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September 18, 2007

TT: Dinner and an opera

Last year I wrote a "Sightings" column for The Wall Street Journal about how the Atlanta Opera decided to shutter its downtown headquarters and move to the suburbs:

Not surprisingly, arts-savvy Atlantans are divided over whether the move to the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre will prove smart or suicidal. Other local arts organizations with a midtown presence, such as the High Museum of Art and the Atlanta Symphony, are firmly committed to staying where they are. Can an opera company that relocates to the suburbs maintain its cachet among the cognoscenti? No one knows--yet everyone agrees that the Atlanta Opera, which is $2.85 million in the red, had to do something drastic. Subscriptions have been plummeting, in part because the 4,500-seat civic center where the company now performs is too large for comfortable viewing of normal-size theatrical productions. (The new theater at the Cobb Centre has only 2,750 seats.) "If we stay at the civic center, I don't know if we can continue to survive," Dennis Hanthorn, general manager of the Atlanta Opera, recently told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

All politics--including the politics of art--is local, and it's anything but certain that local operagoers will follow the Atlanta Opera to Cobb County. From a distance, though, the move looks to me to be both adventurous and prescient, especially since most demographers agree that the future of middle-class urban life in America belongs to the suburbs. Rightly or wrongly, the Atlanta Opera is taking a leap into that unpredictable but promising future....

In fact, many American cities are sprawling megalopolises made up of middle-class commuters who don't care to drive back into midtown on weekends if they can help it. The Atlanta Opera is betting that enough such people will embrace a suburban-based opera company to make its move to Cobb County worthwhile. If I had to choose, I'd make the same bet.

Now the Atlanta Opera is in the news again. In preparation for the move, which takes place later this month. the company conducted a Gallup poll asking its subscribers whether they'd be willing to attend performances in the suburbs. According to the Atlanta Constitution, the answer was yes--so long as there were good restaurants close to the new theater. Another finding was equally striking. As part of its investigation of what made the company's patrons choose to go to specific performances, the pollsters discovered that "[f]amous opera stars from New York's Metropolitan Opera--singers of the stature of soprano Deborah Voigt--draw almost no recognition. Nor do singers who performed recently with the Atlanta Opera trigger any memories."

It will be interesting to see how the company responds to these fascinating findings. Speaking as the librettist of a new opera in the making, I wonder whether it might want to consider teaming up with local restaurants to offer dinner-and-an-opera package deals designed to lure Georgians to its more adventurous bills.

I suggest this in all seriousness, by the way. For those of us who spend our lives immersed in the fine arts, the reults of the Atlanta Opera's survey should be instructive, not to mention humbling. Nor do they inspire me to condescend to the company's patrons. The fact is that a decision to go to the opera--or to an orchestral concert, a nightclub, or a museum--is perceived by most people as a choice among competing forms of entertainment, and not all of the factors that enter into it are necessarily simon-pure. Moreover, as every opera administrator knows perfectly well, there aren't nearly enough fanatical opera buffs in the world, much less in Atlanta, to fill the seats of a theater night after night.

For this reason, it strikes me that arts administrators throughout the country should be conducting similar research into the vexing question of audience motivation. How do you fill an opera house with people who don't know who Deborah Voigt is--and is it possible to do so without diluting your programming beyond the point of recognition?

As they say down in the land of serious barbecue, there's the rub.

Posted September 18, 2007 12:00 AM

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