We Need To Talk About Geoffrey
Updated: Apr 16
About a fortnight ago, two very clever people posted Tweets bemoaning the lack of faith of sector leaders in modern (or, at least, 1945) and trans work. Peter Grimes and Transpose both sold out, and tickets could not be found for love or money.
Between them, the core claims made were:
1. Institutions are very cautious about what they programme, believing that the safest bets must be made because…
2. ‘People’ won’t come to strange work.
3. ‘Strange’ work includes new-ish and queer work.
[Misrepresentations are entirely my own.]
Obviously, these institutional attitudes aren’t entirely true. Because…
4. Institutions have influence over what people come to.
The obvious example is Janacek, who was barely seen a decade or so back but has now entered ‘beloved classic’ status.
The other example I am fond of is Mitridate, which is remarkably good given that it was written by a child, but I bet wouldn’t be put on if it was by Salieri, as opposed to Brand Mozart. After all, Salieri is a perfectly good composer, with some very solid mature operas, but almost never gets performed. In contrast, Mozart Means Money.
Having worked as Marketing Director (and similar roles) of Tête à Tête since 2017, I’ve got thoughts on this. Tête à Tête specialises in new opera, and we’re often told that ‘opera people’ generally don’t like new work.
This is (sort of) true. Because:
5. We need to talk about Geoffrey
When we sell work, we can’t target everyone - that would cost a fortune. Thus we typically imagine who we expect the audience to be (e.g. Disney prioritises running ads for Frozen 5: Fice Day on children’s TV, not during football matches). For the opera sector, we often imagine Geoffrey.
Take a moment. You see him, right?
‘Geoffrey’ is my go-to placeholder name for the ‘classic’ opera-goer. He’s older, well-off (middle to upper to stratosphere class), white, male, and would be cisgendered if he knew the word. He goes to the opera for a mix of status, an ‘event’, and an enjoyment of the nice tunes (though he’ll never admit to enjoying La Boheme). He tends to fall asleep after a long day at work.
And Geoffrey does not like modern work. He doesn’t think queer work has anything to do with him. Frankly, he thinks both are deviations from an opera house’s core mission.
But in reality:
6. Not all ‘opera goers’ are Geoffrey.
Kath is also an opera person. She’s a young professional (I’m not going to be so fantastical as to pretend opera’s anything but relentlessly bourgeois), who also likes the experience. But she’s also wanting work that feels ‘relevant’ to her - not the pseudo-relevance of ‘timelessness’, but stories that she recognises and can follow. Or maybe she’d like to try something she hasn’t seen before - she quite often goes to the Tate Modern. Opera is an adventure, and that’s what Kath wants.
Opera houses are increasingly trying to sell to Kath. They know that they can make a certain amount of Kath-friendly shows without losing Geoffrey, so try to balance the two. Mostly in Geoffrey’s favour. Kath will put up with Geoffrey-friendly shows, and opera houses know how to sell to Geoffrey (even if Geoffrey, frankly, doesn’t think he needs to see La Traviata a second time in as many years).
This is true both of the UK’s subsidised and commercial opera sectors - every time I see a campaign emphasising the glamorous experience at a major house (red velvet, gold gilt), my fringe-opera-selling heart groans a bit to think of how slightly-harder my job got.
However, the best trick to remember is:
7. ‘Opera’ is not a cohesive thing; sell the show, not the opera.
The world of performance-as-art is changing. Opera is part of a thriving experience economy, competing with Netflix, Disney+, restaurants, and playing videogames with friends online.
Within each, some people try to sell their product to a very passionate audience - restaurants that mostly target foodies. But most restaurants know that they’re the icing on the cake for meetings, socialising, and birthdays. It would be really weird for them to only target foodies, telling everyone ‘we have great food’. I can get decent food, cheaper, at Tesco.*
Instead, they also sell me something I want (a good deal, quick service during my lunch break, a great experience for a special occasion). Good food is (generally) assumed.
In the golden age of opera-for-everyone, parts of the sector offered a fun night out - part of a wider package of entertainment and self-improvement. Opera can be a part of the new experience economy, when we change how we think of selling it.
8. Different Operas = Different Opera Goers
For Peter Grimes, we might think about audiences who’ve never been to opera before who might be interested in fishing communities, British art/poetry, and critiques of social mobs… Having spent a decade or more arguing about Brand Britain and the fishing fleet, there are ways to spin the show to jingoists and lefties alike.
But let’s say we have a new opera. Something like Tanz der Vampire. There’s a whole thing about it, because one of the composers is also a flagrantly queer rock icon. Geoffrey is horrified. Kath is… intrigued, and willing to try it.
But Jade, the longterm fan of the icon?
Beatrice, the recently-out trans English teacher?
Gavin, who heard a cracking tune on the radio?
None of them have ever been to the ‘opera’. But they’ll come for the show (after a meal at the nearby restaurant). And - if the building keeps making work for them - they’ll keep coming. The opera marketing team can turn them into opera fans.
(To be clear, that also means the opera programming team have to keep making a product these people want to buy. Some opera-people are curiously resistant to the idea that, to reach new markets, you need new products rather than only better marketing/outreach/proselytising. Not everyone has to be converted to the Figaro Fandom.)
With enough good reviews, PR, and marketing, Kath will definitely come. Geoffrey might start to wonder about poking his head in some time (alas, there are no tickets left).
Obviously, none of this is certain. None of this will help the fact that Jade, Beatrice, and Gavin all think the foyer looks like a bank, and don’t know where to sit.
But the show can sell.
All you have to do is find the people who want to buy it.
And if you can’t find them? Make them.
*EDIT, 16/4/2022: On further reflection, the restaurant business is a more useful comparison for opera than I'd intended. There's a definite part of the sector that fundamentally requires a customer-base who earn substantially more than the average income, and trades on luxury and glamour. That part of the sector is also the part widely considered to be the most 'elite' in terms of quality.
As happy fable, however, the restaurant industry has transformed in the past few decades with the boom in casual dining options, from gastropubs to chain restaurants. Perhaps opera could learn from that.