What Do Opera Audiences Want?

The First in a Two-Part Series on Audience Tastes

Tuesday, January 31, 2012 - 10:50 AM

Sigmund Freud famously asked, and with considerable exasperation, “What do women want?” I think heads of opera companies and their own analysts could ask, “What do opera audiences want?” Of course, just as there are innumerable types of women (and thank goodness for that), there are many kinds of operagoers. They vary from city to city (New Yorkers are demonstrative, Washingtonians much less so) and from one nation to the next, but there are other ways to define audiences.

When I worked at the Met, there were approximately 28 subscription series and each group seemed to have different operatic DNA. For example, the "Monday 2" series was the most historic one in which many old-guard families had the same seats since the 1880s. They dressed well, were often knowledgeable, and went because there was a belief that it just was what one does. Tuesday audiences were the least homogeneous, in part because the Met often played in Philadelphia on that night so a natural constituency did not form in New York. 

Saturday matinee audiences were the most elderly and suburban, for obvious reasons, and often saw casts giving their all because the performances were broadcast live on the radio. Saturday evening, in the past, had many working people--especially Jews, Italians and Germans--who were very passionate about opera. Prices were often lower and, socially, it had no appeal to Monday night types who went to their weekend homes. Nowadays, audiences on different nights at the Met are less distinct and prices are higher on Saturdays than they are on Mondays.

The Met prided itself on presenting excellent singers, many of them stars but others less known. Audiences were discerning and the company's subscription department tried to equitably distribute performances so that every series had an equal number of stars. People who bought individual tickets checked casting very carefully -- it was a consideration at least as important as the day of the week or the name of the opera.

Leaving the Comfort Zone

Nowadays, fewer audience members think to attend an opera purely based on the presence of a particular singer. In fact, many people would be hard-pressed to name some of the excellent singers currently performing. Four current sopranos -- Renée Fleming, Angela Gheorghiu, Anna Netrebko and Deborah Voigt -- have strong public relations apparatuses that get the word out about their latest activities and accomplishments. They are names known on most of Planet Opera and, to some degree, in the world beyond. This might help sell tickets, but it does not guarantee a sold-out theater.

There are other singers whose gifts and performances are comparable but do not have the same level of fame. One who immediately comes to mind is the American soprano, Patricia Racette, who was just a superb Tosca at the Met (right) and will soon be Madama Butterfly. She has it all as an artist and I get tickets for anything she is scheduled for, just because she is in it.

A big change from the past is that many prospective operagoers scarcely check cast lists anymore and look only at the name of the opera. If they know it, they will go. Very few stars, among them Netrebko, Cecilia Bartoli, Juan Diego Flórez, Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Jonas Kaufmann, have a significant impact on ticket sales. When outstanding singers appear in unfamiliar works (say, Satyagraha or Khovanschina), many current operagoers won’t buy tickets, in part because they feel they are stepping out of a comfort zone, even if these operas are masterpieces. This is a serious problem.

I believe we are in the middle of a tidal shift that is an alarming trend for the health of opera companies. In the not too distant past, if an opera house had a star such as Caballé, Carreras, Domingo, Freni, Horne, Nilsson, Pavarotti, Price, Rysanek, Scotto, Sills, Sutherland, or Te Kanawa in the cast, that performance would sell out.

In 1984, the Met presented Riccardo Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini in a handsome new production. It had not been done by the company since 1918. Although the composer and opera had almost no name recognition among even the most ardent fans, it starred Renata Scotto, Plácido Domingo and Cornell MacNeil, with James Levine conducting. With this cast, ticket sales were excellent. Eight performances were done in New York, the last one being an international telecast. It then was part of the Met tour and was seen by large audiences in Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, Memphis, Minneapolis, Toronto and Washington. This is the meaning of star power.

It is no reflection on the merits of the artists of today to say that a work with no name recognition would have trouble selling many tickets no matter who is in the cast. There are cases in which works generate and deserve great buzz (The Nose at the Met; Anna Nicole in London) and sell lots of tickets. That is wonderful, but it is the exception. This season the Met revived its outstanding 2008 production of Satyagraha, one of the best things the company has presented in recent years. While it had audiences in its original run, houses were not at all full this time around. 

To be artistically healthy, it is essential for leading opera companies to offer a mix of repertory in many styles. And it is important that audiences keep faith with them. While I love the famous works of the standard repertory by Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi, Wagner and Puccini as much as anyone, if audiences only attend operas they know, that is akin to eating the same dishes at certain chain restaurants or only getting coffee from one famous purveyor because they are known quantities.

Taking a Chance on Verdi

At the Met in coming months, four Verdi operas will be presented. Very fine singers will appear in Aïda and La Traviata and I suspect a lot of tickets will be sold even though the production of the latter leaves a lot to be desired. But how will Macbeth and Ernani fare? The former has name recognition as it is based on a famous play. It has a major artist, Thomas Hampson, in the title role, and an excellent conductor in Gianandrea Noseda. One of the season’s most important debuts will be mezzo-soprano Nadja Michael as Lady Macbeth.

Ernani opens on February 2. Though not unknown, this early Verdi piece is less familiar to the general opera public. Roberto De Biasio and Marcello Giordani will share the title role, joined by three major singers: Ferruccio Furlanetto, Dmitri Hvorostovsky and rising star Angela Meade (right) who, on Monday, received the prestigious Beverly Sills Artist Award. The very fine Marco Armiliato conducts. 

Will prospective ticket buyers look past Ernani’s unfamiliar title and choose to attend because of its famous composer and the quality of the singers? I would hope so, but it has not sold out. Many potential ticket buyers might wait to read reviews or choose to attend the February 25 HD broadcast. In the past, the cast would have been enough of a reason to buy tickets as soon as they went on sale.

All the time I hear the same refrain, “There are no good singers nowadays.” This is usually said by people who think they are opera lovers but, in fact, are not paying attention. There are many great singers before the public today. As an exercise in preparation for this article, I took a piece of paper and wrote down the names of active singers, ranging from quite young to very senior, who have something persuasive and meaningful to offer on the stage and in the ear:

Sopranos Patrizia Ciofi, Diana Damrau, Natalie Dessay, Daniela Dessì, Julianna Di Giacomo, Renée Fleming, Barbara Frittoli, Anja Harteros, Hei-Kyung Hong, Karita Mattila, Angela Meade, Anna Netrebko, Patricia Racette, Sondra Radvanovsky, Nina Stemme, Violeta Urmana, Deborah Voigt, Eva-Maria Westbroek

Mezzo-Sopranos Anna Caterina Antonacci, Daniela Barcellona, Cecilia Bartoli, Stephanie Blythe, Olga Borodina, Sasha Cooke, Joyce DiDonato, Elina Garanca, Susan Graham, Vesselina Kasarova, Angelika Kirschlager, Waltraud Meier, Dolora Zajick, Maria Zifchak

Tenors and Countertenors Roberto Alagna, Fabio Armiliato, Piotr Beczala, Johan Botha, Lawrence Brownlee, Anthony Roth Costanzo, David Daniels, Iestyn Davies, Plácido Domingo, Juan Diego Flórez,  Marcello Giordani, Ben Heppner, Jonas Kaufmann, Matthew Polenzani, Ramón Vargas, Klaus Florian Vogt

Baritones and Basses Thomas Allen, Gerald Finley, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Thomas Hampson, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Simon Keenlyside, Ambrogio Maestri, James Morris, Maurizio Muraro, Eric Owens, René Pape, Luca Pisaroni, Samuel Ramey, Bryn Terfel.

I could mention others too. Make note of these names and, wherever you live, go buy a ticket to an opera you don’t know if it features one of these artists. In part two of this post, I will address other issues that seem important to current audiences. What do you think they want?

Photos: 1) Patricia Racette as Tosca (Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera) 2) Angela Meade as Elvira in Verdi's 'Ernani' (Marty Sohl/Met)


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Comments [23]

Shalom Rackovsky from Rochester, NY

Excuse me- Anne Sofie Von Otter? Matti Salminen? Hello?

Jun. 21 2012 03:50 PM
Francois from New York

"What do you think opera audience members want?"
For the vast majority of the Met audience, I can suggest a couple of answers:
1/ be able to say they've been to the opera.
2/ get a taxi home before the rest of the audience
3/ see something as familiar as possible (better if some arias have been featured in some TV commercial and if the set looks like a real Italian castle)
Having been to 25 performances at the Met since I moved to NYC 4 years ago, I still can't get used to the audience here. Every time I’m shocked by the overall lack of enthusiasm; usually the clapping at the end lasts less than 2 minutes (but starts too early, ie long before the last note). I guess that after 3 hours, people can’t spare another 5mn to express their gratitude to the incredible artists they’ve just heard/seen? I find hard to believe that it’s the same audience who gave a 30+mn ovation to Leontyne Price for her Met debut in 1961. Anyway, how can the crowd be so apathetic when the performances are usually so good? I’m certainly not a big fan of every production but I’m always impressed by the outstanding quality of the singers. You mention a few top names (and there are many more: Joseph Calleja, Marcelo Alvarez etc). This year, "Rodelinda" was far from sold out and by the last intermission, well, the house was half empty. Pearls and pigs. Andreas Scholl, Renee Fleming, Stephanie Blythe etc for Christ sake! Minghiella’s outstanding staging of Madama Butterfly would deserve a long standing ovation. Same for Roberto Alagna’s incredible performance in Tosca the night after stepping in Faust(well, I got insulted for giving him a standing ovation). I could go on and on. Where is the passion? Seriously, most of the Met crowd doesn’t appreciate opera. Their last significant reaction was 2 years ago when they wrongly booed Luc Bondy’s Tosca at the opening night because it was too far from their outdated picture of the opera (staging was far from perfect but didn’t deserve the public outcry).

Feb. 14 2012 02:28 PM
Carolyn from NYC

But Bennett...why do you have to feel you have to DO something to attract people to opera? It's been around for a heck of a long time, certainly longer than you or me. And it's been around in dusty, sometimes tattered, overused productions, but that never deterred people. There's an honesty in it... That in itself is beautiful.

You qualify yourself as a "younger" person - so what does that mean? Does that mean a younger person needs glitz? Needs edge? Who's to say that older people don't like Glass, Reich, Part?? Great music is great music, and if left to its own devices, it doesn't need re-creating, re-interpreting. If you want something new...create it. Why destroy something that someone else has created? Should we perhaps paint a larger smile on the Mona Lisa?

Feb. 03 2012 03:40 PM
Bennett from Kent, Ct

What these comments make clear is that opera has to appeal to many audiences, not just one, and therein lies the difficulty. I relish the contemporary dress/out-of-context productions, just as I relish the productions of twentieth century composers. Maybe this has something to do with my relative youth--I grew up on Glass and Reich, and love Bartok and Britten and Janacek. I've also noticed that when I attend these productions at the Met, the mean age of the audience is no longer 65, but 45. So in addition to the question, what do audiences want, we should also ask how do we make opera alive and vital for new and younger audiences.

Feb. 03 2012 11:12 AM
Marianna from Manhattan

...and thank you to Mrs Newman for the lovely blessing :)

Feb. 03 2012 10:46 AM
Marianna from Manhattan

Perhaps it is all a matter of trust. We simply want to trust the opera house to take our breath away, or take us out of our normal lives as Carolyn wisely notes. We give the opera company our hard earned money and time. With all the disruption in and around our lives these past tremulous years we simply want to trust; something, anything. How can we trust innovation, the unknown? We can’t.
Steve Jobs was an innovator whom we trusted. Hmmmmmmm Time for someone to start working on the Apple opera.

Feb. 03 2012 10:44 AM
Carolyn from NYC

First and foremost is the singing. Stars usually sorta guarantee a good performance; however, I'm open to and urging for the success for unknowns. The next thing I look at is whether it's a contemporary or a period piece. I will not attend a contempory-out-of-context production....no matter who's singing. I'd rather stay home and play a CD! The opera itself is the third determinant, however I trust the musicality of the opera company in their choices, so that is not necessarily as important. I go to the opera to hear the wonders of the human voice, first and formost. I want to be taken out of my every day life. I experience contemporary life daily, I don't want to see Tosca in a street dress, or MacBeth in and Army uniform.

Feb. 03 2012 09:54 AM
mrs newman

Wotan bless you, Marianna. It's people like you who keep the art alive.

Feb. 02 2012 05:27 PM
Marianna from Manhattan

As a new comer to opera I am blissfully devoid of much high minded opinion on what I am witnessing on stage. I take each performance I attend at the Met at face value and thrill in the whole experience as it comes at me sitting in the cheap seats. I try my level best to not be swayed by the comments and judgments of those around me who "know better." I prefer to trust my own experience and mine for the moments that move me. That is what makes going to the opera worth my while and I can promise you I don't know half of what I'm seeing this year. (Opera 101 has helped me get a base line so thanks for that Fred.)
We go to the opera because we want to be moved. We want to cry. We want to be swept off our feet and it's heartbreaking & maddening when we don't get there. This may explain why people mainly flock to the reliable standards but even those get "old."
So what to do? Be like me.
Stop knowing so much!
Go to the opera and pretend it's the first time you've ever gone. See if you don't end up feeling like a kid in a candy shop!

Feb. 02 2012 02:20 PM
ALS from NYC

Uh...cast is one of the very first things I look at when deciding whether or not to attend. Case in point: I'm not attending any of the current Ring performances (despite being a Wagner fan) because Voigt is no Wagnerian, and I'm completely unfamiliar with Katarina Dalayman. I'm not investing 5 hours in a singer I don't like or one I do not know. I'll listen to the radio broadcast, but that's about as far as I'll go.

There are a lot of good singers these days, it's true, but those singers are by and large ignored, and the singers named in this article are the big sellers. However, that's not at all indicative of their talent and/or ability but rather, as stated, a function of a really good PR team. And in fact I actively avoid 2 of the 4 sopranos named in the article, as to me they guarantee nothing but boring interpretations and lackluster singing. One of the others guarantees nothing but histrionics and cancellations, for which I have no use.

So for me, the cast is just as, if not more, important than the opera itself. If I like a singer, I'll listen regardless of what they're singing.

Feb. 02 2012 11:46 AM
Molly from Washington DC

What to opera goers want? I suppose I can't speak for all opera goers, and admit that I enjoy operas from the (less usual) point of view of an aspiring singer. That said, the number one thing I am looking for when I buy an opera ticket is extraordinary singing. Contrary to your blog posting, I am inclined to look at the cast, perhaps before even the title of the opera! Ok, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but who's singing what is very important to me.

After that, I think about the following things: Is this an opera I'm interested in hearing? (I'm drawn to bel canto, Verdi, and Puccini.) Is it an opera I've heard so often that I'm sick? (Boheme? AGAIN?) If it's a new opera, is it by a composer whose work I have enjoyed in the past? (Minimalists? I can't imagine anything worse than hearing the same arpeggiated chord 10,000 times!)

But, I almost always find myself in the opera house for the sole purpose of hearing the very best singing.

Feb. 02 2012 11:22 AM
Fred Plotkin

Readers: Thank you for your suggestions of additional singers. My list is not definitive, but simply included names that came to mind as I wrote them out by hand. The salient point is that there are indeed good singers before the public, but very few of them have big followings. I think this is because audience members are not following them and making them stars. But my main question for all of you at the end of this piece is one I phrased quite deliberately: "What do you think opera audience members want?' I look forward to your thoughts on that question.

Feb. 02 2012 12:50 AM
RodolfoL from New York

How it is possible not to check the cast after you have seen several times the same operas! But the MET is doing well at changing the cast quite frequently. So many great singers in every register. This season you have great casts in many operas. I fully agree with you about Patricia Raccette, a must-see in every opera she sings. And how you cannot go and see an Opera like Don Carlo with any and every cast?

Please add Zeljko Lucic too, a great Macbeth and a great Germont.

Feb. 01 2012 05:16 PM
Stephen from New York

Meche, you must have missed Stephen Costello's embarassing turn as Percy in Anna Bolena. He should be singing at regional opera companies, not on the Met stage. He has no top, Rigoletto's posture and the stage presence of a cipher. It's a testiment to the lackluster current crop of tenors that he's given plum roles at major houses.

Another insightful and beautifully written piece, Fred. The only singer I'd think to add to that list is Younghoon Lee, who impressed as Don Carlo last year, and in the fall as Ismaele in Nabucco.

Feb. 01 2012 01:30 PM
arnie from Manhattan

As Pat Walmsley said, you left out Joseph Calleja, the closest we have today to Jussi Bjoerling.

Feb. 01 2012 01:04 PM
arnie from Manhattan

Your analogy about eating the same dishes at chain restaurants certainly applies to the music of Phillip Glass, i.e. hearing the same notes and chords over and over again like a stuck record, ad nauseum.

Feb. 01 2012 12:46 PM
Pat Walmsley from NJ

You omitted Joseph Calleja!!

Feb. 01 2012 09:27 AM
meche kroop from MIMA

Some more additions to your list:

Ailynn Perez, Stephen Costello and ALL of the members of the Lindemann Young Artists Program

Feb. 01 2012 12:39 AM
Bonniesituation from Chicago

Do yourself a favor and check out Robert Dean Smith. It's impossible to know his work and not have him in your list.

Jan. 31 2012 05:21 PM
Scott Rose from Manhattan

Only through La Clemenza am I able to forgive those ignorant of Ernani.

Jan. 31 2012 03:07 PM
David from Flushing

If we look at what days sell out before others, it is clear that people do not want to have to go to work after a night at the opera. Getting home at 1 or 2 in the morning for suburbanites is simply too exhausting for work the next day. If the Met wants to sell more seats, I would suggest a Sunday afternoon performance and eliminate a less popular weekday evening. I realize that the Met has avoided Sunday performances in the past, but times are changing.

Audiences want something nice to look at on the stage. Otherwise, we could just stay home and listen to recordings without the annoyance of coughs. People tend to be more impressed with stage illusions of real places as opposed to obvious stage scenery. I suspect that "abstract" productions are among the least popular.

Given the increase in the world population and more easy international travel, there are likely more gifted singers available today than 100 years ago. The problem is where are the gifted composers of the past century? How many recent operas would you really want to hear twice? The claim that popular opera died with Puccini does seem to carry some weight.

Jan. 31 2012 02:36 PM
Molly from Washington DC

I'm happy to see you speak so highly of Patricia Racette. I have been a devotee of hers since I heard her sing Butterfly in a saturday afternoon radio broadcast a year or two ago. Since then, I have seen her live twice: in Peter Grimes, and in Tosca. She was extraordinary in both. I frequently refer to her as The Next Legendary Soprano.

Jan. 31 2012 02:30 PM
Avery from Long Island

We may have great singers today, but do we still have larger than life divas? I don't know, but perhaps the presence of true divas in the past drove some ticket sales.

As for the question what do opera audiences want, I can only speak for myself in saying that what draws me are the productions and sets. I take it as a given that the singers will be top notch.

Jan. 31 2012 02:07 PM

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