Opera should be a success story. It should be a grand, epic story about the power of longevity in art and the ability of art in all forms to preserve itself and stay relevant. It should encourage generation after generation of fans to go for the big, extravagant artistic venture if it feels right. Instead, opera houses are suffering.
They’re coming right to the precipice of dying but then permit themselves to be rescued at the brink of death. When reporting on the closure of the San Diego Opera in 2014, the Los Angeles Times quoted general director Ian Campbell, saying, “The demand for opera in this city isn’t high enough.” He admitted that the opera had lost a good deal of contributions because patrons had died.
How unbelievably short sighted. Baby boomers aren’t going to be around forever. Nor will they continue to pay for art that continues to avoid the current entertainment market. If opera is to be relevant in the years going forward, it must prepare for a change of guard. And the sooner, the better.
It’s hard to conceive of future-proofing opera. I get that. We’ve just gone through the Recession. Consumer confidence is rising, but it’s doubtful if anyone’s going to throw any cash toward a night at the opera. It makes sense to keep operating in a way that caters to the current climate, or to stick with what has been working for decades. But there have been too many close calls.
It’s time to start catering to the younger crowd, as much as it hurts. Here’s how:
1. Stop Taking Cues From Movies.
The era of flashy movie musicals is over. The Great Gatsby closed us out, we’re done. La La Land is adorable but it’s not fantastical. We don’t want so much glitz and glamour in a movie because it’s just not in the zeitgeist now.
That being said, opera has nothing to do with movies. Absolutely nothing. They’re a separate art form and should consider themselves as such. It’s like a seasoned boss trying to copy the fashions of the Instagram influencer intern.
Gritty and hyper-realistic operas have their place. Dog Days is incredible. JFK is practically a Gus Van Sant movie in motion. But we do not go to opera to see stories similar to those we would see in movies. We go to see jewels, love stories, balls, and fantastic bird creatures looking for love. Opera should be dripping in luxury. They don’t need to mimic any other medium.
2. Instead, Take Cues From The Internet.
If you’ve never attended a Metropolitan Opera livecast, it’s a pretty great time. Sitting in a dark theatre with a bunch of opera fans, applauding at the same time as the New York audience is applauding… this is what technological dreams are made of. You can see an opera in the chicest opera house in the world wherever you live. It’s perfect.
But more than perfect, it’s a genius way to market opera to potential young patrons. The behind the scenes clips show the human side of the opera world in all it’s dusty backstage realness. The hosts of these sections are doing their very best to be professional. But the singers and crew look almost relieved to let loose and show off their enthusiasm for everything they’re doing. That’s the stuff of a good Youtube channel. It’s also what’s probably going to keep the Met alive.
3. Strike a Balance Between Modern and Classic.
We all know that pretentious art or dance troupe that must do an updated (or “reimagined”) version of everything. No classics, no standard fare. It’s a good way to look edgy, hip and aware. It probably draws a lot of donations from folks hoping to look like they’re “with it.” But this is a terrible strategy when it comes to drawing in newcomers to the art form.
New York’s opera landscape is a perfect example of this schism. The Met is trapped by its love of classic opera, and the wealthy patrons that come with it. Meanwhile the perky experimental opera groups in the city are flitting about creating the new and exciting works that are intriguing the Instagram crowd. Why not come together, a la L.A. Opera and their gorgeous mixed program? Plus, their Instagram account isn’t too shabby, either.
4. Loosen The Grip On Merch.
If you visit a show put on by Broadway Across America, you can’t escape how much merchandise is for sale at every stop. There’s pillows, sweatshirts, knickknacks or every sort and sometimes even luxury goods. It’s capitalism at work. Merch is tastefully tucked away when you go to the opera. Whenever there is a gift shop, it’s usually tucked away inside the building. It’s easy to miss it coming out. They’re trying to be classy, God bless them.
But consider Hamilton. This show has enough stuff to keep the fandom burning a little while longer. It’s not about making money off the merch itself. It’s about intriguing someone to check out Aida or Nabucco because that scarf featuring art from the show is really neat. A music box that looks like a gift from our grandmother won’t motivate new people to come to the opera. But a minimalistic coffee cup or whimsical hand-drawn shirt? That might draw some intrigued patrons to your website.
5. Beg Regularly, And You Won’t Have To Cry Out.
NPR’s annual pledge drives are pretty famous by now. You know you’re going to get that call, and you know they’re going to recite all the stats about how important public radio is to the community and the world. You feel bad, you give money. It’s over.
It’s annoying as hell when public radio asks for money. But honestly, better that than asking people to fork over money all of a sudden when everything is in danger. Giving a hundred dollars every year is much more financially viable for most people than giving nothing for five years and then being asked through tears for five hundred. Or worse, praying for $7 million dollars to come your way when someone dies.
Most arts organizations have a season of giving wherein they ask people to make an annual donation. More often than not, the same donors are asked to contribute again. That’s where the consistent money comes from, right? Then they die and everyone loses their minds. Not even having government support can save you anymore.
There’s a one-word solution to this: Patreon. Even if not the model, the mindset. It’s not enough to have a fundraising season, because it’s now every season. So why not ask people for a monthly contribution?
Opera has not benefitted from having a high and mighty reputation. Opera has a place in the public imagination as something old, stuffy people do. But young people like getting dressed up and seeing a show too… If opera is to live, it must return to it’s artful, fancy and optimistic roots. It has to go back to being for everyone.