How does the Royal Opera House pass the public benefit test for charities?

Femke Colborne discovers the charity's elitist image does not match the reality

Royal Opera House
Royal Opera House

For many people, the words 'Royal Opera House' conjure up images of champagne, chandeliers and big-busted sopranos who do not appear to want for the finer things in life. They might be surprised to learn that the organisation is a charity.

But two weeks ago, in the latest round of sample public benefit reports published by the Charity Commission, the ROH passed the public benefit test with flying colours. The report acknowledges that the charity charges high fees for some of its performances, but also points out that about 40 per cent of tickets to performances in the main auditorium are priced at £30 or less, with the cheapest tickets costing only £4.

It also mentions the ROH's "extensive programme of workshops and classes for the public" and its "wide range of programmes to develop the arts and artists". These include free weekly lunchtime performances, free online opera, an annual programme of operas and ballets for schools, and development schemes for young singers and dancers.

The ROH has an annual income of just under £98m, about 45 per cent of which comes from performances at its home in London's Covent Garden, including box office returns. In the most recent financial year, it received 28 per cent of its income from the Arts Council.

"Taken together, the totality of benefits indicates access is only limited by high fees to a small proportion of the charity's overall range of benefits," the report says.

"Many of its services are provided through free activities, and others for prices which are affordable to most people. The opportunity to benefit is not unreasonably restricted by ability to pay the fees charged, and people in poverty are not excluded from the opportunity to benefit."

The other three arts organisations included in the sample reports - the Young Concert Artists Trust, the Durham-based theatre group the Castle Players and Gwent Ballet Theatre - were also judged to have passed the test.

Ruth Jarratt, director of policy development at the ROH, said: "It's exactly what we expected. Between our actual pricing - as opposed to what is reported in the media - and our access schemes, our free cinema screenings and our education and regeneration work, it is absolutely no surprise to us at all that we have passed the test."

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