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  • Writer's pictureleodoulton

Why does opera need new audiences?

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an opera company must want new audiences.

The question is why.

Here’s a few expanded versions of the claim, with some extrapolation about what that ought to mean for how organisations go about it.

Opera needs new audiences who aren’t about to die

Because: there are many opera companies where the overwhelming majority of their audience is over about 50, and they are concerned that longer-term there’s not a new generation of opera goers to replace them.

Therefore we should see: operas geared towards younger audiences’ tastes and interests; opera houses breaking etiquette rules that seem old-fashioned to a generation that’s never worn a tie at work; opera as part of the experience economy rather than the traditional Wagnerian model, or efforts to make the Wagnerian model an experience young audiences want.

Opera needs new audiences to reach new markets and be commercially viable

Because: opera’s traditionally restricted audience (yes, there are exceptions to this, but they have historically been very much exceptions) limits the amount of money being made from ticket sales.

Therefore we should see: programming geared towards reaching new markets, equivalent to the National Theatre’s annual parade of adaptations of popular media; huge emphasis on marketing and advertising of opera as a desirable consumer good; efforts to make sure that Customer Relationship Management clearly leads from ‘limited engagement with online content’ to ‘feels part of a community and therefore willing to spend money.’

Opera needs new audiences who are from different social backgrounds to the white middle/upper-class

Because: this is a socially virtuous aim in a modern, diverse Britain.

Therefore we should see: programming geared towards creators and stories that are not old and aristocratic/bourgeois; efforts to put people from non-traditional backgrounds in positions of authority; efforts to seriously rethink the opera house around what different social backgrounds might want on a night out, beyond imitating the habits of the elite (unless, of course, we only want different backgrounds, but people who have assimilated into those norms).

Opera needs new audiences to serve a socially useful function

Because: art should serve a social function, whether educating young people, giving training to communities, or raising awareness of important causes.

Therefore we should see: opera working closely with experienced professionals in whichever sector is relevant, such as child psychologists, rehabilitation experts, and campaigners; opera prioritising funding for social projects with measurable impact - not just compared to other operas, but compared to other possible interventions with the same resources; marketing that emphasises the opportunities offered by projects that involve opera.

Opera needs new audiences to serve our charitable purpose

Because: ‘bringing opera to new audiences’ allows registration as a charity, which comes with tax and fundraising benefits.

Therefore we should see: organisations ensuring that they have done enough work to reach new audiences to justify their charitable status, but not necessarily more; efforts to reach new audiences that count as an effort, and may even look good, but may not necessarily have measurable impacts (as the Charity Commission doesn’t pass judgement on effectiveness); organisations that centre the ‘core work’ and use reaching new audiences as a shield to protect funding arrangements.

Opera needs new audiences because the Arts Council have told us to

Because: the Arts Council is a major funder, and the loss of its favour can be terrible.

Therefore we should see: organisations pivoting their entire strategy around changes in the Arts Council’s strategy, even if they might believe their current efforts to reach new audiences are more effective; organisations emphasising gathering data for the Arts Council, rather than to inform their own priorities; organisations trying to explain their core activity in Arts Council-friendly terms, even when the core activity seems little changed.

Opera needs new audiences because more is better

Because: more people = better engagement, income, justification for existing.

Therefore we should see: organisations rethinking what opera is around mass experiences, whether in arenas or online; operas that work as vast spectacles, more like arena concerts; social media strategies built around boosting community engagement in a fandom, not an aficionado-dom.

Opera needs new audiences; therefore some general notes.

Paul Carey Jones often comments on opera organisations wanting new audiences, but not having any strategy to make money from them.

For me, I’d agree that that’s a problem if that’s why organisations want new audiences.

However, I suspect the fundamental problem is that many organisations I’ve heard talking about new audiences have been unclear about why.

All of the above are not unreasonable reasons to want a new audience. But they lead to different results, and when vaguely blurred together they lead to muddied approaches and outcomes.

In particular, they lead to an uninspiring mission that neither commands new audiences’ trust, nor gives an organisation something to build around.

How many opera companies genuinely seem to programme around wanting to attract new audiences? Not in a ‘making some concessions’ way, but a wholehearted effort to offer the same ruthless, brazen popularity-hunting as a commercial venue?

I want to see an opera company with a fandom that goes absolutely feral for its work, to use a choice internet phrase.

Or, if they’re more restrained, I want to see an opera company that takes a top-to-bottom approach to attracting new audiences. It’s not just marketing; it’s not just education and outreach. It’s programming, it’s casting, it’s design and commissioning and front of house and architecture and everything else.

Maybe this ought to be a new question for boards when they boast of their new audiences. “Why is that a good thing?” Followed by “If that’s your objective, how is that integrated across your organisation?”

A figure holds their arms out in front of an empty (except for one person) auditorium.
A theatre that needs more audience members


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