06/21/2007 04:49 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Opera: An Urban Art Form

An appreciation of opera, like a fondness for mushrooms and exotic fruits, tends to come later in life. The opera audience has always been older than the general population, and its replenishing has always relied upon a steady stream of "fresh blood" -- but that's defined as 45- to 55-year-olds. They have the financial means, they are devoted, and they help shape opinion, despite the fact that it is not the target audience for the sales of bikini swimwear or latex prophylactic devices.

To the best of my knowledge, no one has done a survey of the average age, income and education of the people who attend Met performances in the movie palaces. But does anyone really think that Opera at The Movies is going to produce an audience that in any meaningful way differs from the traditional opera audience: Older, wealthier, better educated than the "average American"?

The reality is that the cost of attending an opera performance anywhere in the United States runs the gamut from astonishingly expensive to very reasonable. If you insist upon a "prime orchestra" or a box seat, you can expect to pay dearly. If you are willing to head up into the far balconies ("The Gods" as they are known) the cost is dramatically less. There is no need to "democratize opera" -- it is already exceedingly democratic since the "cheap seats" are in fact cheap.

Access to the opera, however, is a function of geography. If you live or work in or near New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas, Los Angeles, the District of Columbia, Seattle or any number of other large cities, the chances are that there is an opera company just begging for your business. If you live in the wilds of New Hampshire or the prairies of Nebraska, you are out of luck. Save for the summer festivals in out of the way places, opera is now and always has been an urban art form. It is not like television, available to all persons everywhere in the United States. If you elect to live far from the hustle and bustle of the big city, you make certain trade offs. One of them is that you cannot leave work on the farm in rural Kansas at 4:00 p.m. and be at the opera house by 7:00 p.m.

The common misconception is that the opera audience is old and aging, and that, per force, it is literally dying out. That audience is living longer -- and better -- than any similar group in the past. Regardless, something must be done to increase the popularity of the art form among the next generation and beyond (this is not a new phenomenon: it is called marketing). The Met has decided that video ventures and satellite radio are the ways to grow and nurture this audience. Given Peter Gelb's long and productive experience in the recording industry, this is not a surprise. It is -- at least in my view -- a perfectly defensible strategy to sell Opera at The Movies tickets, satellite radio subscriptions, and DVDs and CDs. I am unconvinced that it is The One True Path, especially if Enlightenment is measured by opera house ticket sales.

Suddenly, it seems, opera companies throughout the world are getting on the "let's go broad-based" bandwagon. For example, The Washington National Opera plans to screen a performance of La Boheme on the Mall in September, with simulcasts to theaters and educational institutions throughout the USA. The Aspen Music Festival plans to broadcast Bizet's Carmen on a giant screen in Wagner Park (how apt!) in late July. The sound you hear in the background is opera managements falling over one another as they follow the perceived leader.

It is possible that this sort of thing will create a "buzz" for opera, resulting eventually in increased ticket sales and a broader, younger audience for opera. It is equally likely that it will merely serve to enrich those in the business of setting up massive video displays for free public performances. The operating principle seems to be "give them the drug for free, get them hooked, and then sell, sell, sell." But what works for heroin might not work for opera.

On May 30th Gramophone's web site reported that the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden has paid £5.7 million to purchase the classical music DVD production company Opus Arte. The Royal Opera House's CEO, Tony Hall, stated that the purchase was intended to expand audiences for opera and ballet; "he also stressed that it is intended to be money-making." The cash for the purchase came from a "reserve fund which could only be used for infrastructure and capital projects of this nature" and the Gramophone web site reported that the purchase drained that reserve fund by more than 50 percent. The Met, accordingly, is not the only arts organization betting the company on digital ventures.

At the risk of sounding cynical, I detect the faint but perceptible odor of snake oil. Opera companies, not content to permit others to take the commercial risk of manufacturing "digital content" and marketing it to the world at large, have decided to assume the risk themselves in order to retain the profits...if any. If EMI, which has a not inconsiderable amount of expertise in this field, could recently announce losses of £263.3 million for the first three months of this year, one would have to admit of the possibility of financial ruin in such ventures.

Opera directors tend to view themselves as Men (and Women) of Parts, sober, substantial people who are as at home in corporate board rooms as they are in dealing with the tantrums and foibles of singers. They see themselves -- quite rightly -- as keen business people with steel trap financial minds. Yet the vast bulk of them appear to have abandoned all caution and have engaged in a lemming-like rush to follow The Met's digital ventures. When the Royal Opera House's purchase of Opus Arte was announced, Dame Judith Mayhew Jonas, chairman of the Royal Opera House, was quoted as stating "the Board is right behind this acquisition." More people to join in the head-long march over the cliff and into the sea!


When major league baseball began broadcasting its games, a significant portion of "informed opinion" asserted that people would stop coming out to the ballpark, electing to get for free on the radio what they used to have to pay for at the ballpark. This turned out not to be true, in exactly the same way that predictions of box office disaster once opera began radio broadcasts were not true.

It is unlikely that video ventures will cause there to be a drop in box office receipts so long as the fundamental experience of watching a live opera in the opera house is not substantially changed. But if that in-house experience is degraded or diminished, watch out. Opera audiences are notoriously quick to express displeasure by non-renewing subscriptions.