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.

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6 thoughts on “The Incredible Shrinking Opera Audience

  1. You have no idea how many kids I know (I’m one of them only 18 years old) love opera / classical music – the more and more people are saying classical music audience is dying should consider how small it was to begin with. A good paper to read http://www.city-journal.org/2010/20_3_urb-classical-music.html + Keep in mind I live in Waynesville, Missouri its literally in the middle of no where 90 miles from Springfield, MO and 120 miles from St. Louis culture we travel for 😉

    1. It took us a few days to find the statistics because I had seen them before. I think it’s hard to say that opera audiences are shrinking in every city but if you look at the latest NEA research report, as a whole, arts attendance has been on the decline. Here is an interesting, short report that mentions the numbers and has some great graphics displaying the NEA report: http://northwestern.news21.com/arts-media/arts-institutions-cultivate-latino-audiences-as-traditional-base-dwindles/ You can also read the full report here: http://www.nea.gov/research/2008-SPPA.pdf Hope that helps!

  2. You write: ” Or is there a deeper core to the genre that can be reinvented in a way to engage a larger audience?” DUUUUH!!!—- The MUSIC, DUMMY!!!!! The great composers of “the canon” were all BORN INTO A LIVING TRADITION. So when they, after an education in musical technique, came to write an opera, they weren’t re-inventing the wheel!!! They were BUILDING on existing traditions which were IN THEIR BLOOD since childhood!!! Even a Mozart, fabulously trained from aqe 2, didn’t write an operatic masterpiece with its own idiosyncratic “voice” until “Idomeneo”, when he was 25. Wagner, the great operatic REBEL, first wrote three operas, “Die Feen”, “Das Liebesverbot”, and “Rienzi” (none ever played at Bayreuth), each of which was an exercise in an existing operatic TRADITION.

    This centuries-old method of passing on operatic tradition to the next generation of composers was destroyed by World War One, the Great Depression, and World War Two. .Post-World War Two composers mostly grew up on rock & roll, which may be fun, but musically is drivel. This is a useless background on which to base the composition of a new opera, even for Conservatory graduates in Composition and Orchestration. Is it therefore any surprise that almost every new opera produced in the past, say, 40 years, after its hugely over-hyped premiere, turns out to be shapeless or tepid or both, has no staying power, and sinks back into the mud it came from?

    The ONLY (long-term) solution to this fundamental crisis is for major opera companies to institute Young Composers Programs (paralleling existing Young Singers Programs). The young composers (Conservatory composition graduates chosen by competition) would go to rehearsals of standard repertory operas; sit in on singers’ coaching sessions so that they could actually learn what operatic voices can and cannot do; and STUDY SCORES of Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, etc. with assistant conductors and yes, also with “big name” conductors too. Then the young composers would at least KNOW WHAT THEY’RE DOING BEFORE beginning to compose an opera.

    THAT’S the ONLY solution to the opera crisis: Young composers must STUDY, SWEAT and WORK HARD. All the rest of the palaver of opera companies “re-inventing” themselves is just gimmicks, glitz and publicity stunts—- the ignorant leading the blind.

  3. In my opinion most obscure operas deserve obscurity. I find most modern operas are exercises in music theater rather on beautiful music. Most singers today are trained in theatrics and their vocal production leaves a lot to be desired. Caruso was said to be a terrible actor but, boy could he sing. I think that opera should primarily be a tribute to the artist and not some set designer

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