Audiences, continued: does smaller mean more daring?
One of the threads that's emerged in this excellent discussion about what audiences want concerns the size of the groups doing the presenting. The commenter known as c-clef made a telling point about the Washington National Opera, pointing out that it was able to sell out "The Aspern Papers" back in the 1980s and observing that bringing in bigger names and raising ticket prices may have attracted a different audience that's not as open to experimentation. (Another commenter bore this out by saying that opera's high ticket prices made him reluctant to try things he wasn't sure he'd like.) This is a key factor in audience-building: the "butts in seats" mantra that has long been intoned by many marketing directors skirts the issue of what kind of audience you're getting. Yet the audience's tastes -- as this discussion has shown -- are key to the future of the field.
In acknowledging in my original post that not all of the audience wants to hear new and different things, I certainly didn't mean to say that I think there's no prospect of winning people over. I'm sure everyone who's taken part in this discussion can think of at least one anecdote from personal experience about someone being won over to something they didn't think they'd like. (It's been observed in the comments that many people going to "Aida" or "Butterfly" for the first time are being won over to something that's unfamiliar, even threatening.)
(read more after the jump)
It is possible to sell out "The Aspern Papers," or, in the case of the Fort Worth Opera, to turn around an audience that used to prefer standard fare to such a degree that advance sales for new works now sometimes outstrips those for more familiar operas. It helps if audiences feel there's a reason these works are being done or might interest them, and don't feel that they're just being forced on them.
(On this point: while it's true that programs and operas are announced in advance, I believe that a lot of regular subscribers, certainly to orchestras, come every week without always knowing what they're in for. And I've certainly witnessed -- though this is, again, anecdotal -- the outrage of individual audience members who have come for a piece by Brahms or Mozart and have to sit through something contemporary on the program in order to hear it. I, personally, think that the exposure is good for them. But they certainly don't, and they paid for it.)
Someone asked whether size was the issue: whether smaller companies were simply better able to deal with the risk of presenting less-known pieces. I actually think it can be done at all levels, and I'd hold up the Metropolitan Opera, for once, as a positive example. I was told -- though I have not officially confirmed this -- that ticket sales were initially disastrous for Philip Glass's "Satyagraha," in part because subscribers turned their tickets back in record numbers. The Met, so I heard, solicited a special advertising fund from a board member and, among other things, went out with an ad campaign targeting areas of Manhattan, like Soho, where people who like Philip Glass's music might be expected to be found. The result was that they had quite good audiences for the whole run -- audiences of people who specifically came to hear this music, rather than opera-goers who would rather have been hearing "Carmen." If this is true, it's an excellent example of audience-building on a large-scale level -- though the Met may not have the financial resources at the moment to attempt this kind of thing on a regular basis.
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