More age footnotes

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

about it.


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.

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  1. says

    In a study conducted for the 20th Century Fund in the 1963-64 season, Professor William Baumol, then of Princeton, found that the median age of the performing arts audience (using a sample of 25,000 respondents nationwide weighted about 50/50 theatre versus music/opera/dance)was 38 years compared to 30 years for the urban population (the cities in which the 20th Century Fund study was conducted). More to the point, 9% of the performing arts audience was over 60 compared to 13% of the urban population.

    I don’t have comparable statistics nationwide today, but my impression is the median age for theatre and all the performings arts, save dance, perhaps, would exceed 38 years. At the same time, I suspect the median age of the urban population has risen above 30 years as well. Baumol is still around at NYU.

    Thanks! That study is one of my key sources for the age of the audience in earlier times (though I’ve also got earlier data, from 1937 and 1955). I’ve cited it here often. One remarkable thing is Baumol and his co-author Bowen’s strong statement about how young the audience is, and their speculation that people simply stop going to performing arts events as they get older, which of course is the opposite of what we think happens today.

    I’d love to see the complete study, with (presumably) breakdowns among the performing arts.

    The NEA has been studying the age of the performing arts audience from 1982 to the present. Their data shows it to be older than Baumol and Bowen reported in the ’60s, and also to have gotten older since 1982. This all can be downloaded from their website. The classical music audience has aged the most.

    And yes, the median age of the population as a whole has risen, but not as much as the median age of the clasical music audience, a point the NEA has emphasized.

  2. Rafael de Acha says

    Hello Greg. In 1920, the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso came to Havana to sing Aida at the Teatro Nacional. When the performance was about to start, Caruso ordered the doors of the theatre open so that the crowd that had congregated across the street could also enjoy the performance (Peter Gelb was not the first populist!)

    Among the crowd gathered just outside the theatre along the Paseo del Prado in Central Havana, was my late father- age 16 – getting his free opera experience.

    Years later, he and my mother met at the Sociedad Pro-Arte Musical, next to the Auditorium in the Vedado section of Havana, and there joined the guitar ensemble led by the late Abel Nicola.

    Years later, when I had grown up to be a young teen about town, I got my first taste of live opera at that same theatre, hearing Tebaldi in La Traviata.

    I don’t think I was the younger member of the audience, nor was my late father the youngest member of the crowd standing outside the Nacional in 1920. It really was a younger audience then, Greg

    Thanks, Rafael! No, Peter is hardly the first populist. And in past eras, populism in the arts didn’t have the special meanings it does now, either positive (we need a new audience) or negative (we’re dumbing the music down). Caruso recorded pop songs; Lauritz Melchior made films in Hollywood. There was a much easier exchange between classical music and popular culture.

    And your story is lovely. Thanks. I went to the Met for the first time in the ’50s, when I was a teenager (“Die Meistersinger,” with a standing-room ticket). I wish I could remember how old the audience was!

  3. Dave Irwin says

    Hello Greg,

    I first attended Met performances in the early sixties during their annual visits to Atlanta. Herb Blayman, principal clarinetist would sometimes let me sneak in the side door where the orchestra took their breaks. I spent most of the operas in standing room.

    The ushers were all from Georgia Tech, as were the extras in operas such as Aida. The audience was younger than it is today.

    My college singer friends from FSU in Tallahassee would drive 250 miles and spend the entire week of the Met visit. The operas were all presented in the Fox Theater and the atmosphere was that of a festival.

    Thanks, Dave. That also brings back another vanished era, the era (lasting a few generations) when the Met toured every year.

  4. Paul A. Alter says

    Yes, I think it is pretty well accepted that the audience is growing older — a sea of gray heads on the orchestra floor.

    But the reason that is not so bad, at the moment, is that those gray heads are living longer, staying active longer, and coming to concerts longer than was possible in the past.

    In one of his novels, James Fennimore Cooper describes “a well-preserved man of 37.” He’d be dead in a few years. Now, I have friends in their 80s who hold season tickets and go to concerts regularly. (One very dear friend of mine goes with his wife, who is physically incapacitated and sits thru the concert in her wheelchair.) These are people who would not have been in the audience some 20 or more years back.

    All hail Viagra!

    The viewpoint from my soapbox is that we need to keep this audience coming while we figure out how to restock the seats with younger addicts.