Here’s something I’m told (by a highly
reliable source) that Peter Gelb said, at the press conference last week, at
which he announced what the Met will do next season. He said that when he started
his job, the Met’s subscribers were 65 years old —
and that this age this age had shot up from 60 in the five years before that.
This, Peter said, he took as a wakeup call. The audience was aging, rapidly;
something had to be done.
For those who are finicky about statistics
(as we all should be) I don’t know whether Peter was talking about the average
age, or the median age. Nor, of course, did he confirm what I’ve
been saying here, that in past generations the classical audience used to
be drastically younger. But he did give us this — the experience of seeing
someone who runs the biggest classical music institution in America say that
his audience has been getting older, fast, and that this is a serious problem.
Bravo, Peter. Especially since he’s really doing something
As a further footnote, I might say that I
continue to be amazed when people take the old line, and confidently state the
audience has always been the same age it is now. This is the conventional
wisdom, I know, and conventional wisdom is hard to change. But there isn’t any
data supporting it! Or at least none that I’ve found,
or that anyone has been able to find for me, even the people who say the
conventional thing most strongly. So I’m going to post a challenge to everyone
who still says the audience has always been the same age. Either support what
you say, with solid data, or stop saying it.
And of course if anyone has such data —
please let me know! I’ll post it here immediately.
About the distant past, by which I mean
everything up through the 1950s…there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that the audience
used to be younger. Just recently, for instance, in the first of Geraldine
Farrar’s two autobiographies (Geraldine
Farrar: The Story of an American
Singer, published in 1916), I came across a very satisfying story —
satisfying to herself, I mean –about how in her early days, when she became a
big star in Berlin, young men flocked to the opera house to see her. Would they
have done this, if they weren’t going to the opera anyway? They came more often
when she was singing — but they were there in any case.
And the same must be true of the “gerryflappers,” the girls who came to scream for Farrar later
on, when she sang at the Met. They can’t have been the only young women in the
opera house. Could we imagine such a thing today? The Metropolitan Opera, full
of 65 year-old subscribers, and suddenly, when Cecilia Bartoli
comes on stage, the house is full of women in their 20s, shrieking? That just
doesn’t compute. The gerryflappers weren’t the only
women their age at the Met; they just were more than usually enthusiastic.
To these stories I could add E. M Forster’s
famous account of Beethoven’s Fifth, in Howard’s
End, in which he describes the reactions of six people who hear the
symphony, five of whom are in their 20s. He was imagining a concert given at the time he wrote the novel, in the early
years of the last century. Would the people he describes have been the only people their age at
the concert? Forster doesn’t even hint that their presence was unusual.
These examples could be multiplied. (If
anyone has more of them, please tell me.) And they pose yet another problem for
people who believe the classical audience has always been middle-aged. If it was
younger than that in the 1900s, and the 1910s, and the 1920, when did it get older?
There’s absolutely no account, at least that I’ve ever seen, of such a thing happening.
Compared, for instance, to right now, when the painful absence of younger
people is so widely lamented.