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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.

By Anne Midgette  |  February 4, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  from readers , random musings  
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Interesting piece. After 25 years working in marketing with hundreds of performing arts org., your point about the Met only reinforces my belief, research and experience that everyone, both producing org. and "presenters" needs to approach marketing as if each event has its own audience.

Posted by: ajbubnis | February 4, 2010 2:40 PM | Report abuse

Hi Anne!

Absolutely right -- small is good, although it tends to restrict composers to writing chamber music if they want to be heard. And all-contemporary programs keep them in a kind of ghetto, exposed only to a limited range of listeners.

That's too bad, because there is absolutely extraordinary new large-scale music being written, much of it quite beautiful, some of it among the most fascinating music ever written (Kurtag, Saariaho, Gubaidulina ... the list goes on and on).

But new music is battling against the stolidity and conservatism of the classical music world, and I'd love to see presenters actively cultivate a more adventurous audience. How? Put exciting new works on the program, then let the world know why they're exciting. Promote, explain, take out big ads in the Post. Be shocking. Be provocative. Wake people up. Ban neckties and furs in the KenCen. Bury the soporific term "classical music." Make new music exciting -- because, dammit, it is!

Posted by: StephenBrookes | February 5, 2010 12:38 AM | Report abuse

I've always believed that the smaller, the better but as long as it's going to make the music sound good then might as well stick to the how it should be

Arthur Cundy

Posted by: acundy11 | February 5, 2010 4:47 AM | Report abuse

I posted some thoughts about this on my blog:

Posted by: Lindemann777 | February 5, 2010 10:11 AM | Report abuse

Prices matter. And I think daring is rewarded. Take the Opera Lafayette concert, which you wrote about, for example. Held on a Monday night, with $15 tickets, this period troupe SOLD OUT the Concert Hall, three times the size of its usual venue for Gluck's Armide which I bet only a handful of people had ever seen before. It can be done. Washington Opera should do a work like Amelia which Seattle Opera is doing with an all-star cast and a great deal of pre-production press. They should take advantage of the renewed interest in Baroque opera. And if they want to sell out, they need to find some way to bring prices down.

Posted by: DCLawyer1 | February 5, 2010 11:22 AM | Report abuse

Anne, I think your anecdote about "the outrage of individual audience members who have come for a piece by Brahms or Mozart and have to sit through something contemporary" can almost be applied in reverse. I've lost count of the number of times I've looked at an orchestral progamme, saw one short piece that I want to hear, but then seen that the rest of the programme is old warhorses I'm not especially interested in, and then not bought a ticket because I don't want to sit through those.

It continues to amaze me that orchestral administrators insist on each concert being all things to all people and trying to sell it as such. If my local orcherstra programmed, for example, a short season of local composer's works, perhaps a mix of rarely heard older works, and new ones, I'd be there every night, and I suspect I wouldn't be the only one.

Posted by: bronwynb | February 7, 2010 4:18 PM | Report abuse

Hi Anne,

A couple of thoughts came to me as I was reading this continued conversation. One, perhaps it would be easier to segment out the contemporary to match it to the right audience. In doing so, the people that want to expand their horizons can attend, the people that want to stick with Mozart and Brahms can do that too. The key will be to woo the more adventurous people to give it a try. This will end the "forced" debate once and for all. Have the contemporary performances be more intimate. This will help in the case of smaller audiences, but it will also provide a setting to build a better relationship with the new works and composers.

Secondly, in my business of audience development, it is so important to qualify who the artist is and what the event is first and then match the right audience. Your example of The Met and their Philip Glass opera is a great example. This is why audience development is so important. You want the right audience for the right artist and for the right event. In developing strategies that build these niche audiences and finding out what other kinds of art and events they attend, it will become easier to fill houses with people that care and want to come back for another event they would enjoy.

Posted by: sfanizza | February 8, 2010 5:44 PM | Report abuse

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