Royal Opera House loses the plot (and some grammar and spelling)

I am so bloody mad right now. There is one institution which, above all others, keeps me living in this miserable, difficult, trying, exhausting, expensive city of ours. It is the Royal Opera House. And they have seriously pissed all over that loyalty.

The inspiration for me getting into this blogging lark was Intermezzo. You’ll note I make a few references to her excellent and engaging reviews, snippets and discussions about opera and classical music. Initially I was going to make my blog a more broad platform, talking about life generally, but actually opera is the thing about which I enjoy writing, so off I go. I am but a pale imitation of Intermezzo, but I have fun, and here I am because of that lead.

One of the things I’ve always liked about Intermezzo is the photos, whether reproduced and credited, or taken at a performance and therefore, whilst inevitably shaky, being also great snapshots of those curtain calls.

What has incensed me… what has made me really question whether I am the ‘Friend’ of the Royal Opera House that I thought I was, is a correspondence reproduced on Intermezzo in the latest post. The content is bad enough, for reasons I will come to in a moment, but the fact that an organisation of that stature employs someone in their legal department who is authorised to send out miserable, pestilent little missives like that with such bad spelling and grammar is frankly enough to make me want to lobby the Arts Council to slash their grant. Get a fucking grip.

When BP managed to become the world’s pariah, the ROH posted an exhortation to us all via Facebook to come to their BP Summer Screen transmission of Carmen. (They’ve since quietly dropped BP from the social media publicity, though they remain sponsors.) This prompted narky comments on their post about how they choose their sponsors. My loyalty to the institution was such that I was amongst the first to put my head above the parapet and suggest that doing that may not be as simple as some were suggesting. If you scroll down the 16 comments, you will find a notable exception: the Royal Opera House itself. This is also apparent on the many, many posts on Facebook which complain about the flaky website when it comes to Friends’ booking time, and the majority go by without response from the ROH. I’ve never had a particular problem with the website, and have been tempted to say so, but frankly I have shied away from doing the ROH’s dirty work for them. Increasingly it is becoming apparent that, for the ROH, social media works one way: it is a broadcast channel. Anyone who knows the first thing about social media knows that this is a fatal strategy in the long term. It’s social. So be social. The LSO certainly leads the way on this score. And with this latest move, the Royal Opera House have really pissed all over their fan base.

The high-handed tone of those emails. The complete lack of any awareness of what the idiot author of those emails was really doing. The chaotic presentation of the ‘challenge’. It stinks absolutely. What are they achieving? What problem do they have? Who has complained? About what specifically? Intermezzo’s response rather cogently covers the main points: any attribution is given (and if not, please do let her know and she’ll correct it); ‘fair use’ is cited as justification for proportionate reproduction, pursuant to journalistic aims; they provide images free for press use anyway; and finally, the issue that supersedes all the pathetic ‘legalese’: the reproduction of images accompanies what can only be an enhancement of the reputation of the ROH and an encouragement to attend.

So let’s turn to that ‘encouragement to attend’. Tony Hall has been banging on (yet again) about ‘new audiences’, this time by means of a highly dubious project to create an opera based on the Nick Griffin episode of Question Time. Whatever, let’s just get Anna Nicole out of the way first. Are these the new audiences that talk, fidget and jangle their bangles through the performances that I desperately try to pay attention to? Do they really manage to get tickets that they can afford to most things, bearing in mind the Friend-dominant booking system? Whether the answer to either of these questions is yes, does the Royal Opera really think that they come based only on the ‘approved’ channels of communication that the ROH uses: their Twitter feed and their Facebook page chief amongst them? No, they rely on blogs – such as Intermezzo – and other informal internet sources that give them a more rounded sense of what it’s like to walk through the door of such an institution and what they’ll find when they get there. Well, they know now. They will find a priggish, arch, stuffy organisation that is content to stay on ‘broadcast mode’ and hope that the feedback doesn’t require too much response. God help the newcomer that wants to complain about the warmth of their £9 glass of white wine.

Finally, the most revolting and pernicious element of that whole disgusting missive was the one that, as Intermezzo remarks, hit home: the threat to exclude her from performances. This year, the Royal Opera House will receive £28,294,806 from the Arts Council. That’s your and my money. It’s a little over £1 for every income tax payer in the UK. Of course, I add a couple of thousand pounds a year to my tax £1, but I would still defend the Arts Council grant to the ultimate. Except when the organisation that receives it feels that it can behave in such an irresponsible and high-handed way. And then I start thinking that perhaps, if they really want to be so liberal with their threats of exclusion, then they should be cast adrift, forced to try and get people through the door without the aid of the taxpayer. I can’t quite believe I just typed that. But there you are. Well done, Royal Opera House, you’ve really played a blinder there. But still, you’d have your new audiences to console yourself with.

I will be taking some time tomorrow to address my observations specifically to Tony Hall. The Royal Opera House has made a serious error, and I will be very interested to hear their specific response.


  1. I am still angry, but my prose has developed a greater calmness. I have contacted the Royal Opera House as promised. You can do so too, through the Contact Us form on the website (look for it down the bottom in the admin bar).

    I trust that your staff will have made you aware of the controversy that has arisen as a result of Mr George Avory’s emails to the blogger Intermezzo concerning her use of images from the Royal Opera.

    Firstly, I am astonished that such an important communications was permitted to go out in the form that it did. You will doubtless wish to satisfy yourself that the reputation of the organisation is not compromised in this way again for want of some basic proof-reading.

    I am more concerned, however, by the tone and content. This heavy-handed approach has done much to damage the reputation of the organisation with the online ‘community’ and I am sure that your considerable experience in media will mean that you understand the significance of this ‘community’ for the continued standing of the Royal Opera House and its ability to develop new audiences. There is nothing in Mr Avory’s communication that is proportionate to the supposed infringements that have taken place. No material loss, as has been pointed out by many, can be attributed to Intermezzo’s use of the images, always credited, alongside a personal, but no less authoritative record of attendance at, and support for, the ROH. If a photographer or set designer has objected to their reproduction, a simple courteous request – which may have been better made through the Marketing department rather than the Legal department – would, I am sure, have sufficed.

    Finally, that your organisation issues such wanton and ill thought-through threats to bar loyal audience members really makes me question my own loyalty, after over a decade of very devoted opera attendance and Friends membership. I was considering ‘stepping up’ my Friends membership a level for the ‘Olympic'(TM) season in 2012, but am now rethinking this in the light of developments. If all it costs you is my £200 extra Friends membership, you will doubtless not be too concerned. I fear, however, that with the Twitter, Facebook and blogging controversy that it has set in train, it will have cost you very much more than that.

    I am sad indeed that the opening of the 2010 season tonight should have been marred by this. Best wishes to all for this evening’s performance, and I look forward to your views on this matter in due course.

  2. Good on you for sending this. You may find though that sending a physical copy will increase the chances of the ROH taking this seriously. (Registered mail will guarantee a response!)

  3. Yes, but if the only response is more of this impersonal “The ROH regrets…” baloney, it’s useless to bother. A human with a name ought to come out from behind the ROH’s pompous curtain and say “We made a mistake. George has been told to back off about Intermezzo and in the future about any other blogger whose clear intent is fair use rather than commercial capitalization.”

    For what does the ROH employ a lawyer if not to accurately determine what is free publicity and what is an infringement? George apparently does not know the difference, which means he is an incompetent who should be fired.

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