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High And Low Culture: The Price of a Ticket


I’m a fan of the opera. And generally when I bring it up in normal conversation, I can see a barrier form. Opera is high art, high culture, expensive— it’s for rich people, old money preferred. There’s a very thick wall between most people and attending an opera. When examined from a monetary perspective, the results are quite interesting. Buying a single ticket (without a season’s subscription) to see an opera at the San Francisco Opera will cost you between $15 and $210. If you’d like to sit in a box seat, it’ll cost $275.

If you wanted to see the band U2 in a stadium this summer, a single ticket will set you back between $30 and $250. A Bruce Springsteen ticket will cost you between $29 and $89. Rock and Roll was originally considered low art, low culture— something on the fringe of popular culture. Through the 60s and 70s, it slowly moved to the mainstream of popular culture. Pop culture is abundantly distributed in multiple distribution formats, it’s on the radio and television. You can buy it on CD and MP3 download, and you can preview it on or The price of a ticket is related to the phenomena of scarcity. There are only so many performances, and a fixed number of seats available for each performance.

Of course, opera was popular entertainment and part of popular culture for many years. However now, more often than not, it’s used as a signal of class differential.

The barrier that some feel when approaching opera isn’t related to the ticket price. For a medium priced seat there’s no difference between grand opera and any other popular entertainment. It has to do with the distribution of the free part of opera. Popular music is sampled widely to create a demand for performances and sales of recordings. There’s a dynamic feedback loop between exposure to an art form and interest in an art form.

Many people find baseball boring because they don’t understand the nuances of the game. It seems like nothing happens for inning after inning. And then, there’s a quick flurry of activity, and then back to nothing. A single ticket to a baseball game falls into the same range as an opera or rock concert ticket. To see the Giants (for a premium game), your ticket will cost you between $25 and $135.

Baseball, rock music and opera all depend on their stars to draw and audience. For the San Francisco Giants, I might prefer going to a game where I know that Tim Lincecum is pitching and that Pablo Sandoval will be in the line up.

If I get to see these players, I know that my chances of seeing something spectacular are much higher. It’s that possibility of excitement combined with the scarcity of the performance and the limited number of seats that defines the value/price of the event.

Opera also depends on its stars to draw an audience, in particular, its divas. On Wednesday night, I attended a performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore (The Troubador) at San Francisco Opera. Looking at the line up card, I could see that there was the possibility of seeing something spectacular. Nicola Luisotti at Conductor, Burak Bilgili as Ferrando, Sondra Radvanosvsky as Leonora, Dmitri Hvorostovsky as the Count di Luna and the great Stephanie Blythe as Azucena. The team delivered, as the last note faded the crowd leapt to its feet shouting bravo and brava.

The grand opera is often thought of as a refined entertainment, an art form that considers the higher values of our culture. But Verdi’s Il Trovatore is nothing more than animal passion unleashed. A Count orders an old Gypsy woman to be burned at the stake for practicing witchcraft. The gypsy’s daughter steals the infant son of the Count and throws it into a fire. A revolutionary war revolves around the passion two men feel about the beautiful Leonora. The Count di Luna obsessed with Leonora will commit any war crime to possess her. The gypsy Azucena will do anything to exact revenge for the death of her mother. These forces are unleashed without limit within the narrative of the opera. It’s the women that drive the story forward: Leonora and the men who lust after her; and the gypsy Azucena and her single-minded obsession with revenge.

Performances not to missed: Sondra Radvanosksy as Leonora. Here she is singing an aria from Il Trovatore:

Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe also delivers as Azucena. Here she is in concert, singing an aria from Bizet’s Carmen:

This evening baseball and opera will intersect at AT&T park. In cooperation with the San Francisco Giants, San Francisco Opera will present a free HD simulcast of Il Trovatore at the ballpark. High culture and low culture mix and intermingle. Arias and hot dogs with plenty of mustard. Families spreading out a blanket on the infield and enjoying the high passion of Verdi’s opera. The gigantic emotions and passions of Il Trovatore will expand to fill the ballpark.

Here’s a preview of San Francisco Opera’s Il Trovatore:

Earlier this year, the Giants and SF Opera presented Puccini’s Tosca at the Ballpark. About 30,000 people showed up to enjoy the show. I expect to see a similar turn out for Il Trovatore. After Tosca was over, and the crowd began to leave, I noticed a young girl turn to her mother and say, “that was a great opera Mom.”

See you at the show.

Published in culture economics looping markets opera performance tribes value


  1. That’s a really perceptive post- I’ll be looking at this blog from now on, as this was my first visit.

  2. That's a really perceptive post- I'll be looking at this blog from now on, as this was my first visit.

  3. pattyoboe pattyoboe

    Fun read, and I hadn't seen/heard that Nessun Dorma before. Thanks!

    Just located this blog … hope you don't mind this random commenter appearing.

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