What Do Opera Audiences Want? (Part Two)

The Second in a Two-Part Series on Audience Tastes

Friday, February 03, 2012 - 09:52 AM

an opera audience an opera audience (Flickr/chansonnette)

In the first of two posts that asks what opera audiences want, I raised some provocative points that elicited some valuable responses from readers and I thank them for their input. Please take a few moments to read the comments at the conclusion of that essay.

Several commenters seemed to disagree with my assertion that many current operagoers do not check who is singing before buying a ticket, preferring instead to make their purchase based on the title of the opera alone. These readers insisted that knowing who is singing is a priority. I have a couple of responses to them. 

The first is that readers of the Operavore blog are already more engaged and knowledgeable about singers than are the broader audience. There are many people who habitually attend operas on their subscription night, seeing and hearing whatever is on offer. They go out of habit and generally like or don’t like what they hear. If some stars appear throughout the season, then these subscribers are content. Purchasers of single tickets (as opposed to subscription seats) might buy them if a particular singer is in the cast or if they are drawn to the opera as a whole.

My second response is that there are many places where opera is performed -- beyond the major European and American opera cities -- in which there is not a regular supply of big stars and great singers (of course, these are not always the same thing). If you regularly attend performances in the world’s opera capitals, you may not realize that there are wealthy, important cities that do not have great opera singers on a regular basis in their theaters. Don’t believe me? Here are some examples: Atlanta, Boston, Lisbon, Manchester, Philadelphia, Rome and Stockholm. 

There are many more medium-sized cities that only get a big opera star to come in for an expensive gala concert in which he or she will get a large fee to look glamorous, sing a few arias and perhaps attend a reception afterwards. I don't begrudge these singers the chance to make a living, but it does not advance the cause of opera.

In recent years, another factor has, I believe, radically changed what audiences think they want. The HD (high definition) transmissions of performances from the stages of opera houses to cinemas around the world have brought a facsimile of opera to hundreds of thousands of people. But it is not opera. The sound is inferior, with the orchestra often in the background relative to the singing. Attendees read the titles more than they listen to the musical storytelling. In an opera house, you can choose what to look at while in the cinema the decision is made for you. Opera productions often turn into background color as we focus on close-ups of singers. There is only the slightest awareness that a conductor is at work or an audience is in attendance. We are losing the sense of opera as a total theater experience!

I go to HD transmissions and listen as I would in a theater. I watch the details as presented but try to envision what I am not seeing. I read the opera’s story ahead of time just as I would before attending a live performance. Most people who go to HDs do not prepare and they do not engage with the music and the production as they would in an opera house. 

You could argue (and many people do) that the HDs bring opera to people who otherwise would not see it in any form. That is true. But these transmissions have severely dented ticket sales to live performances everywhere and have changed what thousands of people expect the operagoing experience to be.

I meet many people who are the core audience of operagoers, the ones who held subscriptions and eagerly looked forward to going to the opera house to hear works old and new performed by beloved singers and new discoveries. Many of them have stopped going to live opera on a regular basis, preferring a season of HDs close to home and, as a special event, one or two nights of real opera each year. The economics are clear: You can pay $250 and attend ten HD transmissions or use that same money for one or two good tickets to a live opera. This has meant that some opera companies have folded because they cannot compete with HDs while others have cut back their live seasons.

I have a friend who regularly attended live performances at Washington National Opera and often traveled to Baltimore to see opera at that fine, now defunct, company. She now goes to live opera once or twice a year but is a regular at opera in HD. She tells me that she is willing to accept the inferior sound and lack of choice about what she looks at in exchange for what she thinks of as increased convenience in terms of price and logistics.

Another opera-loving friend in Orange County, California used to go to performances at the now defunct Opera Pacific and also drive 90 minutes to the San Diego Opera (right) for live performances at that excellent regional company. More rarely did she journey two-and-one-half hours to Los Angeles, even though she makes donations to L.A. Opera. She believes in opera and helps fund it. But her operagoing habits have changed. Now she is a regular at HDs but bypasses most live opera in Southern California, preferring trips to San Francisco or New York plus signing on to an annual opera tour to Europe. Her finances and her passion permit her to do this, but other people simply opt for less live opera.

The divas who rotate as hosts of the Met transmissions dutifully recite words encouraging HD audiences to attend live performances at the Met and at their home opera companies. This is a good gesture, but I don’t think it has had much impact. In the cinemas where I attend HDs, audiences often talk through intermission presentations or head off to the snack bar or the rest room.

I read a quotation recently by Oscar Wilde that is not as glib and witty as we would expect, but provokes a lot of reflection: "There are works which wait, and which one does not understand for a long time. The reason is that they bring answers to questions which have not yet been raised; for the question often arrives a terribly long time after the answer.”  

Wilde was talking about what we draw from works of art of all types, but his point is important: we might propose answers, but what good are they if we don’t know the question? 

I named these two posts “What Do Opera Audiences Want?” because it's the most pertinent question. But it leads to others: Should opera companies seek to give audiences what they want or should they approach their sense of artistic mission in the purest terms? What impact and influence do critics have? Should their coverage of opera performances be "money reviews" that tell the reader whether it is worth investing in a ticket or should they explore the ideas of an opera production and then encourage the reader to come to his or her own conclusions?

Here are more: What role do audience members have in seeing to the financial and artistic health of their local opera companies? One commenter said he would not invest time (and presumably money) to hear a singer he does not like or does not know. Should potential ticket buyers skip a performance if they don’t know of or have not heard a particular singer? What should opera companies do to entice audiences to (or back to) live performances?

So, dear readers, here is my question for you: What questions should opera managers, singers, producers and audiences be asking right now to help the art form we love thrive, flourish and renew itself?

Photos: 1) An HD Screening for 'The Magic Flute' in Manhattan (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera) 2) 'Tannhäuser' at San Diego Opera

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Comments [13]

Scott Andrew Hutchins from Jacksonville, FL

I used to attend operas at Indiana University's open seating night for $14. When I moved to NYC, I went to the Met all of once because I got a comp. with plantar fasciitis, the concept of "standing room" scared me off, and I was in poverty the entire time I lived in NYC. To get a job, I finally had to move away, in spite of having degrees in English and media. Personally, I think there needs to be a better mix of old and new opera as there is in the spoken and musical theatres. When the Met was founded, most of the repertoire composers were still alive. Now, it's rare that they perform living composers. I think too many people feel that opera is a museum of ancient art. Also, I think the price is a major factor, as alluded before, which also kept me away from Broadway, except when I got comps as a member of The Dramatist's Guild.

Feb. 06 2012 09:53 AM
Mathew E from Sarasota, FL

Attracting new audiences as well as those who no longer attend are very important questions facing the opera world at the moment. In my humble opinion, it is greatly an issue of exposure. This is largely based on personal experience, of not being exposed to any opera until college Even then singing in it, but not truly appreciating it until further exposure happened in my mid-twenties. I also witnessed my family, never exposed to opera until I begin performing in them, grow to enjoy opera and a wider variety of music in general.

Not everyone will like opera, but if we are exposed to it half as much as pop and other media sources, there would be a great deal more who will fall in love with it's amazing music and dramatic stories. While ticket cost may be a hinderance, as expressed by many here, you still see many people old and young shelling out exorbitant amounts of money for tickets to Broadway shows, Rock Concert, Sporting events, etc. What drives them to spend it? Perhaps a passion for the event itself.

Technology has it's curses as well as blessings. In some ways it connects us more, via social sites such as Facebook, while it also separates us from actually interacting with others IN PERSON. Instead of going to a movie or a piece of LIVE theatre and experiencing the piece as part of a collective group, we choose to stay in and watch Netflix or watch it on DVD/BluRay.

In the early and mid 20th Centuries, the competition for Opera and Live Theatre as entertainment was much less. So in the end it circles around to exposing people to opera, as early and as often as possible, to the JOY of these art forms. The question then may be, how do we make opera relevant and let it be known that it is not just a distinction of class?

Feb. 06 2012 01:00 AM
The Marschallin from New York, NY

Continued (see my prior comment): 1) I for one do not always read the titles, I can do so selectively. I do not find them intrusive in HD.
2) True, at "HD", we lose the House's audience participation, but guess what? At the Walter Reade, the audience is very present, applauding in the "right" places, fidgeting in others, and probably less inhibited than in the House (some people complain about that too!) but it is all part of my enjoyment.
3) I do prepare, more now than when I was younger, when there was no Operavore, no libretti or voice/music samples online, few operas on the radio and television, and few reviews in the papers...
4) Indeed I stopped buying my subscription to the Met when I retired and could no longer afford it. I can vouch for the fact that the audience for HD is a sea of white hair, very few young and well off yuppies!So how can that be cutting in the Met's revenue? I have no solution on how to bring the desired segment of society to Opera in general, except for more education and exposure starting at the kindergarten level...
5) What do we want by way of programming? Some of what I want (and already know) and some of what I do not yet know...at a price at which I can afford to experiment!

Feb. 05 2012 03:27 PM
Bennett from Kent

Fred, it's also possible that HD is providing benefits in other ways. My first introduction to opera was seeing a broadcast on PBS as a kid. I was hooked, but it wasn't until I moved to NY for college that I started seeing opera live, and only then because my college routinely gave away a few tickets for Met performances. After college, my opera attending fell off completely because of costs. But a few years ago I started going to HD performances, which motivated me last year to start buying tickets to the Met. So HD has brought me back to actual performances. Indeed, sometimes the HD experience can even enrich a subsequent actual performance, since the HD's subtitles allow one to learn the opera. That being said, costs still leave me torn between the Met and watching in HD. At the end of the day, it's really all about costs. So I agree with Molly. More discounted tickets, please. More standby tickets, please. Otherwise, opera will continue to appear elitist, and that appearance may indeed be justified.

Feb. 05 2012 09:40 AM
Daniel from Manhattan

They should be asking themselves how they are going to educate the next and present generation. Opera needs to be part of music programs, and music programs need to exist for that to happen. Finland started investing in music around 30 years ago and are now reaping the reward- many articles have been written about this. America, however, maintains that art is a luxury item. It isn't. Art and music is food for the soul. It's basic stuff.

Feb. 04 2012 11:30 PM
Bob from Cumming, GA

To thrive, opera requires money. Sets, costumes, technical, artists and management are expensive. How to match income with expenses is the most important question. I think the Atlanta Opera does a good job balancing costs. It may not have an entire cast of well-known singers, but many in the cast will have sung at the Met. It frequently rents sets and costumes from other opera companies. It has cut back to a three-opera subscription from four. To increase ticket sales, it blends "popular" operas with lesser known or new ones - this season, Lucia (in an excellent and enjoyable production last November) and Don Giovanni go with The Golden Ticket which we will hear in March. So, I think all interested in opera should be asking how to manage the resources. Defunct opera companies will not help the art form thrive.

Feb. 04 2012 11:29 PM
Colline from NYC

Maybe, opera audiences want affordable tickets? I think this quote from the earlier part of this posting is telling.

"Saturday evening, in the past, had many working people... who were very passionate about opera. Prices were often lower.... Nowadays, prices are higher on Saturdays than they are on Mondays."

Well, we aren't all made of money. To sell out every performance, tickets need to be priced for us peasants, too. I mean, a ticket to the nosebleeds costs the same as an HD ticket. Just like an empty seat on an airplane, an empty opera seat is worthless when the performance starts. What could fill the empty seats? How about compelling pricing. Now for the cretins who don't bust down the doors for lesser known works. News flash, not all of us have seen the canonical works performed live. So the decision between seeing an opera one knows one likes vs one one doesn't know at all is pretty easy when one is on a limited opera seeing budget. Are opera companies so shortsighted these days that they only care about patrons who's families have had the same seats for 130 years? If opera companies want to survive, they can't turn their collective back on part of their audience. Hello, price people out and they won't come.... Want to cultivate the next generation of opera goers? Read the news lately? Today's young people are financially worse off than earlier generations. Are opera companies effectively competing for young people's limited recreation dollars? Or, are nineteenths century bohemians the only ones welcome in the opera house?

FYI: My opera going experience is with the Met.

Feb. 04 2012 05:36 PM
Elodie Bentley from North Caroline

I find HD and live opera to be quite different experiences. The best electronically reproduced voices are not the real deal and this is also a problem with musical theater today with its reliance on mikes. So definitely not a plus for HD. However, I have learned a great deal about what it takes to put an opera together, how the sets are managed, how the costumes come into being, and so forth. Not anything I have ever gotten out of my visits to the Met. Yes, I could read about it but it isn't quite like seeing the sets being moved into place, hearing from the costumer what was intended by the costume choices, hearing from the director what the overall vision was. It is just different! I expect the filming is intrusive, causes the singers to make choices that they would not make were the camera not running. I think I would avoid the Met on filming days. Perhaps the filming should be done at a dress rehearsal or perhaps as a special performance to which people could come but would know that the film was going to take precedence and would allow singers, orchestra, etc. to make choices for the film and not try to please both live audience and film goers as now. Just thinking out loud, really.

Feb. 04 2012 02:11 PM
The Marschallin from New York, NY

Fred, have you attended Met in HD at the Walter Reade Theater? I attended several there and several at the BAM, and while I found the sound at the BAM mediocre (probably due to the size and shape of the hall) I found the sound at the Walter Reade quite good, better than my home stereo sound. The blame shoud be put on the venue, not the production. Some movie theaters definitely are not the best place for sound, either too loud or not enough, and cerainly poorly balanced, they are geared to shows like "The Transformers" not Opera, after all. Not so the Lincoln Center Film Society's Walter Reade.

Feb. 04 2012 11:42 AM
Molly from Washington DC

I am somewhat in agreement with Mariana. Opera companies shouldn't be asking themselves, "How can we sell more tickets?" or "How can we make more money?" They should be asking, "What kind of stories do we want to tell?" and "How do we want to tell them?" I think this is something that some smaller, regional houses like Fort Worth have been excelling at, and their balance sheets show it.

As for the HD performances? As a young woman of little means, I love them. They allow me to see and hear the best singers on the planet at a very affordable price (with POPCORN!). But I also love, and always take advantage of programs that offer discounted tickets to young people, like the Washington National Opera's Generation O program of which I am a subscriber. This program offers discounted tickets or subscriptions to audience members younger than 35. It is a godsend.

Feb. 03 2012 04:45 PM
Marianna from Manhattan

"What questions should opera managers, singers, producers and audiences be asking right now to help the art form we love thrive, flourish and renew itself?"
a) what is the human condition today and what, can we guestimate, will it be in the future?
b) what do people need to be expressing that they are unable to express or are unwilling to express? And what cathartic opportunities can the opera company provide for them?
c) how do you introduce more leg room to the family circle seating at the Met?

Feb. 03 2012 04:37 PM
Bernie from UWS

I actually prefer HD broadcasts sometimes to hearing it in the opera house. The surround-sound speakers and visuals draw you in more than when you're sitting in the nosebleed seats at the Met and the sound is so far away. Also, you can eat and drink, which is generally frowned upon at the Met. And you don't have to feel self-conscious about how you dress and behave. The Met, for all its glamour and mystique, can be an awfully formal environment.

I agree with @David too: watching something on my 40-inch flat-screen with the stereo connected and the speakers cranked up is also quite nice.

Feb. 03 2012 02:26 PM
David from Flushing

HD performances are still in theaters that have the same inconveniences as the opera house: audience noise and restricted seating position. Then there are those "bladder buster" length operas.

DVDs allow one to sprawl on the sofa, pause for refreshments and other needs, without any distractions. I treasure my DVD set of the Met's Ring (the one with the pretty scenery) and doubt I would ever attend a live or HD performance of the same at this point.

Feb. 03 2012 01:48 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream, blog and weekly radio show devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns and Amanda Angel. The stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings. The Operavore radio show on WQXR, features opera news bulletins from the around the globe, previews of new recordings, and interviews with the players and personalities on the scene.

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