That elusive new audience

tumblr_m6l1rgQ65g1ra9bpvo7_1280The other night I was chatting to some folks at a performance by Loose TEA Theatre and a comment was made to the effect that it was companies like Loose TEA and Against the Grain who were creating the future audience for opera.  I didn’t think about it much of the time but it turned into a sort of brainworm that wouldn’t go away.  I don’t think the idea was that somehow innovative “pop up” type companies would replace the likes of the COC; at least not this side of nuclear war or total economic collapse (neither of which seems impossible it has to be said).  So the hypothesis has to be that this sort of endeavour makes a significant contribution to replacing the aging “big house” audience.  As I began to mull that over and further stimulated by yet another fact free piece in The Guardian on “opera snobs” (courtesy of Schmopera) I started to develop a number of lines of enquiry that aren’t exactly tangential to the original hypothesis but rather seem more like a set of eigenvectors defining the problem space.  Which is a mathematician’s way of saying that what follows is kind of all over the place.

So back to the original hypothesis that small innovative companies create a significant audience for the larger companies.  I submit that for this to be true, three conditions must be met:

  • The audience at the small companies must be at least comparable in size to the “replacement need” of the larger companies.
  • That audience must consist in large part of people who are not already part of the core audience of the larger companies.
  • A sufficient number of those people must be moved to join that core audience.

For analytical purposes I’m going to use a sample of small companies in Toronto and define the COCs subscriber base as the core audience.

So, the COC’s subscriber base is, in round terms, 10,000 and the “churn” is around 20% so 2000 new subscribers/year are required to stand still.  It may be worth noting that 4-5%, maybe a little more, of that churn will be due to death.  And there’s the first big problem.  It’s very rare for a production by anyone other than the COC or Opera Atelier to sell 2000 tickets for a production.  Airline Icarus may have gone as high as 3000 but that’s an exception.  Maybe in the course of a year small companies are selling as many as 10,000 tickets in aggregate but they aren’t selling them to anything like 10,000 individuals.  So let’s look at who goes to these shows and whether they are a new potential audience.  My sense is that the audience for the small companies is overwhelmingly drawn from three overlapping groups; the more adventurous end of the core audience, friends and family and other performers.  I really, really doubt that there are many unrelated first time opera goers at any of these shows.  And if I’m right then condition 3 is moot.  Basically there just aren’t enough new opera goers in the small company audience to make much of a dent in the core audience renewal problem.  Which is not to say that small companies don’t serve a purpose or have value; they do.  Their shows are worthwhile in and of themselves and they provide performance opportunities and exposure for the participants.  Long may they prosper!

So moving on to hypothesis two; “New audiences are deterred by the snobby conservatism of the opera world pungently expressed in the Guardian in these terms:

In order to survive, opera has to prostitute itself to the rich and to people who don’t like it, to betray its own essence again and again, to the point where it doesn’t even realise it’s doing so. The influential part of its audience wants it dead, repetitive, predictable, pretty, safely insulated in some foreign language.

Before unpacking this, and there’s lots to unpack, it’s worth noting that this a complete refutation of the other often heard hypothesis that the opera audience is being driven away by arrogant managements who force “Euro trash” productions down their throats.  Oddly, neither side ever offers any facts to support their position which is what I will attempt to do though quantitative data is sadly lacking.  In its absence I talked to some insiders about how companies perceive their stakeholders and how much influence those stake holders have and, therefore how their views may or may not affect programming decisions.  How, in turn that affects “churn” and ability to attract new audience members becomes a bit speculative.

So, if opera does “prostitute” itself, to whom does it do so?  In North America there are two key stakeholders; donors and subscribers, with single ticket customers some way down the pecking order.  Now I’ve tended to assume that donors, major ones at least, are basically similar to subscribers but with bigger wallets.  That’s likely not true I’ve learnt.  Major donors, in particular, may be more driven by general philanthropic considerations rather than any great love for opera.  I’ve seen it happen.  A guy I used to play rugby with gave the COC a cool half a million but he wasn’t/isn’t an opera goer.  Such donors, one assumes, are not going to be much influenced by programming decisions as opposed to the general prestige of the institution.  The actual opera enthusiasts among the donors don’t seem to differ much in their tastes from the subscriber base.  Conflicting factors probably balance out here; conservatism driven by age and wealth may be balanced by having seen so much opera that something new is welcome.  So it seems donors are not a factor independent of the subscriber base.  And can one define the tastes of that group?  I can’t.  I know many regular opera goers and their tastes vary enormously and not on simple trad vs Regie sort of lines for the most part bar a small but noisy claque of ultra-conservatives.  The people I know will mostly engage with a work and a production on its own terms and without too many prejudices.  That said, they often come to very different conclusions about the same piece.  And, crucially, are potential audience members any different?  I suspect not.  What they (mostly) want is an engaging theatrical experience but that’s a slippery thing to define.  One thing I’m reasonably clear about is that there isn’t an inherent contradiction between attracting a new audience and keeping the old one (ultra conservatives aside).

If it were true that “The influential part of its audience wants it dead, repetitive, predictable, pretty” then it might be possible for opera to “prostitute itself” but if audience taste isn’t so easy to gauge then it’s a bit of a challenge and all the evidence suggests that that is not what happens.  In most houses the General Director or equivalent has the major say in programming.  Some will consult extensively with stakeholders about programming, others will trust their instincts and the results don’t for the most part amount to a steady diet of safe productions of established classics although that does seem to be the default play for companies struggling for survival.  But this begs the question, does such an approach, even if artistically satisfying and acceptable at least to core stakeholders, create a new audience?  One would have to say that on its own it can’t.  It doesn’t matter how good the product is if only the existing audience knows about it.

How does one get the word out about a complex and evolving art form in a world of dumbed down media and a public sphere increasingly siloed by technologies like Twitter? Public discourse has become largely a series of parallel conversations among people who agree with each other which isn’t conducive of changing anyone’s mind.  Even Habermas didn’t predict that civil society would decay quite that way.  Even out reach programs are problematic if nobody knows about them though programs that take opera to plasces where it isn’t much seen and where there’s the possibility of “drop in” may make some impact..  So if the public sphere is unfriendly terrain what remains is the private sphere.  Bottom line is I think that we, the existing core audience, are the only people who can create the core audience of the future.  Whether we do that at The Brickworks or The Four Seasons Centre doesn’t really matter.  Hug a future opera goer today.

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11 thoughts on “That elusive new audience

  1. Great post!

    John, I suggest that in addition there are newish audiences who watch opera on the newer mediums such as the METHD, MediciTV, and other live streamed productions from a variety of, (mainly European), opera houses.

    Then there are the folk who watch Dallas Opera shows at a football field and San Francisco Opera shows at a Major League Baseball park.

    The later two have some compelling numbers on newbie opera attendees. (And, in the case of Dallas Opera, how they are going about cultivating these folk to be subscribers and donors).

    I propose that indeed there are new audiences to be found in folk who go to movies, baseball/football games, hockey games, basketball games. Why, because they aren’t on “big opera company” radar.

    I produced several operas in hockey arenas, football/baseball venues and can attest that 75% of the attendees were regular patrons of these venues and first time opera goers. In the case of Vancouver, several of these folk subsequently became VOA opera goers.

    I also put forward that the cost of presenting in these venues is most likely comparable to the marketing costs of opera companies simulcasting or live streaming to the newbie opera attendees in said venue types.

    I believe Margaret Lam at Bemused has some interesting takes on where the new opera audiences are and what opera they are attending.

    Thanks again for the post and I hope the Indie Opera groups you mention are tracking their audience(s).

      • John,

        I think newbies may be tuning into see what’s on like say Medici, because they “Google” opera before/after their first new experience.

        For instance, my youngest niece and her then partner went too see METHD Carmen at the cinema and then “googled” opera and checked out live, simulcast and delayed opera screenings.

        The only opera my niece had bed exposed to “live” was VOA in schools. She was five years old, and sat through a 45min. La Traviata with her fingers firmly planted in her ears. Her comment: The lady’s high screeching hurt my ears!”

        Newbies to the arts, at least the ones I talk to, tell me they “Google” everything arts to find out what is on in the arts, and not just in their village, town or city.

        Looks like the “saved” San Diego Opera may indeed partner with the Major League Ball Park to present opera. Good for them! It’s a start!

        On the other hand, I don’t see Alexander Neef doing the same with the Toronto professional sports teams in their home venues…..just sayin’….

      • I suspect you are right about Alexander! I’d be happy to introduce him to the captain of the C
        anadian women’s rugby team but to be honest I’ve never discussed opera with her!

  2. Thanks for tackling this important, but extremely complex issue. Interesting that the whole HD phenomenon which was touted for several years as the sort of gateway for new opera goers has now largely been debunked by no less than Peter Gelb, as the place where older, “retired” operagoers go! By his estimation, the HDs are largely catering to the existing audience, or to patrons who for various reasons are no longer able to make it to their local opera houses. From personal observation at the transmissions in Toronto, I would hold this to be largely true. For the indie companies it *seems* to be more the case that they are demonstrating that opera can be presented in all sorts of ways and be extremely compelling – i.e. that opera does not always equal elaborate sets in a big opera house. Whether they are bringing in new people remains to be seen I guess – I tend to agree with you John that currently their audiences are made up mainly of opera keeners who just want as much as they can get peppered with family, other performers etc. At AtG’s Messiah, I did get the feeling that many were there seeing “opera” for the first time, and that may have had to do with the funky Queen St. E. venue plus the piece itself which many people go to see at Xmas (i.e. they might not have been opera people but rather, Messiah groupies!). What a vexing issue…in the end I sometimes think companies should stop worrying so much about the mythical “new” audience and just do their thing. Those (like most of us) who like opera came to it in all sorts of ways….but it was a natural progression, not because of a marketing effort. I like to think there will always be those who will naturally learn to love opera and seek it out from there.

    • I’m totally with you that the best “product” approach is to do what you do best and believe in and not try and outguess the audience. Look where the latter approach is getting Olivia Chow! I do worry though that however good the product if people aren’t exposed to it they just will never discover that they like it. Now that mainstream broadcasting in Canada has pretty much abandoned opera it must be pretty hard to just chance upon it. That’s really my argument for saying we, the audience, need to take some responsibility for the evangelising.

      • Totally agreed on the missing piece in all this – my intro to opera was the CBC Saturday afternoon broadcasts which thankfully are still there to hopefully inspire newbies. But it is a big problem with the very nich-ey manner in which entertainment is now available to us. It’s seems that for most things (and I’m talking about any genre really), you almost already have to be a fan to find what you’re looking for. I wonder how future generations will discover opera when it’s largely invisible in the popular zeitgeist.

      • That’s my big worry, though I discovered opera via the guy who taught me applied maths playing Solti’s Ring to me in his flat (while plying a 16 year old with indecent quantities of gin). Can’t quite see that happening nowadays.

  3. Pingback: Why listen to opera? | opera, innit?

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