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Audience decline, measured

If there's good news in the National Endowment for the Arts's latest survey of public participation in the arts, which was released today, it's that classical music is not alone. The bad news is that this means that attendance at all live performing arts is declining -- has, indeed, hit its lowest level since 1982. It's not just classical: it's everybody.

Bad news: only 9% of those surveyed had attended a classical music concert in the past year. Good news, sort of, for classical music: that's more than attended a jazz, dance, or Latin/salsa performance. Bad news: only 2% went to an opera. (It really is elitist.) Good news: more people are watching and listening on the Web. (Does that include the Berlin Philharmonic's Digital Concert Hall broadcasts, or the Met Player? Or is it mainly YouTube? One wonders.)

The NEA is hosting a roundtable discussion on this topic at 11 a.m. today, Thursday. You can get in what we now know is the spirit of the times by watching it online.

I predict that at least part of the classical music world will react to this news by attempting to reject it, in keeping with the shoot-the-messenger stance that seems to be one way of dealing with bad news in this field. What are your thoughts on declining audiences? Should we worry?

By Anne Midgette  |  December 10, 2009; 9:45 AM ET
Categories:  national , news  
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It’s interesting that today’s panel participant Ted Libbey, Director of Media Arts (film, television, and radio) for the National Endowment for the Arts, helped administer the NEA's Composer/Librettist Program in the 1970s. Today, he “provides professional leadership” to the field of media arts – film, television, and radio.

And speaking of elitism, Mr Libbey today also manages the NEA partnership with XM Radio that produces the "NEA Literary and Jazz Moments" series.

He certainly gets around - artistically speaking!


Posted by: snaketime1 | December 10, 2009 10:33 AM | Report abuse

"Bad news: only 2% went to an opera. (It really is elitist.) "

No, that would suggest that opera is an elite enterprise, not "elitist".

I point out this solecism only because in today's world elitist is a highly negatively charged term, second only to pedophilia and pedophile in opprobriousness, and so must be used with utmost care.


Posted by: ACDouglas1 | December 10, 2009 11:13 AM | Report abuse

Of course. "The report, which uses data collected in 2008." 2008 was the year of record gasoline prices, to say nothing about the recession (one of its causes - although not the main one - being high gasoline prices.) So guess what kind of expenses did people cut to make up for their loss? Yep, tickets to the arts.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | December 10, 2009 3:01 PM | Report abuse

ciccio has a point, but (at least with the performing arts organizations I'm involved in), the full effects of the economic meltdown weren't felt until the 2009-2010 season. The reason was that the stock market crash happened in fall 2008, by which time a lot of regular subscribers had already bought season tickets. This year the season ticket sales were way down.

I second ACD's comment. The assertion that opera is "elitist" always pushes my buttons: I grew up in a heavily Italian area, where Verdi and Puccini were national heroes, and the guy across the street played the Met Opera radio broadcasts at full volume while he was working in his garage on Saturday mornings. It's an acquired taste, to be sure. But the Met did a survey a year or two ago, and, as I recall, the "average" operagoer was a retired teacher on a limited income!

Posted by: PLozar | December 10, 2009 3:39 PM | Report abuse

I better jump in to say that the "elitist" comment was intended tongue in cheek, as a rueful comment on that 2%. For the record, I think opera is actually one of the most democratic and populist arts; it's too often forgotten, these days, that it long thrived as a widespread form of popular entertainment. Performing or screening opera in stadiums, movie theaters, baseball parks is very much in keeping with many of the traditions of the form. I also still think opera has more appeal to a new audience than symphony orchestra concerts; and I would guess that the 2% figure reflects the fact that there are fewer opera performances per capita than "classical music" (which for the purposes of this survey probably meant symphony and chamber music).

And I will endeavor to keep away from joking parenthetical comments in future.

Posted by: MidgetteA | December 10, 2009 5:45 PM | Report abuse

"I better jump in to say that the 'elitist' comment was intended tongue in cheek, as a rueful comment on that 2%."

And so it was understood (by me, at any rate). I was making a different point about your use of "elitist".


Posted by: ACDouglas1 | December 10, 2009 11:32 PM | Report abuse

Please disregard my last. That's perhaps the stupidest thing I've ever written -- a case of engaging one's tongue ahead of one's brain.


Posted by: ACDouglas1 | December 10, 2009 11:45 PM | Report abuse

You wrote, "it's too often forgotten, these days, that it [opera] long thrived as a widespread form of popular entertainment."

What's also often forgotten is that in those days, it was almost invariably performed in the language of the audience. We will probably never return to that, which is a shame because projected titles are no substitute for the actual fusion of words and music. Boris Goldovsky proved this with his own small opera company in Boston, the New England Opera Theater. All performances were in English, mostly in his own translations, and "theater" was emphasized with such production techniques as not allowing the singers to watch the conductor and having no prompter to feed the words to them.

The Samuel Johnson quote about opera as "exotic and irrational" is almost never given complete. What was irrational to Johnson was not opera, but opera performed in a foreign language to English-speaking audiences in London.

Posted by: wsheppard | December 11, 2009 8:51 AM | Report abuse

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