March 20, 2014
On this vernal equinox, I was planning on getting you on the Wolf Trap Opera Handel train with a juicy post about the controversial process of deciding on musical cuts for our upcoming Giulio Cesare production. But I’ve been stopped in my tracks by yesterday’s opera news out of San Diego and the corresponding outpouring from my friends and colleagues. So I shall digress.
It’s been a long hard slog. Opera Cleveland, Opera Boston, San Antonio Opera, New York City Opera, Baltimore Opera… now San Diego. I guess we could be forgiven for some world weariness, and I guess I wouldn’t have been surprised if today’s Facebook and Twitter feeds were sort of fatalistic about this last closure. To the contrary: The vehemence and emotion is overwhelming. It almost seems more violent than during last fall’s NYCO death spiral. Perhaps we can no longer as easily hide behind the 2008 recession as the primary reason. Perhaps it’s just more maddening that a company with no overt signs of financial illness would shutter so apparently suddenly. Perhaps we’re finally being pushed over the edge.
It took me over an hour tonight to read all of the various outpourings on my Facebook feed. These weren’t rants; they were astonishingly thoughtful and deeply felt messages and comments. And they seem to run in three big threads.
First, frustration with financial models. Controversies over and challenges with budget management, artist compensation, overhead, ticket sales, contributed income, all of it. This I won’t touch here, for it’s too complex and fraught. But it’s a frequent source of anger among those people who depend on opera for their livelihood.
Second, the change in how children are (well, mostly aren’t) introduced to and involved with music while they’re of school age. This thread is closely related to a discussion of the increasingly exponentially fast changes in the way we consume culture – high and low. There’s a lot of sorrow and anger about how music isn’t part of our kids’ education any more. I get it, I do. But I’m also married to a teacher. And I see the almost complete futility of hanging the future of opera in this country on this particular issue. I empathize with the heart of this argument, but even though it would be noble to tilt at this windmill, I won’t. It’s all wrong, but it’s bigger than us.
And then, there’s the part of the discussion to which I feel I can contribute. It’s focused on those people who are predisposed to love opera, and who probably would’ve become fans in an earlier generation. The ones who crave our particular brand of expression, drama, music, and art. They are intellectually and emotionally curious, and their psyches resonate sympathetically with our art form. No, opera is not for everyone, but it is and always has been for these people. And somehow fewer and fewer of them seem to be finding us. Or if they do, something is proving to be enough of a liability to keep them from coming back and forming a long-term relationship. This is the problem I feel compelled to try to help solve.
We are planning to recruit a small group of opera newbies to participate in a study that will span Wolf Trap Opera’s 2014 season. At the end of it, we hope to have some frank, sobering and potentially useful data on why we might not be making fans out of people who are in our sweet spot. The whole classical music business has been running in circles these last few years trying every new toy to appeal to pop culture sensibilities. But I increasingly feel that we’re chasing after the wrong people in the wrong way.
More details as we get our process in place. Till then, I feel compelled to leave you on a positive note. Although this news and these trends are certainly disturbing, they are balanced by a constantly surprising amount of passion, good intentions, energy, optimism and sheer love that opera folk – artists, worker bees, and fans – have for this crazy thing we do. It must be worthwhile if it can capture the imagination of such marvelous people. And these people will find a way to get to the heart of the problem and chart a course for our next chapter.