in it, often to their own disadvantage.
We ask the people who don’t go to concerts, “Why don’t you go to more concerts?” They reply, “They’re elitist.” We ask people who do go to concerts, “Why do people think classical music is elitist?” They reply, “They’re lazy and insecure.”
Neither of those answers is satisfactory.
So is it to do with the “target audience”? There’s a perception, widely borne out in the answers I got, that classical music—particularly before the twentieth century—was created by and for the wealthy. The extent to which you find this a compelling argument depends very much on where you put the threshold for “wealthy”, though I think it’d be very hard to argue that any of it was written for the poor. But what does that matter? The same is true of the vast majority of entertainment made today. The target audience now, as then, is the middle class: people with enough disposable income to visit the cinema once or twice a week, or to sacrifice $10 a month to Netflix or Spotify. It’s true that wealthy people often paid for the music—for its creation and first performances—but I don’t see how that’s different from pop music today. The people funding entertainment today just make their money in a different way.
Could it be the difficulty of the music itself? It’s certainly true that classical music can be obscure and difficult. Bart Busschots, a Linux systems administrator and a fan of Beethoven and Bach, sees a lot of parallels to science:
I don’t think it is elitist, but it is often inaccessible…[T]here is a large specialist vocabulary that newbies can find intimidating. It’s a bit like science [in that way]: once you’re in the magisterium it all makes sense, but getting there is hard.
He’s not totally wrong, but he’s not totally right either. Classical music is such an incredibly broad field that it’s impossible to accurately characterise it with a single adjective. Knowing about things like rubato and tone quality and the difference between an adagio and a largo are enhancements to enjoying the music, not prerequisites. Preludes by Debussy and Chopin, sonatas by Scarlatti, arias by Mozart: these things can be enjoyed without any idea of the context.
But it can be hard. Well, so what? Working at NASA is hard. Teaching at Harvard is hard. Playing StarCraft professionally is hard. People who reach the top of these fields are unabashedly and correctly called elites, so why is elitism considered such a bad thing?
Elitist vs Elite
I don’t think anybody would disagree that Beethoven (for example) was one of the musical elite. But at the centre of the argument is the difference between calling somebody elite and calling them an elitist. The late critic Michael Kennedy once said, with apparently no awareness of the cognitive dissonance:
I want things to be ‘elitist’. These days it seems that people don’t want to put any effort into understanding something. You go to Covent Garden and Glyndebourne, and it’s obvious that some people don’t know a thing about the operas they have paid a lot of money to see.
That’s elitism. In two sentences, Kennedy excoriates people both for not understanding classical music, and for trying to learn. If you don’t know the music, where better to learn than at Covent Garden or Glyndebourne?1 You get the impression that Kennedy would have opposed the very idea of letting people attend world-class ballet for £2 without committing to extensive research beforehand. And as long as attitudes like this exist, we can’t really blame people for lack of interest, no matter the ticket price. Nobody wants to pay anything, even £2, for an unpleasant experience.
Here’s my theory: elitism isn’t liking something that’s harder or better or of higher quality than what other people like. Elitism is being a dick about it.
I know, of course, that the majority of concert attendees are not the kind of person who object to people who know less than them. It’s true, as Corrina Connor said on Twitter, that “there are lots of different ‘societies’ around classical music.” But for any large group of people, the voices that resonate outside the group tend to be the ones with the most extreme opinion. This happens in any discourse. Regardless of who else is in the audience, and the extent to which they’re a majority, the perception of classical music as a whole as elitist won’t change as long as statements like that go unchallenged.
There are always going to be people who just don’t like classical music; those who, in wanting to write off the whole field, will describe it as elitist. We can just ignore them. They’re not worth talking to. But the perception of classical music as elitist is broader than just those people, and it’s not wholly wrong. If we want to shake off the label of elitism, we need to make sure that we never dismiss or object to listeners who are trying to learn, or to listeners who grew up without much classical music and who may be unfamiliar with the associated ceremony. It may be that a second classical culture will emerge without the baggage of the existing one. Indeed, this is already happening: musicians like James Rhodes, who plays Rachmaninoff and talks like a rock musician; alternative performance spaces, where the music is moved away from the venues associated with the culture; podcasts like Meet The Composer, which are fascinating to experts and newcomers alike.
The good news, and the important news, is that we don’t need to change the music itself at all. Nor will the discussions need to be dumbed down, which I think is a real fear a lot of music experts have. All we need is to make sure nobody ever feels unwelcome at a concert, no matter how much or how little they know. And that will take a greater effort than selling cut-price tickets.
1 As for not putting any effort into understanding something, I wonder how well he understood how his computer worked.⏎