Dismaying

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.)

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Comments

  1. Jason says

    I think this comes down to advertising — or the lack thereof. I live in a good-sized midwestern city, and while I know exactly which local theater plays these Met simulcasts, I have no idea what’s playing from one week to the next. The only way I might hear about it is if I spend an inordinate amount of time in my car one week — then I might catch a blurb on NPR. Yes, I know I could go to their website and get a whole schedule, but going to these broadcasts (or to movies themselves, for that matter) isn’t a regular part of my social life. I usually only go if I hear about something that particularly interests me. And I think I speak for my whole 30-something demographic in that regard.

    If the Met is serious about attracting a younger audience to these broadcasts (and I’m not sure that they are), then they need to bite the bullet and buy some ad time on 30 Rock or Lost or whatever other highfalutin’ shows their target audience watches and get the word out. At the very least, they need to roll out some Facebook ads or something that reaches beyond the NPR set. Don’t think for a moment that Avatar became the #1 movie of all time because that many people are interested in sci-fi depictions of cross-cultural contact, or in technical advances in 3-D. There’s no built-in audience for Avatar — it isn’t even a franchise. But the studio spent a small fortune inundating us with “Avatar” over months to create a demand where none existed. The Met could learn something from that.

    As it is, these Met simulcasts are the best-kept secret in America. And that’s the problem.

    Good thoughts! Very important. I’ll pass this on to someone at the Met. I wonder if they’ll react at all. I’ve seen studies, by the way, that document what you’re saying — that show how people under 40 (and even many people older than that) now decide what they’re going to do based on word of mouth, far more than, for example, by looking at newspaper ads.

    I think, beyond this, that there’s a more general problem.There are a lot of people who’d buy classical recordings and go to classical performances if they knew what would interest them. And they don’t know, because they don’t know what’s out there — which isn’t their fault. The classical music world hasn’t learned how to reach them.

  2. says

    This is, of course, a movie-going audience as well. Seeing an opera at a multiplex has all the fun of seeing a foreign film with great music (and even popcorn–though most of the over 60 crowd is smart enough to sneak in healthier snacks).

    Perhaps people from the under 40 crowd in search of a positive movie-house experience will venture into opera as a substantial alternative to the tawdry (and ultimately disappointing) Hollywood offerings. Perhaps not.

    “Updated” scenarios for old operas would mean nothing to an audience new to opera, and they often annoy those who love tradition. You just can’t win. People can get their special effects by seeing Avatar.

    For those of us in the hinterlands and without serious money and/or time to devote to travel and lodging necessary to see them in New York, these movie-house operas are a godsend.

    After spending years and years trying to be optimistic, I have come to see the realistic side of this depressing scenario. I don’t think that anyone can do anything to save any kind of artistic endeavor, particularly music, which has morphed during the past two generations from something that relied on live performance with a living, breathing audience into something that is called an “industry,” relies on the sale of objects that contain it and transmit it for its self-identification, and has become fragmented into “styles” with mostly small communities who connect with one another chiefly by way of computer, and listen to music by way of highly-engineered electronic impulses that travel through thin air.

    Sadly, and particularly in the US, the general population holds a huge majority of people who don’t know how to distinguish real food from fast food, don’t take the time to read, and certainly don’t take the time to read literature, go to college to have a social life and get a degree and not to get an education, make life miserable for their professors with their lack of interest in learning, accept numbnuts as political leaders, eschew intellectualism on even the most practical of levels, and rely on television-based popular culture (past and present) to define who they are.

    Unless we make fundamental changes in our larger culture (not in the way culture is delivered) there is no hope. We have the cultural tools that any literate person (musically and otherwise) living 60 years ago would die for, and most people (at least in America) don’t care at all.

    Unfortunately the power of the internet can’t change anything when it comes to keeping non-computer-based cultural experiences financially solvent. The only thing that can make any kind of a difference is to drastically change the way we raise our children and the way we educate them.

    Elaine, you should know that the debate between real and fake (to simplify it tremendously) rages inside popular culture. It doesn’t just exist between some rarified world of art (which in practice is far more commercial than outsiders might think) and pop music. What would the movement toward acoustic performance in pop over the past couple of decades be about, if not what you’re talking about? Every singer-songwriter in America would surely agree with a lot of what you’re saying.

  3. Yvonne says

    Without wanting to undermine your overall point, I think you hit the nail on the head with your speculation about matinees.

    In my own observations of concerts in my city, midweek matinees are almost exclusively attended by people over 60, with a high proportion of people attending alone (yet another reason why the evening is less attractive); the weekend matinees might have a few more children, but are still dominated by people over 60, much in the way you describe. It’s the evening concerts which have a decent blend a la the “Knight” profile, exact proportions varying according to series character and night of the week, and we see our highest proportions of young people (i.e. teenagers) in one of our early evening series, which has historically always been a youth series.

    So I’m inclined to agree that you would have seen a slightly less dismaying audience age-range if you’d been able to attend in the evening.

    Thanks, Yvonne. Plausible, and reassuring. The non-opera crowd at the multiplex was younger by a lot than the operagoers. But included a fair number of parents and children. A good comparison might be a Saturday afternoon crowd at an art house, so we could see who goes to art films on Saturday. If I saw 300 people in their 40s (approximately) at a Saturday afternoon showing of “Pan’s Labyrinth,” let’s say, I’d be unreassured again, about the opera audience.

  4. Jonathan Reycraft says

    A thought which I’d like to add is that the core base of emotions which is expressed in opera, and other symphonic music for that matter, are intended to be experienced same in the past or present. There seems to be a lack of communication of deep emotion in today’s American society, a perceived devolution about the meaning of living in this incredibly fast paced world.

    The million dollar question is how can we change awareness to bring back the expression of increased humanity in American society?

    The performing arts are part of that equation but how?

    Thanks for this, Jonathan, but to be honest, I’m always surprised when people say the things you’re saying here. Have you ever seen a Bruce Springsteen show? No lack of emotion or humanity there. Or movies. “The Hurt Locker,” “Up in the Air” (to name just two I’ve seen recently). No emotion, no humanity in those films? Or even “Avatar,” a little simple-minded, but full of emotion and humanity. Yes, the close-to-nature tribespeople vs. the heartless corporation (and heartless military) is a cliché, but the film radiates belief in human values that, in a deeper film, could have transcended the cliché.

  5. Janis says

    “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.”

    I never made this analogy before. This is really cool. I’m not a fan of golden-age cinema, but I know people who are, and they definitely do see the good parts and see the “oddity” and alien quality of the rest of it as just another part of the attraction, like listening to someone speak your language with an accent. It is a bit like the old Fred-and-Ginger movies, isn’t it?

  6. Eric L says

    I think a big danger is to think “Classical Music” is a giant monolith that needs to be “saved together.” Even those of us who are die-hard fans have preferences for one genre of CM over another.

    It’s entirely possible–and I’m tempted to think–that Opera may be the first to go if the ship really sinks.

    I’m also of the belief that if anything will be saved, instrumental music–orchestral and chamber–will have a better chance of ‘being saved’ than classical vocal music. I think most people have more they can attach to with instrumental music, more in common if you will, than with opera. There are several barriers: the language, the conventions, the plots etc.

    Or, from another point of view, opera has so many advantages — the plots, the passion, even the conventions. Remember the scene in Moonstruck where Cher cries at La Boheme. That’s still a great attraction of opera for many people. It supplies clear, strong cues for passion.

    But I do like your point here. Very silly, to take classical music as just one thing. It’s changed in the past, and can change in the future. My guess would be that orchestra concerts, as we know them today, are the most vulnerable, but underline “guess.” We’ll find out, as the future evolves.

  7. a curious reader says

    Eric, as a vocalist I have to totally disagree. The vocal arts are incredibly alive and well, especially in america, and there are numbers to prove it. I was recently at an ACDA convention and they showed a great stat (for me at least): in the last NEA report all participation in classical music, and events went down except for choral participation which actually was stable, or went up a point. I wish i could find the documentation right now, but the NEA has somehow ruined their documents so that adobe wont read them…they need to fix that asap.

    Here are two real life examples that I have been a part of:

    This christmas my church did the Messiah; it’s been around 10 years since we did it last so people have had enough time to forget about it and we can preform it as a “new”-er work. We had more people turn out that sunday (1,176) than any other sunday of the year, going back to the last time the choir did a major work the previous christmas (which was a joseph martin piece).

    second example:

    at the school i am at we did the brahms requiem three semesters ago and packed a 2000 seat concert hall. the next semester we did the stravinsky ballet les noces — one of his most un-mainstream works, and packed the house again. Last semester, we premiered the windband transcription of Christopher Theofanidis’s The Here and Now (in that concert we packed our 500 seat hall to capacity, plus had people standing) and Elijah. What’s even neater is that the choir (which consists of vocal majors, college students, and community members) has grown with each semester with the exception of this semester — we are doing the Durufle requiem, which has seemed to fallen out of the public eye in terms of popularity…hopefully we can change that around here.

    Anyway, the point of those two examples is this: by everything i’ve said you would assume that the area where these two choirs are located are in culturally active areas where there are “hot-spots” of classical activity. Specifically, the north east, south west, or northern mid-west (Minnesota is quickly becoming a hotspot of choral activity), but neither of them are. The church choir is a choir in Irmo, South Carolina and the community choir is in Columbus, Georgia. All the numbers and statistics, and demographic charts scream that the numbers and participation should not be this high for either choirs, but for some reason, they are.

    “I’m also of the belief that if anything will be saved, instrumental music–orchestral and chamber–will have a better chance of ‘being saved’ than classical vocal music. I think most people have more they can attach to with instrumental music, more in common if you will, than with opera. There are several barriers: the language, the conventions, the plots etc.”

    I completely disagree (again). If anything is going to continue to survive, weather classical music is “saved” or not is vocal music. We have stated numerous times in this blog that people have problems connecting with classical music, but how can you say that a piece with words will loose it’s connection before an abstract attempt to convey an emotion? That’s the beauty of vocal music..if you are angry you have a line that say: “I am angry, hear my roar.” People immediately get that. In symphonic and instrumental music you have to make an inhuman object convey human emotion — which is going to be harder for average joe to make a connection? look at pop music! why is pop music so easy to “get”? it has words.

    Another point: vocal music is the CHEAPEST to produce, and anybody can do it. It can take years for somebody to learn to play a violin to be able to preform any major work, or even a chamber work to a decent level, but anybody can join a chorus and instantly be part of something much larger than them self. Not to mention, you dont have to buy a voice :P People have the exact same amount in common with opera now as they did two hundred years ago…themes are universal — look at Avatar. It’s the same story of pocahontas, re-branded for the 21st century with some cool stuff. The themes are not what is lacking; and yes, i do agree that the foreign languages are a bit of a barrier, but what’s to say there isint a market for contemporary american opera (point in case: eric whitacre’s opera paradise lost — it’s making waves with young audiences, and john adams nixon in china is a cult classic imo).

    I believe that the reason why foreign opera is so hard to “understand” is because of the reason it first became so popular: the plots are INCREDIBLY complex. and if you cant speak the language, the plots become abstract, unable to connect with, and then the central themes are lost. If the “american musical” found a niche in the 70-90’s, there is no reason why the american opera cannot do the same.

    Also, (back to choral music) there is a plethora of good american composers who are putting out some great original music that is incredibly exciting, engaging, and accessible for both the singers, and audience. Be it the “impressionistic” feel of Morten Lauridsen, the extreme cutting edge of Eric Whitacre, the classical hymn feel of Z. Randall Stroope, or the american spirituals that have been revisited by Moses Hogan, Anton Armstrong and others. There is great music out there, and the numbers prove that there is still a fierce niche of people who want to experience it.

    Art song/lieder i feel is an area in vocal music that is in “trouble” but i dont really see it as trouble. I think it’s becoming something only found in academia, which is not good for it as a viable entertainment/media outlet, but it was never really intended for mass consumption imo.Sucks for singers who dont want to pursue opera, but that’s ok for the art…it will retain it’s truest form, and that means it has the potential to have somewhat of a cult following, much like the films from the golden age have; and because of the lack of “professionals” i feel that it encourages anybody to stand next to a piano and sing a little.

    Eric: please dont think that i am attacking you, but as a vocalist i am very passionate about the art form, and the numbers released have only fueled my excitement. just want to let you know that i totally respect your opinion, have loved your blog comments and have pretty much always agreed with your posts. But your post gave me a great opportunity to posts some reasons why i think the vocal community is actually doing ok :D (all things considered)

    Wow, Curious! Thanks so much for this. It’s important to have your perspective. So many of us active on this blog (including me) are from big cities, and we don’t know nearly enough about what’s going on in places like the one where you are. Thanks so much for your knowledge, and your passion.

  8. Fred Lomenzo says

    Just attended an orchestral concert this week end. There were a few middle aged persons in attedance. Most were way over 60. Scary is not the word for it. Walkers, persons being helped out. Some of the musicians I met and talked to after the concert are very aware of it. The younger musicians I spoke to, several from other countries, are very concerned.

    Very sad to hear this, Fred. Would you care to tell us where this concert was? Helps my understanding of the present situation to know what things are like in different places. The audience in major cities — especially cities with a lot of music students — may be younger than the audience in smaller places. Or so I’m guessing.

    On another note, you mentioned young musicians. There’s no shortage of young classical musicians. In fact, when I saw the Met performance that I wrote about, the orchestra — as seen at various moments during the performance — was notably younger than the audience. As were two of the lead singers. This is both a paradox, and a ray of hope.

  9. Eric L says

    @a curious reader:

    Perhaps I took it too far. I should’ve considered and backed away with painting Classical vocal music with such a broad stroke. I can certainly see choral music, art song performances etc. continue to thrive within a certain context. Art songs are no cheaper or more expensive than good ole chamber music. I completely agree on that.

    Nonetheless, I stand by my current views on opera though. Especially staged operas. The current trends in opera I actually think are genuinely unsustainable in the US. I actually think most opera plots are not that complex. Any interest comes from the human psychology aspect of good librettos; most opera plots are rather boring for me.

  10. a curious reader says

    Eric, i can totally agree with your second statement on opera. i think it’s going to take some really creative people to “re-think” how we do opera, and what opera is for it to continue to thrive. I dont think it will ever reach the same importance that it once was, but i really do feel that somehow it can survive.

    I think that opera houses are becoming worthless, and that opera companies are not going to survive in the long run. However, id like to see what would happen if the owners of these houses/companies became more like a movie studio. IE- take on several big commissions each year from different composers, and cast/produce the best opera they can. The opera house model is broken, and it’s going to have to eventually stop. If the opera community wants to continue to survive and flourish I dont think that any amount of money or HD broadcast is going to save the opera house model (but it’s a great step in the right direction).

    I think that the opera companies should focus on securing spots in music festivals for the major works. A huge benefit of only doing these festivals is that 1- you dont have to pay for an opera house throughout the year 2- instant audience who is going to appreciate your art. 3- the audience SHOULD be more open to the companies trying new things (and if they dont like, it wont break the companies back).

    just some thoughts.

  11. says

    In places that lack public transportation, many members of the over 70 crowd (the people who come to my concerts) don’t venture out at night because of difficulty driving. I have learned to schedule afternoon concerts.

    I think that concert times need to be community-specific. A good example of this would be the Friday afternoon Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts that used to be held every week. They were created for the older audience as well as for the Jewish audience so that they could get to hear a concert AND get home before sunset to light Shabbat candles. Jewish musicians in the orchestra could also be finished with work before sunset.

    Eventually, for a number of reasons, attendance at the Friday afternoon concerts was not high enough to justify the performances, and as the audience changed, the concert schedule changed.

    Now the BSO offers half a dozen “chamber teas” on Friday afternoons with chamber music played by BSO musicians. It seems that there is a Friday afternoon concert once a month, but the rest of the Friday concerts are in the evening.

    I agree, Elaine. Different concert arrangements for different people. For a younger audience, concerts should be shorter, and very likely should start both earlier and later. The standard 8 PM, “come precisely at that time and spend the full evening with us” model just doesn’t work for younger people, whose lives — including their work hours — can be much more flexible.

  12. Janis says

    When it comes to opera, it’s tough not to fall into the trap of thinking, “I don’t like that and none of my friends do, so it’s dying out.” Ask your typical person on the street to name someone who “does” classical music for a living, and chances are it’ll be an opera singer (or someone who sings in that style). Vocalists connect with people pretty profoundly. There’s very little hipster irony in it, and plots are simple, but watch a blockbuster movie if you want brainless plots, really …

    Opera has the disadvantage of being a HUGE and expensive thing to put on, but it has the advantage of being a play with sets and costumes — and featuring voices. These are all big draws, as Andrew Lloyd Webber knows well. It’ll be hard to predict, really.

  13. Valerie Tung says

    Has anyone on here read the work, Generations? I was surprised how much this work predicted church demographics and felt it has some application to music demographics.

    An interesting sidepoint (it’s rather buried in there) that the authors of Generations make, too, is the these changes will also be being made from the coasts inward, for the most part. (Definitely exceptions to this.)

    However, I feel like the audience becoming younger is definitely the case here in Seattle. One can even look at the Puget Sound Symphony Orhcestra’s website (www.psso.org) or how the Musicians Emeritus Symphony Orchestra became the Seattle Festival Orchestra (www.seattlefestivalorchestra.org) to see how the area has more and more young musicians — who may not be professionals at all. Many of the founding members of PSSO were Microsoft program managers and programmers.

    I was/am a part of both of these groups so I know their demographics quite well as a 26-year-old. I know many 20 and 30-somethings playing in the other orchestras locally as well.

    I am curious how this compares to others’ experiences in urban centers. (I can tell you its very different outside of Seattle proper… but meanwhile there has been a successful parent push for CHAMBER music at a nearby high school — so maybe the change is working its way down!)

    Hi, Valerie. Interesting. Thanks!

    A paradox we’ve all seen, for many years — there’s no shortage of young classical musicians. Some of whom then go on to professional careers, while their friends (of their age) continue not to care about classical music. I don’t think anyone has ever explained why this is — why, that is, some number of younger people study classical music while the vast majority of people their age aren’t interested in it at all. Do you have any thoughts on it, Valerie? It’s one of the great unsolved mysteries, I think.

    Would be _wonderful_ to compare information from various areas. Nobody has ever collated this stuff, as far as I know.

  14. David King says

    Just to confirm your suspicions – I’ve been to three HD’s (Dr. Atomic, Salome and Turandot) in the DC suburbs (Tyson’s Corner VA twice and Columbia MD once) and I was probably the only one under 45 there. I’m 26, and I’m not the best at estimating ages, but 50+ was probably 90%, and each was packed full.

    Thanks. Depressing, but if this is how things really are, I’m glad to know it.

  15. Ken Josenhans says

    Some random thoughts from a 50-ish maniac for the Metropolitan Opera movie-operas: I’ve seen all but four of them over the four seasons.

    The audience in Ann Arbor is also pretty old for the Saturday live shows. I’m pretty sure that at 50-something, I’m in the younger 10-15% of the crowd. Our theater gets a couple of bus-fulls of people driven in from assisted living facilities, and I hear 60-ish people complaining loudly that they can’t find a good seat for their 90-ish mother.

    But one of the things I take away is that the Met movie-opera audience is a happy, chatty audience — more engaged with each other than for a standard movie, or for a live opera performance. That means something, but I’m not sure what to do with it.

    The audience grew slowly here. It was the second year in Ann Arbor (season 3 for the moviecasts) before the auditorium started filling up, and this year the theater has added a second auditorium for the live Saturday show, and that one mostly fills up too.

    The local university has a major music school, and I am startled that the voice majors are not regulars at the opera-movies, just to study what leading world-class artists are doing. There was a flock of high school French students at “Carmen” in January, and two students eagerly snapped up my spare tickets to the sold out show.

    I have campaigned to get numerous of my friends to turn out for specifically chosen shows, and sometimes this is successful.

    But I worry: after seeing over 20 Met moviecasts at $50/couple including snacks, I’m getting less enthusiastic about paying $150/couple to go see the live opera in Detroit, from the back of the main floor.

    Fascinating, your last point. I think many people who run regional companies must hope that the HD showings make people want to go to their shows. But I enjoy the theater showings more than live operas at the Met. I should do a post about that, but two reasons are these. The acting is often better in closeups than seen on stage, because the singers — not really trained as actors — are clumsy with their bodies, but expressive with their faces. And, second, the sound of the voices. It’s expertly processed on the telecasts, so that each voice stands out from the orchestra. And, wonderfully, in the sonic equivalent of 3D, so the voices don’t drown the orchestra out. I know from many, many operas live at the Met that many of the singers don’t have fully Met-class voices. But in movie theaters they don’t sound underpowered at all. (Case in point, though this is a singer with an aging, though clearly Met-class voice: James Morris’s low F sharp at the end of his aria in Simon Boccanegra. Not a note that would have registered very strongly in the house (it was wavery, and not clearly focused, also not very loud or resonant). But it stood out just fine from the orchetra in the movie house.)

    That said, I so much agree about how friendly the crowds are. I noticed just the same thing. Many jokes with the women next to me about how my wife and I couldn’t find seats together, and had to pass our popcorn back and forth between one row and the next.

    Then the women next to me had a lively conversation about their next outing. They were going to see Avatar, and disagreed about the time. One thought the 9:30 show was too early, the other wanted to go at that time because they could see the IMAX version. Cultural omnivores! Just as all the studies say most people are.

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