Comment: What's charity got to do with opera?

The ceiling was gilt with gold, light flashed off the chandeliers, women rustled in their silk dresses and the men strutted to their seats.

Nick Seddon
Nick Seddon

Behind me, someone said he was standing beside Jack Straw in the cloakroom queue when the justice minister dropped his ticket on the floor. He couldn't help noticing that the ticket cost £170. The venue for the evening, ladies and gentlemen, was the Royal Opera House.

Now, I admit it: I wasn't there under duress. I love opera, and if you book ahead you can get some seats, as I do, for prices comparable to those for London cinema tickets. That night, I was there to watch Verdi's enormously popular Rigoletto. But as I sat there, my mind snagged on a rather sacrilegious thought. Why, I wondered, is the ROH a charity?

Don't get me wrong - I'm a believer in art. Indeed, I can pontificate at dreary length about the fundamental importance for civilisation of art for art's sake. Still, I voiced my dubiety to Future Mrs Seddon during the interval. The answer, she opined, was that if the ROH wasn't a charity the tickets would be even more expensive.

If charitable status makes some of the tickets cheaper, then cheaper for whom? Who are the beneficiaries of this charity? The middle classes, surely. It's worth taking stock. Straw didn't pay £170 for a special fundraising ball. He was there for sheer pleasure.

Which is fine. Except, how does this fit in with the notion of public benefit? If private schools are feeling the heat, why shouldn't exclusive arts events? According to the Charities Aid Foundation, the ROH has an income of more than £80m a year, and one of its employees - presumably a performer - gets paid £315,000.

Step outside the opera house and into central London's Covent Garden and look at the homeless people who congregate there. What does the ROH have in common with a shelter or a soup kitchen catering to their needs? Is such a narrow view of charity acceptable? This is an inquiry, not an inquisition, but if we're going to have a debate about the identity of the sector, we need to consider everything - including the charities for which we instinctively feel some affinity.

- Nick Seddon is an author and journalist 

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