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Thursday, March 31, 2016

Why Opera Is Struggling PART THREE

The third of my three part blog on why I think opera is struggling in the 21st century.

INTRO Recap...
There's been lots of talk on social media sites and opera blogs about how opera is dying. I don't believe that it is, not yet. But...

We do know that our audiences are getting older and that their numbers will diminish unless new audiences replenish the traditional, older operatic fan base. We have signs that these new audiences are appearing - here and there - but nothing definitive and certainly not enough to stop opera companies from closing in the U.S. and in Canada (Gotham and Ottawa being the latest and biggest companies to shut their doors in 2015.)

I've thought about this, for a long while now, and I believe that opera is walking a path that will lead to its extinction, perhaps in some of our lifetimes. It's beyond a blog like this to reason it out, as this is a complicated issue and certainly not all the news is bad. (For instance, there's tons, TONS, of new opera being produced nowadays. Fantastic. Go Opera.)

However, we have some serious problems.  I've divided my ideas into a three part blog.

The three ideas I'm exploring…

1) Industrial Age dogmatic notions of audience control, fashion, elitism, and programming continuing to be used and professed in North America by both opera companies and academic institutions.

Click Here for the Link to Part One: 

Part One

2) Critical Editions, the Rise of the Early Music movement, and the Fall of the Opera Singer.

Click Here for the Link to Part Two:

Part Two

3) The Struggles of Marketing Opera in the 21st century; our operatic Product has changed.

Part Three
Building new audiences while keeping our old audiences is tricky; curing the common cold might be easier...

3) The Struggles of Marketing Opera in the 21st century; our operatic Product has changed:
Social Media will not sell our tickets. Tweets basically just hit other tweeters. Facebook events spread the word about opera performances only to a small number of already interested parties. I'm convinced social media is not going to sell opera in the way we need to make ticket sales be a major component of earned revenue.

It's time to market opera operatically.

Many of us remember the Age of Subscribers. That wondrous age of ticket patrons who lovingly and loyally opened up their mail boxes to find something incredible every season: a Brochure. In this historic document, one could find information about every opera happening that season, who the singers were, (even what they looked like!), info about the production team (not as important back in those days), what nights the operas were scheduled for, and ticket prices. Then they'd fill out the form in the brochure, enclose a check, and mail it back to the opera company. Even just ten years ago, an opera company like FGO based much of its projected budget on solid ticket sales made half a year, or more, in advance of the operas' opening nights. Imagine!

Nowadays that doesn't happen. It's all single ticket sales, many of them happening at the last minute. Opera companies can no longer count on firm earned revenue figures based on an August culling of subscription brochures bringing in millions of dollars of ticket sales. This is a problem because if you are counting on earned income and your ticket buyers purchase at the last minute, then many factors (snow storms, bad reviews, other community events) can work towards taking away an audience's money.

Many things contributed to the fall of the subscriber during the last ten to fifteen years. The recession, the internet, even the tragedy of 9/11 (many of us remember that year and the following summer as the moment when many financially solid opera companies and festivals went from selling close to 100% of their seats to having major struggles filling seats). While I have no solid evidence to support this, it seems as if the turn of the century, 9/11, the rise of the HD theatre Met broadcasts, Netflix binge watching, as well as economic crises like our latest recession all conspired to change many local operatic markets into new and difficult-to-navigate landscapes.

I believe that one of the biggest problems facing opera today is that today's opera companies have few new ideas about how to market their product, let alone compete against touring celtic violinists or canned tenor hunks. Even the Met is having problems selling tickets to their live performances.

Yet tickets are being sold all over North America for opera in the movie houses! The Met has become a cinematic opera company, bringing in millions of dollars in ticket sales by showing their operas in movie theatres from Fargo to Ft. Worth. This in turn has changed the way audiences go to the opera and enjoy the Met: in jeans, drinking big gulps of Mountain Dew while chomping on Milk Duds and Nachos. Many of the posh movie theatres have waitresses, fabulous wine lists, and you can order your steak with a buttered popcorn and a local craft beer on draft.

Who wouldn't want to attend opera that way? Plus it is LOUDER and it is UP CLOSE. Many of the high definition cameras are located in the Met's orchestra pit rail and can look up into a singer's nasal cavities, nay even into their mouths to see their dental cavities. The huge dolby speaker systems in place in our movie theatres are put to use and the singers' voices and the orchestra are mixed in order to accommodate these systems. It's shocking to hear a voice in the cinema that you've heard live (i.e.  acoustically.) Singers can sometimes sound not at all like themselves. Obviously bigger and louder, but also much more balanced in overtones, sometimes much less brittle and thin. Everyone sounds round and robust. Rock-n-Roll baby!

But I believe that the Met HD theatrical movie productions are helping to wound our precious live, acoustic operatic art form.

Make no mistake. Opera companies can no longer ignore these sorts of movie ticket sales. We have to figure out how to sound and look a bit like these broadcasts. We have to reclaim the audiences who love bigger-than-life celebrity personalities, who are also excited by live theatre and theatrical production values seen - and heard - where? On Broadway. I'm talking about mic'ing, about lights, and about making a few more cuts to our beloved pieces of art in order to deal with today's audiences and their needs.

I believe that the age of the large opera house is passing right in front of our eyes. Get opera into smaller spaces. It'll be LOUDER and it'll be UP CLOSE. This is already happening with all these young startup venue-based opera companies and directors. R.B. Schlather knows this. Eric Einhorn knows this. Aria Umezawa knows this. Joel Ivany knows this. Audiences and critics seem to love these innovative ways to present operas. R.B. actually is responsible for creating a new, hybrid operatic form: operatic rehearsal as art installation. Rehearsing in a museum, inviting the public to view the process as art, in and of itself, trumps the actual performance as raison d'être. Yoko Ono shows up, passersby pop in as well as hard core opera lovers.

The opera product has changed in the last 10 years. It's pretty easy to see that relying on Facebook events, or hiring live tweeters, or other social media excitement that is, let's face it, so 2010, will not keep opera alive. It's another distraction, an internal one, that keeps many of us from seeing the writing on the wall: opera needs new audiences or it will die.

So my solution? Not sure, but I know that what we are currently doing is only working in fits and starts, here and there, at some very forward looking companies like Philadelphia, Ft. Worth, and Glimmerglass. I think about Mad Men's Don Draper who's mantra is, "Change the Conversation."

Some recommendations:
Find singers who can excite audiences with the power of their voices! Hire them and get them into the public -- with mic's and sound systems. Tenors with high Cs, coloraturas who sing way, way off the staff, low profundo basses, full-voiced sopranos, hunky baritones, and sexy Carmen-singing mezzos. Don't allow anyone to sing a Despina aria in public again out of the context of the opera. Mix the rep with lots of operetta, musical theatre, and - hold your breath - covered operatic versions of pop songs! Pavarotti did it. What about singing a Bocelli tune? A counter-tenor singing some Adele or Elton John?

Get opera out of those awful huge Performing Arts Center "opera houses". Have at least one opera a year in a found venue or experimental space. Mix it up. There are community theatres sitting empty that might love to bring in a new public between their regular showings.

Bring the HD cameras into opera productions; with their close-ups perhaps projected live onto screens in the opera houses during the operas. Let the audiences see what's happening onstage UP CLOSE.

Mic the sound in the opera house. Operatic Puritans just hush up. We all know it's already being done secretly by a few of the larger opera houses throughout the U.S. and Canada. Just go ahead and make it really work. There is a reason people think that The Phantom of the Opera actually is an opera. The singers sing pseudo-operatically, but it's all mic'd and mixed. It's louder.  If the venue is small enough, then fine, no mic's. But those padded chairs in the 2500 seat PACs designed for Broadway touring amplified shows can not truly give the acoustic art form a fair hand. The deck is stacked against us on this. Move on.

Drop this idea that some new production team will design an opera set in the roaring 20s that will capture the audience's imaginations. Maybe it will, but is this selling tickets? Audiences can see the roaring 20s in the movies, with Leonardo's face in close-up. If I had an opera company, I'd be spending a LOT less on stage directors, a LOT less on set designers or concepts. I'd be pumping the money into state of the art mic'ing, employing a sound designer, and putting money into a lighting designer, the rental of additional lighting instruments and effects, and most importantly time in the actual venue to cue and rehearse the lights. Oh, and money for singers and quality conductors. Toss out putting in a operatically green conductor into the orchestra pit. Toss out putting an orchestral conductor in the orchestra pit. Get your rehearsal pianists into the pits. There was that guy named Solti once. He knew how opera went because he was trained in an opera house playing for opera rehearsals. Conducting is mostly bullshit, btw, but no one is going to say that in public. Oops.

Market opera in old ways. Does anybody get mail nowadays? What might happen if you opened your mail box and there was a colour brochure about opera in it? Would you be excited? I'm not saying ask people to fill out a form and mail it back (many wouldn't know how to do that, sadly), keep your websites and online tickets purchasing, of course, but stop it with the email blasts. They get deleted right away.

Start up a frequent opera goer club/card membership. Like Delta Airlines or your local grocery store. Earn points for other local theatre groups tickets on discount, or the next opera get a free drink at intermission.

While on the subject of refreshments… STOP IT WITH THIS INCESSANT BAN ON BRINGING DRINKS AND FOOD INTO THE OPERA HOUSE.  There are ways to do this. Plastic cups with lids and straws work fine for wine. A few theatres do this and it is SO COOL. Maybe no nachos, but would a bag of popcorn be so bad? Oh, that's right, it might make noise… See Reason Number One on that subject!

And finally, the most important suggestion: Return to our operatic traditions! Get young voices to study the traditions of opera -- All that stuff NOT in those precious critical editions. Get them to listen to the great singers of the 20th century and get them to LISTEN, not WATCH, those singers. Start to reward the unique sound that may have flaws instead of rewarding the mediocre sound that has nothing wrong with it, but sadly nothing right at all present in the music making or the vocal sounds presented.


So I'm not saying opera is dead. I am worried it is dying in a way that is imperceptible; only being seen and felt in subtle ways. I believe that the art form itself needs to be resurrected by those intimately involved - the singers, coaches, conductors, directors, and producers - in order to ensure that opera stays viable. That means change. Change is hard for many. Some say we must hold onto the past, but opera was never about the past. It was always moving forward. From Mozart to Donizetti to Massenet to Menotti to Jason Robert Brown, opera was and is about the next exciting piece of music theatre.

We need to hook people again. Most of us got hooked into opera via the music and the singing.

But no one will get hooked by singers making generic sounds and bland artistic choices based on some books sitting in libraries. No one is going to the opera to watch a conductor wave their hands, they are going to hear great music being made in collaboration with others. No one is going to become a life-long opera goer because a Fledermaus gets set in a concentration camp, or a Trovatore gets set in a giant-size urinal. However, they may get hooked by a high B-flat that takes their breath away, or by the drama of a Butterfly killing herself, or DeRocher being executed onstage set to a beeping machine accompaniment. They might get hooked by being thirty feet away from a singer who is sweating in an abandoned warehouse, or get hooked by the sonic boom of a chorus of 40 singing at the top of their lungs.

One opera goer at a time.

But it starts with a renewal, an oath to stop making this operatic wax museum thing we are calling opera that only echoes the real thing.

It can be found today. Look for it in the Met Donna del Lago cast, in the Lucia singing Lucia in Eugene this season, in the provinces and local community theatres putting on The Mikado or Sunday in the Park, or some small unheard of opera company putting on an Edgar Allen Poe opera in the middle of a Halloween Haunted House.

Opera lives, yes indeed. And opera must continue to thrive because it is unlike anything else out there! It challenges the performers and the audiences alike to think, to experience, to feel, and to be passionate about something untouchable told through purely human means.

I believe that there are others out there who have better ideas, surely much more talent to implement them, or are much more passionate than I am about opera. I hope they step up to the plate and take a few swings!

We must not allow opera to fade away simply because we held to our principles, kept the "traditions" (often while not really knowing what those traditions actually meant), and looked solely inward for solutions to our operatic problems.

It's time to change the conversation by having conversations.

Opera Sings Life. That's its power.


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  2. Amen! In Edmonton last year, we put on a production called Drag Queens in Opera Scenes, imagining what would have happened if.....drag queens were in every scene, if Don Jose were blind, if the Falstaff Garden scene took place in a drag queen nail salon, and so on. We tried to make the music great, but we also encouraged the audience to drink, and throw objects to express their feelings. Not only did we have a marvelous time, the audience was loud, fully engaged ...and one person almost had to be removed to hospital from laughing-rib spasms. We took heat for it, but now we can point to you. Thanks for the validation and inspiration!