Report: Opera Attendance Drops, Digital Engagement Rises

Sunday, September 22, 2013 - 08:22 PM

Audiences at a 2006 HD Screening for 'The Magic Flute' in Manhattan An HD Screening for 'The Magic Flute' in Manhattan (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

The arrival of autumn means a harvest of reports on the health of the arts in the United States. This Thursday, the National Endowment for the Arts will issue the top findings of its Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, a five-year survey on audience trends in theaters, concert halls and museums. WQXR will host a panel discussion in The Greene Space on Oct. 3, in which several arts leaders will discuss the findings, an event that will be webcast on WQXR.org.

But first, the advocacy group Americans for the Arts last week published a 145-page report called the National Arts Index, which aims to give an annual snapshot of the nation's arts health by assembling a mass of data. Although the overall index saw a slight dip in 2011, one sobering finding was a continued decline in audiences for opera.

Opera companies saw a 15 percent drop in attendance from 2010 to 2011, from roughly 2.7 million patrons to 2.3 million nationwide. That continues what has been an annual decline since 2007, a year when 3.6 million people went to the opera (back in 2000, 3.9 million attended a production). Americans for the Arts says the data does not account for opera companies' educational and community events, nor does it include attendance at HD movie theater screenings by the Metropolitan Opera and other companies. (The Met currently simulcasts to 1700 theaters in 54 countries; whether those screenings cannibalize live audiences remains a point of debate.)

The news is better for symphony orchestras. About 26.8 million people attended an orchestra concert in 2011, up from 26.2 million in 2010 and the highest number since 2008, when 28.7 million people went to a symphony concert. Still, there has been a longer-term downward trend; in 2000, 31.7 million attended a symphony concert.

As a whole, the arts industry is lagging as the economy recovers from the recession of 2008, with 44.2 percent of arts groups reporting deficits in 2011 and thousands others having folded. There were also fewer new works premiered in 2011, as the Los Angeles Times noted last week.

The report finds that since 2003, nearly half of the nation’s CD and record stores have disappeared. Digital downloads, however, comprised 50 percent of record industry sales in 2011; the services Pandora and Spotify represent an additional 15 percent. Whether online delivery can provide a sustainable revenue model for performing arts organizations remains to be seen.

"The evolving delivery model is digital," the report noted, so arts groups "have to compete in different ways. The public is certainly not walking away from the arts, but they are walking away from some traditional models of delivery."

Have you found yourself turning more to the Internet get your cultural fix? Leave a comment below.

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Comments [16]

Interesting that many of the commenters love to SEE the HD and hear the interviews. My problem is that I don't HEAR the performances in HD so much as the amplified sound of the theaters' sound system.
I attended Two Boys last night at the Met, and I loved it. The demographic was markedly different from the usual standard rep audience: much younger, and lots of men. One young African-American man said it was his first opera, and he loved it! He went because of the librettist, Craig Lucas, and was looking forward to hearing his first standard work.
Our younger generation is wired to their pods and pads for music as well as in their communication.

Oct. 26 2013 08:40 PM
cHARLES fISCHBEIN from Front Royal, Va.

It is indeed sad to see the predominance of the older demographics attending The Met. I grew up in New York City in the early 1960's and lived in the City until 1977. In those times I felt a bit our of place in my Family Circle seats surrounded by older men in tweed jackets. When I left New York City I put the Met behind me for 20 years, not having the time and funds to travel to New York from Virginia, where I was teaching and have retired. In the last ten years I have had Met subscriptions each season, and I disagree with many others who say that younger people have left Opera behind. Now that I am one of those "older men" in Family Circle I see many young couples and singles in attendance at The Met. Perhaps since I still sit in the Family Circle where seats are much less expensive than Balcony or Dress Circle etc. that is where the younger crowd sits. I attend six performances a year and usually one Saturday matinee and although the majority of the audience seems to be fifty and over there are still good representations of the younger attendees at the Met. The job of the Met management and Board of Directors is to continue to attract this younger demographic and expand it as much as possible. I wonder if the cannibalization of the audiences through HD transmission will eventually cause the younger attendees to stay away. Sometimes things that bring in quick cash have unintended consequences and I fear that may be the case with HD transmissions from the Met. It costs me between $500 and $750 to travel from Northern Virginia to New York City for each opera I see, I could drive 20 miles to a movie theater and see a production for under $30, however nothing can match the chill I still get through my entire body when the lights dim and the chandeliers ascend, sitting live at The Met where it is taking place, NO movie theater can match that experience.

Sep. 29 2013 10:22 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

There has been a decline all over the world. I might be wrong. Sometimes I am wrong. The dvds of opera and other classical music concerts are a big help to me because I am handicapped and cannot go to live performances. The decline might be caused by the high ticket prices but hd performances in theatres seems to be doing well. There also has been a decline in the culture. I remember when the Sarnoffs ran NBC. They gave us NBC opera, NBC Symphony, etc. Now that NBC is run by a bunch of classless morons, we get Real Housewives, on Bravo, etc. and MSNBC hosted by a bunch of classless lefties. Don't reply with that other network, FOX. We are a nation that also watches Honey BooBoo and Call of the Wildman. Ugh.

Sep. 25 2013 09:21 AM
Alexis Alfaro (alexisvalfaro.com) from San Diego, CA

Does anyone know where you can find information on how our 2.7 million nationwide opera viewership compares to other parts of the world?

Sep. 24 2013 08:24 PM

I agree with Brunnhilde from NYC. I was fortunate to be able to see one Met performance each spring, as part of a weekend trip from Baltimore. I remember seeing Turandot with Birgit Nilsson and it has remained a favorite of mine for the last 50 years. I have started attending our local (Fort Worth TX) operas again, after dropping my subscription for lack of quality performances. Since the new general manager took over, the quality is much improved and I am enjoying the Festival format. However . . . as the quality improves, so, apparently, do the prices. I also enjoy seeing the Met in HD at my local movie theater, but am sad that we don't have much of a turnout . . . except for Carmen, which was well attended.

I am concerned about the age of the attendees at the opera, the symphony, etc., and said as much to a young man sitting next to me at a Ft Worth Symphony performance. I am not convinced that providing "edgy" performances is what will draw the younger audiences to classical music.

Sep. 24 2013 02:29 PM
David from Flushing

As pointed out by several writers, ticket prices can become daunting. However, if one looks at the free lectures at the Met Museum, one sees exactly the same audience demographic one sees at the other Met.

When one is but a few years from the big 7-0 and sees few younger than oneself in the audience, there is obviously a big problem ahead. When I went to Lincoln Center 40 years ago, there were lots of people my age there. There were also a number of male couples that I assume perished in the early AIDS epidemic. It seems that interest in classical music ended with my generation.

There are surveys from the late 1940s and early 1950s showing the median audience age to be close to that of the general adult population. The contention that classical music has always been "old people's music" is really without basis. The attendance at art museums continues to rise, but it would appear that even with the large number of younger visitors, serious interest remains limited to the oldest generation.

Sep. 24 2013 12:11 PM
Jennifer from Boston

I am a passionate classical music lover who rarely attends live performances for one simple reason: I can't afford them. I really believe this is the main reason for the overall drop in audience size - the live performance industry is pricing itself out of the market. Paying at least $100 for a fleeting experience just doesn't make sense when I can put less than that into a CD or DVD that I will have for a long time.

Sep. 24 2013 11:11 AM
WQXR

Thanks all for your great comments on this. We'll be taking your input into consideration as we prepare for our panel discussion in The Greene Space on Oct. 3.

Sep. 24 2013 09:57 AM
Rodolfo from New York

Sorry, I forgot to say that if you go to the BAM in Brooklyn for the HD transmissions from the MET, you have the option to attend high quality lectures about the composer and the opera. A plus...again, all for $25.

Sep. 24 2013 02:11 AM
Fred from Queens

These declining statistics don't surprise me. The arts were never considered particularly important in this country. Ticket prices in this depressed economy are exorbitant and keep many of us away.

In this no tax era, corporations don’t even have the small incentive to give to these institutions. I grew up with Texaco's "Star of the American Road", Philip Morris, etc. These were deals with the devil, but these days it's just better business to hoard profits and let the arts compete in the "free market", which they can't.

Sep. 23 2013 11:17 PM
Rodolfo from New York

I absolutely agreed that the quality of the HD transmissions from the MET is really very high. Yesterday I have assisted to "Nabucco" from the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden at the Symphony Space and I must say that the quality was poor. But as always the hosts of the MET HD transmissions remind all of us, there is no better way of enjoying opera than attending live performances. Absolutely right! Maybe the point is that you watch very high quality transmissions, great operas, the many things going on behind curtains during intermissions, interviews to singers, producers and directora, performances hosted by singers you really love, ..., all for $25.

Sep. 23 2013 06:44 PM
PS from NY

I saw my first "Met Live in HD" performances last fall, and was so impressed by the quality of my experience that this season I will attend HD showings exclusively. There are several reasons I chose to do this, in addition to the aforementioned viewing and sound quality:

1) I will see three operas for less than the cost of a Dress Circle seat for one live opera.
2) I'll save the $20 round-trip train and subway fare, and the 90-minute, one-way, door-to-door commute to Lincoln Center (the movie theater being only a short drive from my home). Also, I'm not at the mercy of the train schedule.
3) The movie theater seats are comfortable, with enough sitting and leg room.
4) I enjoy the host's interviews with performers and conductors.
5) I can go to the restroom when I need to without being shut out till the next intermission.
6) I can eat a Nathan's hot dog and fries while I watch the opera.

Some of these may sound frivolous, but comfort and convenience add a lot to one's enjoyment of a performance. Seeing an opera live is a different experience from seeing it on a movie screen, but for me it is not always a better one.

Sep. 23 2013 03:04 PM
Brunnhilde from NYC

Haaaa....am I surprised??? Opera companies have ignored the pleas of the backbones of the opera companies.....get rid of those sexually perverted, kinky productions and do some honest, creative productions adhering to both libretto and composer's intent. And I'm so sick and tired of hearing about "those white-haired audiences"....well, those white hairs have supported the arts that way for hundreds of years, and guess what, opera has survived quite well for those hundreds of years. The intent of "garnering the younger audiences by producing "edgy" performances is the wrong, wrong, wrong way to garner. You have to reach your audience when they are young. Spend your money on educating. My mother took me to the opera (live opera) when the Met traveled throughout the US starting when I was 7. Its magic worked in me without my even realizing. Turandot on a live stage with Nilsson in the Mid-west obviously did something to me and the thousands that packed the auditoriums. The television was no place for the magnificence of Turandot... television was the place was for "Howdy Doody."

Sep. 23 2013 01:39 PM
EA from LI

I have not been turning to the Internet (because I already spend my whole workday in front of the computer and enough is enough) so much as to the radio and the high-def Met Opera broadcasts. David from Flushing is correct that the audiences there are older, at least in my observation, but I'm not there because I'm old. ;) I'm there because it's so easy, so inexpensive, so convenient, and so much fun. I wouldn't mind the price of a ticket to the Met once in a while and was a subscriber for a while, but now I find myself resisting the long late commute and the exorbitant price of Lincoln Center parking. It's also harder to find someone to go with me, and that I put down entirely to the cost.

Sep. 23 2013 12:14 PM
David from Flushing

I recently read an article bemoaning the decline in football stadium attendance at my alma mater and decided to do a little research. Apparently both pro and college football has been in decline since 2007. Classical music is not the only activity having problems in these economically troubled times.

Of course, the main problem is demographics and this will only become worse. I note that the opera broadcasts in the local theater attract an extremely old audience that often has mobility problems. It is likely that a trip to Manhattan would be too much for these people. It is nice that they can participate in opera even in this limited way.

Sep. 23 2013 11:12 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

The answer in my case is a resounding "yes". Thanks to the Internet, I was able to listen to live concerts from Tanglewood, the BBC Proms, a complete recorded performance of Wagner's "Das Liebesverbot" from BBC 3 (while following the full score) two days ago, plus on demand concerts by the New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra and Chicago Symphony. I can hear the Metropolitan Opera performances once a week starting with "Yevgeny Onegin" tonight (23 September) and through the season if I choose, without waiting for the Saturday matinees. WQXR's Lucerne Festival offerings, plus those live events from Carnegie Hall, are also high on my list. I find time to listen to records, tapes and CD's of favorite historical performances by favorite artists of the period. For someone with health issues who can't travel, the Internet is a Godsend. I've long ago agreed with Glenn Gould's assertion that the concert is dead (or moribund) is coming to pass, though the figures cited above aren't conclusive. Sorry to open up that can of worms again, though I realize full well there will be those who wish to attend anything as long as it's live. I ask this: of all those who are interested in the above cited --- and I know there are legions --- who can afford to attend all of them in person, given the time and wherewithal to travel to the venues? My admittedly unscientific guess is 1 or 2% of all who listen to WQXR via live broadcast and the Internet.

Sep. 23 2013 10:06 AM

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