Audiences for live performance of opera are aging and declining. What ought to be done about that? General Manager of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Peter Gelb, in an interview with the BBC (on which I posted, on a different topic, yesterday) has this to say:
“The box office has not increased, it’s been flat which represents a shrinking playing field for opera – it’s not a secret in the US that the frequency of opera going is going down. …
“We are getting a newer audience, a younger audience, but there aren’t enough new audience members to replace the old audience members who are dying off.” …
Gelb lamented the lack of opera and arts education in schools in the US and elsewhere.
“Children are brought up to be tech wizards and to have the attention spans of mice. How do you educate new audiences to like opera which takes three or four hours and is in foreign languages?
“We’re trying. As long as governments are not interested in arts education, I think we are in a Catch-22 situation. [sic]
“How can we possibly hope to create new audiences for this art form if we are not introducing them or educating them?”
Let me speak to this not only as someone who studies the economics of the arts, but also as someone with children in public schools.
There is art in schools, not all of them, I know. My children are lucky enough to attend an elementary school with a terrific music teacher – they learn to sing, play recorder, put on a show. But the teachers at this school have a lot to do. They have to take kids of widely varying backgrounds and educational experiences, and get them into the habit of learning, questioning, studying, writing across the humanities, natural science and social science. They don’t want their students to have the “attention spans of mice,” so they engage in big projects that demand focus and perseverance.
Students are not going to learn about opera in school, at least not in any way beyond the completely superficial. And I don’t know how anyone who knows anything about life in a public elementary school could reasonably expect otherwise. I’m glad there is art education in school, and wish every school had its art and music teachers. But arts managers need to appreciate the limits of what could be done in schools to build future arts participants, even in the best of all possible worlds. Arts organizations will have to do some of the heavy lifting themselves.
So I would suggest that the General Director of one of the world’s most prestigious opera companies, located in a metropolitan area with a population of over twenty million, and who has an annual budget of more than $300 million to work with, ought not to blame the public education system for not doing enough to generate audience for his productions. It is unfair, and suggests an organization out of touch with its environment, a situation I thought elite arts organizations were at pains to overcome.