Many leaders in the opera field, including myself, are regularly asked the question, "How can we develop the 'new' opera audience?" The questioner usually takes the view that the opera audience is too narrow, and aging out, and that the next generation is lagging in their commitment and interest. Implicit in his or her question is that this is a new phenomenon that current leaders in the field may not be addressing adequately. Consider, though, the following true stories:
A distinguished composer of opera and a wide range of orchestral works is perennially short of funds. He agrees to write a new opera with a comic and accessible libretto, designed to attract a popular following. The work will hold its premiere in a theater known for attracting a broad mix of patrons across a wide range of income levels.
Another distinguished composer, known primarily for opera, is working on a masterpiece that he is confident will secure his reputation for all time. To respond to financial pressures, he takes a break in the composition of the main work to write a shorter piece that he feels will be more commercially rewarding.
Actually, it turns out that both of these stories date from some time ago. The first vignette describes Mozart's composition of The Magic Flute, which remains one of the most frequently performed operas the world over. It was composed as a singspiel (a sung play) and was considered a "lower," and therefore more accessible, opera because of being performed in German, not Italian, in a theater attracting a broader demographic mix. One irony, of course, is that the Magic Flute is now considered a staple of the core, "high" operatic repertoire.
The second composer was Richard Wagner, who interrupted his composition of the Ring cycle (during the composition of Siegfried, the third opera in the cycle) to write Tristan und Isolde. Probably only Wagner could conceive of Tristan as a more commercial venture (despite its beauty and harmonic innovation, the opera runs well over four hours and was initially considered unperformable by Wagner's contemporaries), but his intention was to earn some much-needed cash, in order to devote himself to his primary project.
So if the idea of building "new" audiences is not really new, how exactly should we think about the question?
In my experience, it is relatively easy to build consensus with boards, donors and supporters around what type of audience we should aspire to develop. The ideal new audience would be young, multi-ethnic, and fully representative of the broader community. It would be equally open to new operatic and cultural experiences as well as performances of the staples of the operatic repertoire. It would also be willing to support the opera with ticket sales (in particular, subscription sales), enthusiastic word of mouth promotion, and meaningful financial contributions.
In practice, this is a hard demographic to find. Younger audiences, unsurprisingly, want to see their own cultural milieu reflected on stage, which tends to lead them towards newer experiences than operatic staples (at least until they develop a taste for the artform over time). Because opera companies in the 21st century must secure up to 75 percent of their budgets from donors, they are critically dependent on individuals with the means to make significant donations—over and above ticket sales. For many young people who are beginning their careers, perhaps starting a family or trying to buy a house, this is difficult if not impossible. Even in the ballet arena, where the audiences tend to be significantly younger than opera or symphony audiences, it is the older, more established patrons who shoulder the bulk of the fund-raising need.
That being said, every opera executive I know would agree that audience cultivation is critically important. Encouragingly, there is a ferment of exploration going on in the U.S. (and Europe, too, as companies wrestle with the looming impact of reduced government funding). From my perspective, some of the most notable recent examples include the following:
- The Metropolitan opera's HD broadcasts. Peter Gelb's initiative to present grand opera in movie theaters worldwide is still one of the boldest audience development moves in recent years. While there is still some debate on whether the performances have more impact on new audiences or existing ones, I believe that they have dramatically increased public awareness of opera and have had an overwhelmingly positive impact on the field.
- Showcasing opera outside the opera house. In an effort to move opera out of its "native habitat" and bring it into the community, opera companies have experimented with a variety of large scale display screens in London, New York, Houston, and other cities. Opera companies have also presented simulcasts in sports stadiums in San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., among others. More recent entrants with this type of approach include Opera Company of Philadelphia and Portland Opera. As many readers know, The Dallas Opera is busy preparing for a major simulcast of Mozart's Magic Flute in Cowboys Stadium on April 28, 2012. So far, more than 90 percent of tickets requested are from patrons not currently in our database, which is very encouraging from the point of view of audience development.
- Exploring new performance spaces. The use of "found" performance spaces also moves opera into new places and appeals to new patron segments. One of the most innovative examples in recent years was Long Beach Opera's production of Ricky Ian Gordon's Orpheus and Euridice in a swimming pool. Boston Lyric Opera's 2012 production of Peter Maxwell Davies' The Lighthouse – performed by TDO in Dallas at the Wyly Theater – took place at the Kennedy Museum and Library. And, in a different sort of example, TDO's brochure photographs for the "Tragic Obsessions" Season were shot in an abandoned orphanage in rural Texas.
- Experimenting with new types of repertoire. Many opera companies adding new works to the repertoire to broaden audience appeal – e.g. established works such as Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's Show Boat (Chicago Lyric Opera and Houston Grand Opera) and new compositions such as Mark Anthony-Turnage's Anna Nicole at the Royal Opera House (see video below). While the latter work certainly drew a new audience in its initial sold-out run, it is still an open question in my mind as to how many of these new patrons can be converted to opera regulars.
- Rethinking community events. Opera companies have long presented community events built around their core product (e.g. San Francisco Opera's Stern Grove series), but there are new approaches here, too, incorporating the element of surprise. On Saturday, October 30, 2010, the Opera Company of Philadelphia brought together over 650 choristers from 28 participating organizations to perform one of the Knight Foundation's "Random Acts of Culture" at Macy's in Center City Philadelphia. A clever stunt, yes, but did it have genuine impact? The answer lies in the numbers: the video has garnered over 7,700,000 views on YouTube to date!
- Building bridges with different communities. Other companies have focused on reaching out to demographic segments not historically known for their interest in mainstream opera. Houston Grand Opera's Cruzar la Cara de la Luna ("To Cross the Face of the Moon"), premiered by Mariachi Vargas, has been extremely successful as an outreach to the Hispanic community (see this and this).
- Collaborating with stage and film directors. Opera companies are also working more regularly with stage and film directors who bring a different sensibility to the artform. Los Angeles Opera hired Woody Allen and William Friedkin for a production of Puccini's Il Trittico. Closer to home, TDO engaged the renowned Artistic Director of the Dallas Theater Center, Kevin Moriarty, to direct our production of The Lighthouse, which became an immediate hit with critics and audiences alike.
- Re-imagining education programs. Opera companies are also redesigning their education programs with the goal of attracting new audiences for the long-term. My view of arts education programs will be a subject of a future "Off the Cuff."
And while we are all pursuing those "new" audiences, let's not forget the "tried and true patrons." They are equally critical to our success. If we collectively veer too far, too fast, from our existing base of support, that will gravely undermine our financial stability as well.
As we approach the opening night of TDO's production of Mozart's The Magic Flute on April 20, I am reminded that the work was written over 200 years ago—extraordinary music composed (at least in part) in response to a desire to attract a wider, less elite audience. I believe that as long as opera is performed before enthusiastic live audiences, and companies like the Dallas Opera are delivering what we are capable of, this quest to expand, engage, and refresh our audiences will continue to have vital meaning for us all.
◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column "Off the Cuff" appears every month in TheaterJones.com. His first column can be seen here, the second is here and the third is here.