On Saturday afternoon I went to see the Met’s streaming Simon Boccanegra in a multiplex in Rockaway, NJ. The audience was old — dismayingly old. I know I’ve written quite a bit about the aging audience, but this time I was shocked.
This wasn’t an audience like the one that shows up in the Knight Foundation’s survey of attendance at concerts by an assortment of orchestras — where there’s a mix of ages, even if more than 60% of the people are 55 and over.
No, this audience, to judge from appearances, was almost entirely over 60. The theater the opera showed in held nearly 300 people, according to a fire department sign. It was nearly full. And virtually everyone looked over 60. There was a scattering of people who looked younger, and I really mean a scattering — maybe a dozen younger people. I don’t think I’m exaggerating.
I was dumbstruck. This isn’t sustainable. Some people optimistically believe that the classical audience will renew itself, as people gradually come into it as they age into their 40s and their 50s. I don’t think there’s much evidence for that, especially now that the NEA has (as I’ve discussed here) tracked a long-term decline in attendance among everybody under 65.
But does anyone believe that people over 60 will suddenly start going to the opera, if they hadn’t been before? Well, a few will, but will they suddenly turn up in large numbers? No one can believe that. The audience I saw will be smaller, I’m afraid, in five years, and a lot smaller in ten.
I’m not going to guess how typical this is of opera-in-movie-theater audiences around the country (when I went to one of these movie theater streamings in New York, the audience was younger). Or maybe the matinees draw an older crowd than evening shows. But still I’m troubled.
Especially since the telecast quite wonderfully showed a backstage view of scene changes, when they happened without an intermission. The number of stagehands involved, and the sheer size of the sets, along with the vast machinery involved in moving them in and out — all of that testified to how expensive opera on this scale is. (As one remark in an intermission feature, soliciting money from the crowd, in fact
pointed out.) All that money, for — at least on this occasion — a vanishing audience! That doesn’t seem sustainable, either.
To get really personal about this: I was heartbroken. The performance was terrific, and the opera itself of course is deeply, powerfully compelling. Will this die? I was stricken at the thought. I can imagine an alternative universe in which people in their 30s go to an old Italian opera the way they now go to old movies, understanding and accepting the cultural gap between Grand Hotel or Gone With the Wind and them, smiling at what seems antique now, but enjoying the antique parts precisely because they are antique, and being swept away by what still is powerful.
But that’s an alternate universe. It doesn’t happen now with opera. Education, as so many people hopefully propose, isn’t the answer. Nor is mere exposure, because the cultural gap will still remain. Opera will still seem alien, with an affectionate appreciation of Italian operatic style simply absent from the cultural makeup of the audience I’m looking for. Unlike an affectionate appreciation for Joan Crawford-style overacting, or Garbo-level personal style, which most of us, of all ages, still have in quite a bit of depth.
I don’t know how to bring the taste for opera back. Maybe, as Peter Gelb hopes, up to date stagings are the answer. I’m on the fence about that — the opera essence still remains, however contextualized, or ironicized — but we’ll see. We so badly need the solutions I’m welcoming here! (And here, and here. With more to come.)