The Incredible Shrinking Opera Audience

By Caitlin Vincent

Shrinking Theater AudienceIn recent years, there has been a growing concern about the diminishing audience for opera.  Even with outreach programs like the Met’s Live in HD broadcast series or WNO’s Opera in the Outfield, opera audiences seem to be steadily shrinking and, worse, getting older and older.

Some blame high ticket prices and opera’s reputation for snobbery for the increasing number of empty seats.  Others attribute the change to an apathetic younger generation that lacks the attention span of its elders.  As much as I hate to admit it, there is some truth to these claims.

Given the current economic climate, even a hard-core opera fan may have trouble justifying a $65 ticket to La Bohème.  And, in this world of texting, tweeting, and Facebook, a three-hour opera with period costumes may seem to have as much relevance to Generations Y and Z as a cell phone without internet access or Angry Birds.

The truth is that grand opera as we know it may be headed for extinction.  There simply isn’t the financial support or cultural interest amongst the younger generation to support the type of productions that reigned supreme two decades ago.

Yet, I don’t know if it’s fair to blame the public for their lack of interest or bemoan the loss of culture in our society.  Perhaps the real issue is with the impresarios, the performers, the stage directors . . .those who love opera and are determined to “save” it.

Metropolitan Opera photo by Krista JohansonMany of us have become so focused on the need to rescue the art form that, to some degree, we’ve put on operatic blinders.   We attend opera after opera, support fellow performers and directors, lament shrinking audience sizes, and then repeat in a cycle of operatic monotony.   Instead, I wonder if we should change our philosophy and start looking for inspiration outside of opera.

Theater, popular music, literature, film – each of these genres has a unique artistic perspective from which the opera world might get a little inspiration.  Take the production of Stephen Adley Gurgis’ Den of Thieves that I recently saw at Baltimore’s Glass Mind Theatre (www.glassmindtheatre.com).   The show was a bare-bones, black-box production with minimal props and less than an arm’s length between the audience and the actors.   It was a far cry from the extravagance of grand opera, but the production was remarkably powerful, in part because the focus was entirely on the performers.

As another example, consider the Seattle-based band Fleet Foxes (http://fleetfoxes.com) who gave a concert in Maryland a few weeks ago.  They had a typical arena set-up, but the stage was enhanced with moving visual projections, as well as a massive screen with real-time Twitter posts from the audience before the show started.

Even if these alternate genres of performance don’t relate perfectly to opera, they do give us an opportunity to reconsider our notions of what opera is “supposed” to be.  Is opera defined by its high ticket prices, supertitles, and grandiose sets?  Or is there a deeper core to the genre that can be reinvented in a way to engage a larger audience?

Tosca Score Photo by pedro valdeolmillosEither way, I am certain that the future of opera does not rest with yet another production of Madama Butterfly or Tosca.  And, let’s face it, attempts to make operas more accessible with time changes or imaginative settings (Tosca in space?) can only go so far.  In theater, literature, and film, the classics of the past may inform and inspire, but each genre relies on constant evolution and innovation.  In the same way, the opera world needs to shift its focus to contemporary opera, to works that are being created by living composers in the context of today’s society.

There will always be a place in the canon for Mozart, Puccini, and Verdi, just as there will always be a certain glamor and sophistication associated with grand opera.  But we can’t hope to build the audience for opera if our philosophy is to rely on past masterpieces and remain oblivious to the cultural changes around us.

We need masterpieces from our own time that are relevant to the current generation.  And, most importantly, we need patrons and impresarios who are willing to advocate for these new works and remind us why we need opera in the first place.

Read More By Caitlin:

The Scarf Stereotype »

The Art of Networking »

Do-It-Yourself Guide to Becoming an Operapreneur »

The “Rules” of Singing »

Murphy’s Law Versus Audition Season »

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