Listening to your audience

James B. Stewart’s New Yorker article “A Fight at the Opera,” is a must-read for anyone interested in the performing arts in America, as well as a further example of why the present and future state of our classical music and operatic institutions merits serious concern.

Stewart touches on many reasons for the Met’s precarious financial situation, including production costs, salaries and benefits, and increased need for donations to keep the whole operation afloat.  But I’d like to concentrate on one specific reason for concern:  the declining size of the audience.

And the numbers are stark.  Stewart:

Meanwhile, attendance had fallen from ninety-two per cent of capacity, in 2007-08, to seventy-nine per cent, in the 2012-13 season.

He later writes:

Gelb told the board in January that attendance was stabilizing this season at about seventy per cent of capacity. By mid-February, box-office revenue was running about two million dollars behind budget. Whatever the artistic and political merits of “The Death of Klinghoffer,” the controversial opera by John Adams about the murder by Palestinian terrorists of a Jewish passenger on a cruise ship, it sold seventy-four per cent of capacity—not bad for a contemporary opera but a dismal turnout for a new production. Some revivals of Gelb productions have fared worse. A performance of “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” sold just forty-six per cent. “Don Giovanni” and “La Traviata” sold seventy per cent and seventy-three per cent, respectively, which is low for such stalwarts of the repertoire. Attendance at pre-Gelb-era standbys has also faltered this season. The Met said that attendance at Taymor’s full-length “Magic Flute” averaged just sixty-one per cent; at Zeffirelli’s “La Bohème” it was seventy-eight per cent.

But between these passages, Stewart writes something that has me puzzled:

Still, by 2013, it was hard to blame the Met’s financial problems solely on the financial crisis. Audiences weren’t coming back, despite the new productions and the excitement that Gelb had brought.

To me, this is a classic case of confusing “despite” for “because of.”  And it made me realize something about Stewart’s article, something I find sadly typical of performing arts coverage:  While Stewart goes into detail on the operatic predilections of several Met board members, whose great wealth provides great access to Gelb’s ear, and while Stewart cites the critics’ opinion of Gelb’s productions, either by name (Alex Ross) or in the aggregate, nowhere, other than by counting attendance, does he deal seriously with the tastes of the audience.

But doesn’t the audience hold the key to the Met’s success and stability?  No audience, no opera.  You can earn all the critical huzzahs you wan’t.  If the house isn’t full enough, the show will eventually not go on.

People either go or don’t go the opera for a reason.  And when those who used to go no longer do, or go less frequently, they’re telling you something.  Maybe they’re bored, maybe they can’t afford as many tickets, maybe they’ve found something else they like better, maybe they’re dead.  But you don’t really know until you ask them.

As has another American classical organization with declining audience, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, as we can read in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article by reporter Elizabeth Bloom.  (Trigger warning:  The article involves market research and focus groups, the mere mention of which is known to give some classical musicians a rash.)

Note how the PSO is trying to understand not just its current audience, but also the kind of people who used to be in the classical audience but now aren’t.  Smart move.  Yeah, I know that what the focus group participants say about orchestra concerts (“stuffed-shirt, prim and proper,” “boring, relaxing, soothing and long”) drive some musicians and music lovers crazy.  I can already hear the accusations of “dumbing-down” and “pandering.”  But this is what real people really say.  If the future of your concert organization was at stake, wouldn’t you rather hear it than not hear it?

Now, what the orchestra does with this information remains to be seen, and will be interesting to track.  In the meantime, full credit to the Pittsburgh Symphony for listening to its audience.  It will be more successful for it.

2 thoughts on “Listening to your audience

  1. Good read. I will be sure to check out the NY’er article.
    I remember years ago in Boston when we decided to not review our subscription to a Ballet series, and we got a call from a trustee asking why we weren’t re-newing. I described the issue that they always had the same groups, and we wanted more variety. He than asked, “Are we booking Alvin Ailey too much?” I told him why that was the wrong question……
    We just spent a week-end in NYCity for culture, and every venue has been asking us for feedback after our visit. Big data may be able to speak to the issue, though we may not like the answer……

    • Alvin Ailey? Oh dear. I’m sure you gave the trustee something to think about.

      The kind of feedback you were asked for in NYC is helpful mostly to make the audience feel that it’s been heard. In practice, the number of responders are too small and self-selecting to provide useful data. No, to know your audience you really have to bring in the pros, who know how to do it right. It sucks, but that’s show biz. When public radio people would ask on our internet group whether they should do listener surveys, I would respond with two rules: 1. Don’t do listener surveys, 2. If you do listener surveys, ignore the results.

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