From a story in the New York Times business section two days ago, August 29 (“The Metropolitan Opera’s New Stage,” by Julie Bosman):
For 30 years, the Metropolitan Opera has wrinkled its elegant nose at advertising campaigns, preferring discreet sales tactics like direct mail and phone solicitations.
But next week, it is entering the mass marketing fray with ads in the most conventional places: telephone kiosks, lamp posts, subway entrances and the sides of city buses.
“It never needed to market itself because tickets were always sold out,” said Peter Gelb, who became the new general manager of the Met on Aug. 1. But now the Met is finding it harder to fill its roughly 4,000 seats with people willing to purchase tickets that currently range from $15 to $320.
After acknowledging years of lagging ticket sales and an audience that, as Mr. Gelb delicately put it, has aged, the Met is spending $500,000 on an advertising campaign that will blanket street-level New York with images from “Madama Butterfly,” the season opener on Sept. 25.
Like other orchestras and opera houses across the country whose ticket sales are on the wane, the Met is under pressure to lure younger audiences. The new ad campaign, scheduled to begin on Monday, is aimed at younger people who may find opera remote and intimidating.
So. Assuming this story is accurate, Peter Gelb openly says that the Met’s audience is shrinking and getting older. Now, maybe he’s said that before. A previous Times story, back in February, mentioned “declining attendance” along with “budget woes,” but didn’t explicitly credit Peter with talking about those things. And then the story went on to talk more generally about Peter’s plans for the company.
All of which is maybe odd. Here we have glancing references to what ought to be a major arts story, and also a major New York story — the Metropolitan Opera in trouble. Why doesn’t the Times tackle that head-on? Why not a long and detailed front-page story in the Arts section? How serious has the decline in ticket sales been? How long has it been going on? What, in detail, does the financial picture look like? What are Peter’s plans for turning things around? If this isn’t a major New York (and national) arts story, what is?
And not only that. Allan Kozinn’s notable “Arts & Leisure” piece this spring very prominently said that classical music’s numbers were good, that ticket sales weren’t declining. (For extensive debate and comment on what Allan wrote, see the comments to my post about the piece.) But on the other hand, the Times at least twice says in print that the Met Opera’s numbers in fact aren’t good, and a business story talks, as if the whole thing were common knowledge, about “orchestras and opera houses across the country whose ticket sales are on the wane.” So which is it? Are ticket sales falling, or aren’t they? I don’t mean that the Times should speak only with a single voice. Of course there’s room for many opinions. But shouldn’t the Times pay some coherent attention to this subject (which a lot of people care very deeply about)? It really does seem odd to run a long, passionate essay (Allan’s piece), saying that there isn’t any decline in classical music ticket sales, and then at least twice mention elsewhere, but only in passing, that at our largest and most famous classical music institution, ticket sales in fact are falling.
And there’s more. The American Symphony Orchestra League ‘fesses up to some problems in its bold new strategic plan, unveiled at its annual conference in June. From the League’s website, you can download the Executive Summary of the draft offered at the conference (“Supporting Orchestras in a New Era: A Strategic Direction for the American Symphony Orchestra League”). Here’s an excerpt from the opening section, entitled “Landscape”:
Through extensive consultation with the orchestra field, the planning process informed the League of the critical challenges and opportunities facing orchestras today. A variety of environmental changes are having a significant impact on the arts, including orchestras: shifts in community demographics, culture, values, and priorities; evolving technology; changing consumer patterns and tastes; and competition for philanthropic funds, leadership resources, and the ever-scarcer leisure time of audiences. These circumstances may indicate the end of a field-wide growth cycle and the emergence of a new one, yet to be fully defined.
The 1970s through the 1990s saw a period of major growth for orchestras–longer seasons, more concerts. During this time orchestras concentrated their efforts on delivering wonderful symphonic music onstage. As the supply of musical product increased, the audience was expected to consume more of it and, increasingly, to give enough money to cover the shortfall between earned income and growing expenses.
They did both. Orchestras’ standard of performance improved steadily; audiences filled the halls and loved what they heard.
Even as orchestras burgeoned in the 1970s, music education in the nation’s public schools came under the budgetary knife, with inevitable consequences for classical-music institutions. In response, orchestras have exponentially increased their traditional commitment to education.
Meanwhile, signs of strain on the financial model appeared, though they were initially masked by the surging economy of the 1990s. Today, there is a pervasive sense of apprehension among orchestras about their future organizational and financial health. While the standard of today’s orchestra performances is extremely high, concerns have surfaced about an overall loss of personality and electricity–concerns that are often cited alongside the routinization of performances, the homogenization of repertoire, and a gradual decline in attendance.
Note these phrases: “a pervasive sense of apprehension among orchestras about their future organizational and financial health”; “a gradual decline in attendance.” The League, with rare honesty, is telling the world that orchestras really do have problems. Among those problems is a decline in attendance. I’m told that in a talk at the conference, the League’s new board chair, Lowell Noteboom, was even more explicit. He said that attendance at orchestra events had been falling since 1996-97. (He also painted a fairly troubled picture in an article in the September-October issue of Symphony, the League’s magazine.)
(I myself quoted those attendance figures some time ago in this blog, after the League provided them to me. And as I said at the time, the numbers arern’t as informative as they might be. They measure attendance, not ticket sales, and include all kinds of free events, like concerts in city parks, and performances at schools. A much more sensitive measure might be ticket sales for orchestras’ core classical concerts, and those, from private figures I’ve seen, have been declining more sharply and for a longer time than overall attendance at all orchestral events.)
So if the Metropolitan Opera and the American Symphony Orchestra League say that ticket sales (for the former) and attendance (for the latter) are down…well, then clearly the numbers are going down. Especially since other opera companies (the Chicago Lyric Opera, for one) are showing the same decline.
But here’s something that’s not realistic, and maybe not quite honest. Opera America — which represents America’s opera companies, and is to opera what the ASOL is to orchestras — quotes all sorts of
optimistic figures on its website. Here’s a sample:
Opera attendance rose steadily from 1982 to 2002. The U.S. opera audience grew by 35% between 1982 and 1992. This trend continued through 2002, when the opera audience grew by an additional 8.2%, representing the largest increase of all performing arts disciplines. (Source: National Endowment for the Arts)
The boldface type is their own. And the problems with these numbers would go something like this. First, the 2002 figures from the National Endowment come from data gathered during the 2000 census. So they’re six years old, going on seven! They may not represent the situation today (especially since as far as I know, both the Met and Chicago Lyric’s declines in ticket sales took place after 2000).
And that 8.2% growth of the audience between 1992 and 2002 (really between 1990 and 2000) — that’s no higher than the rise in the American population during that period (and in fact a hair lower; between 1990 and 2000, the population went up 8.9%). Which means that opera audiences, measured as a proportion of the population, didn’t rise at all.
Plus: what’s with the 35% rise in one 10-year period, followed by only an 8.2% rise in the following 10 years? What caused the difference? We need some context here. Maybe there were a many more opera companies in 1992 than there were in 1982. Or has the growth of the opera audience been declining very sharply since 1982, to the point where maybe now it’s negative? (Which would mean, that is, that the numbers are falling, rather than rising.)
Opera America ought to rethink all this.