No more ivory towers

Keep in mind the audience you don’t know yet

Don't be judgey -- it could happen to you, too.
Don’t be judgey — it could happen to you, too.

At a recent press conference, an opera director who should know better was flummoxed for a second by a simple question.  Transcript follows:

Q:  For anyone who’s unfamiliar with [very famous title], what makes this opera so special?

A:  [pause]  …You can hardly believe that there is somebody that doesn’t know [this opera], you know, because I think it’s one of the most popular operas in the world…

Then the director heard the words, took a breath, and offered a better answer.  It was a momentary lapse, followed by a good save, so there’s no use in naming names here.  But the incident has had me thinking:

The journalist asking the question writes for a fairly broad audience, and was asking a bona fide expert a perfectly legitimate question.  But that single, honest moment revealed truth about attitudes that dwell in the minds of many successful artists, and a real problem that the arts community must watch for and guard against.

We shouldn’t be surprised at the idea that our most famous works may not dwell in the ears of all.  In fact, it’s the new ears that we should spend the most time courting.  This disconnect between the decision-makers and the mainstream public is sadly quite common, and is at the root of the impression that opera is elitist and exclusive.

What those in the upper echelons of classical music (and opera in particular) are apt to forget is that not everyone is “into” what they do every day.  Those at the top are surrounded by people who share their passions, and it would be easy to lose track of the “other” listeners from time to time.  But the mental picture of our target audience must extend beyond those who already love opera, art song, or whatever. There are millions of people who would love it, given the chance… assuming they aren’t made to feel stupid for what they don’t yet know.

If you run a small company, don’t think you’re off the hook:  we’ve talked here before about low production values in regional opera, and this is part of the same problem.  If you can’t afford to make the overall experience better than a high school play, then you need to get your house in order before you do another half-assed production.  Plan further ahead, get smarter about fundraising, and think bigger.  We’re tired of hearing about the glories of the shoestring budget, and more tired of shows that think good singing is enough.  Small companies like POP are proving this fallacy wrong with every show they do, and (thank goodness) they’re setting the bar higher by also offering rich visual fabric, interactive features, costumes & lighting, engaging blocking and custom sets — all on a smarter shoestring.  The beauty of opera is that it combines multiple art forms into something even more powerful, and each discipline should be treated with equal respect.

Just be better, or you’ll have no shot at building new audiences.  Nuff said.

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