The opera audience: a rare two-headed beast

During the interval of a recent production of Mozart’s Cos­­ì fan tutte, my obligatory interval ice cream was interrupted by a tap on the shoulder.

“Can you please explain to me why everyone in the audience is either in their 80s or 20s?” asked the woman behind me.

What a stupid question, I thought. Had she never been to the opera before? But of course, she had a point. The modern opera audience is a strange two-headed beast, a Cerberus of the stalls: rich, older people still make up the core but the less wealthy under-30s are increasingly present. And opera houses are tying themselves in knots trying to please this pushmi pullyu of an audience.

Dr Dolittle's Pushmi Pullyu

The Pushmi Pullyu

This odd situation has come about because of opera houses’ fascination with the young: their borderline-unhealthy obsession with attracting the under-30s. Every opera house in Britain – and the world over – has ploughed vast sums into projects and “initiatives” (shudder) in an attempt to “widen participation.”

Only recently the Lyric Opera house in Chicago announced that operatic diva Renée Fleming was to become its first ever creative consultant. Fleming’s role, according to the venue, will primarily be to broaden its audience, come up with education projects and work on their web marketing strategy. In other words, try to get the young’uns in. Which is all well and good, but at what cost to opera?

Opera is not the most accessible of art forms – it is often in a foreign language, the emotions expressed are usually highly exaggerated and the plots rarely dip below the ridiculous. What’s more, characters like Mozart’s Dorabella, who professes undying love to her fiancé one minute and then sort of forgets him – ‘cos she’s a girl – and gets engaged to his best friend, don’t wash with modern, post-feminist audiences. And don’t get me started on Tosca or Isolde.

But there’s no point apologising for this: opera plots are only a vehicle for the music. That’s where the real drama happens: the music, if you’ll pardon the expression, is where it’s at.


Castel Sant Angelo

Opera’s pleasures spring from its difficulties. Trying to deny this does the form a disservice: that’s why last year’s Royal Opera House project to make a Twitter opera achieved little more than a rash of headlines and why terms like “initiatives to widen participation” make me want to follow Tosca in her leap off the Castel Sant Angelo. No self-respecting young person would be fooled by these attempts to be “cool” – the operatic equivalent of a mid-life crisis.

A good opera production will appeal to any discerning culture vulture – young or old.

Simple, gimic-free, well-staged productions will do more to broaden opera audiences than any futuristic, circus-inspired, gangsta-rap version of La Traviata.

By all means make the ticket prices affordable, advertise productions on facebook and Twitter. But don’t compromise on the product. Opera, like theatre, is a great art form and opera houses shouldn’t feel they have to apologise for it.

    • M
    • December 29th, 2010

    hear hear!

    • Lynn Patten
    • March 23rd, 2011

    So obviously, and simply, true. Thank you – thank you.

  1. “the emotions expressed are usually highly exaggerated and the plots rarely dip below the ridiculous”

    This is the typical stereotype on opera, and it’s very boring to hear it again and again from people who want to help (or so it seems). Fortunately, there is not only Verdi and Puccini in the (operatic) world!

    The idea that you need to make conservative, easy-to-read productions to please a broader audience is simply false. It’s the best way to please old people, sponsors and invited executives, but making the same things in the same way over and over is not the good way to give dynamic to the opera world or to a specific opera house (see Paris Opera today!).
    My two points would be:
    1° There is basically no real problem whith the audience in the opera world. Houses are full, NOT aging, and still love it.
    2° If you want to attract people between 30 and 45, one very simple trick: BABY SITTERS !

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