I confess, I don’t generally read my OPERA NEWS from cover to cover. Diva hagiography and bel canto lore are only so captivating. But I sped through this month’s issue as if it were an action-packed summer beach novel. They were talking about the future of opera.
In one article, Philipp Kennicott, the thoughtful culture critic of the Washington Post, takes a measure of efforts on the part of American opera companies to build an audience for opera, noting that there was a point when simply presenting operas was all that an audience needed. He starts out with a grim statistic: the NEA survey that found that 2% of Americans had attended an opera in 2008, a decline from six years earlier. What percentage will the next decline lead to?
The declining audience has coincided with a rise in education and outreach programs, which Kennicott traces back to the formal institutionalization of these efforts in the 1970s. He goes even further, suggesting that the very founding of opera companies and conservatories in America is an audience building effort. He even goes so far to say that “where there was once a broad sense of needing to create American musicians to further American repertoire for American audiences…there is now a rather rigid divide between professional musical training and ‘music appreciation.'”
Yes, well…. The Handel and Haydn Society, founded in 1815, didn’t exactly have those goals in their original mission. And does the starry-eyed undergraduate major in vocal performance because she’s committed to developing an audience for opera or because she wants a career? What’s missing is the social music making that used to be a hallmark of most any upwardly mobile family. And I would argue that America has always looked to Europe for its musical inspiration, so much so that American composers, when they developed their own voice, were left out in the cold by American audiences. But that’s another story.
Kennicott points out what opera educators and outreach directors know: “there is no substitute for musical knowledge when it comes to building an audience.” Those declining audience numbers must reflect the impact of a generation or two of decimated school music education programs. What to do about it now? Find ways for the audience to be involved. Most outreach efforts still involve the audience as a passive recipient of a product – with HD broadcasts of operas being the most wide-reaching passive activity, whose popularity has had detrimental effects on ticket sales, as mentioned elsewhere in the magazine.
The author suggests that learning to sing, “perhaps just a few bars of a Schubert song,” would engage the people often overlooked by education programs intended for newcomers, and I suggest that beginners would get a kick out of it too. Still, which cultural habit is more impossible to bring back, family music making or dilettante singers willing to perform in public, as Kennicott champions? In either case, I welcome the business.