By Jim McCarthy Jun 28, 2010 0 comments

Does Opera Need New Audience?

Anne Midgette of the Washington Post published an interesting piece today about the future of American opera.  Here’s a key tidbit:

“American opera is at a crossroads. A production of a new work at a large house costs millions of dollars — hundreds of thousands in commissioning fees alone. It’s a lot to spend on something geared toward the tastes of a narrow target audience, for which there is no mass demand, at a time of shrinking budgets. Will new works help revive the opera field or help sink it under the weight of $3 million productions?”

Anne goes on to mention the fact that newly commissioned operas today can actually be quite impactful.  People are drawn to them, and they lead to foundation grants and other good stuff.  In fact, a newly commissioned opera has some financial and reputation benefits that simply re-mounting a bit hit from last year does not have.

Interestingly, opera has been doing ok, given the overall state of the industry.  And the fact that original intellectual property is being created fairly widely in the field is a good sign.  (Now, the fact that much of this is not being performed enough is another matter.)

So the question is, does American opera need new audience?  Generically, the answer is yes.  There should always be a renewing of the audience, or eventually, you die out.  Admittedly, this can take a long time, but the process of dying colors the remaining years of life undoubtedly, so this is to be avoided.

But to dig deeper, I’d ask it this way:  how does the opera use original material to GROW its audience?

My answer is that it should use new material to grow from the inside out.  While opera is still relatively vibrant, it’s time to build on the base.  New works, according to Anne, excite opera’s core audience, and just by virtue of being contemporary in nature, stand a good chance of attracting the ‘adjacent’ audiences, which in this case probably means educated, arts-oriented, financially successful adults in their 30s and 40s.

But I don’t see anything wrong from building OUT from the core.  It’s how it’s done.  Preach to the choir, by all means, and if they all start saying “Amen” at the top of their lungs (because they’re so excited about your preaching), there’s a decent chance some of the least doubtful become the faithful.

This is something I’ve said before in other contexts:  putting a solid B+ on stage is death.  Well, eventual death.  Your hard core will not complain when you do that.

But they won’t shout ‘Amen’ either!

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