Spread the love

Yesterday I found myself drawn into yet another discussion on the perpetual question of how best to attract and develop new audiences for opera.

There are a few big mistakes to which arts organisations (particularly taxpayer-subsidised ones, for whom funding is conditional upon broadening appeal) seem susceptible. One is a tendency to lose interest in the enthusiastic novice once the initial hurdle of getting them through the door has been crossed – in other words, to market themselves to newcomers while taking existing audiences for granted. Another is to assume – or worse, to perpetuate the notion – that development of the enquiring mind and susceptible heart should be solely the preserve of the young.

Because it isn’t just about attraction and retention of bums on seats, is it? It’s about fostering long-term enthusiasm, curiosity and passion. When I go to a performance, the last thing I want is to be surrounded by people who are there for just another social engagement, or because they feel it will do them good. As somebody who regularly seeks to introduce newcomers to opera, the greatest success I can hope for is that my protégés will fall in love with it, and that a few years down the line, they will be hooked enough to spend all their spare time and money on it as I do, to give companies a good reason to continue performing opera for generations to come, and – most importantly – to spread the enthusiasm to protégés of their own.

I was nobody’s opera protégée, as such. As a singer from a young age, I’ve found that my personal compulsion to sing translated into a compulsion to experience and discover vocal music. There was nobody in my life who sought to introduce me actively to the art form, and I certainly didn’t become interested in opera in response to marketing by any opera company. To cut a very long story short, the seeds of interest were sown very gradually throughout my childhood, and at the age of 17 I finally had the urge to go and see La traviata, which was touring within reach of my home town. I went, fell instantly in love, and the rest is history.

I’m therefore not best placed to analyse how a susceptible newcomer should best be attracted to a discovery of opera. In the last six months, however, I have found myself in just that position with regard to ballet.

I have never felt any natural affinity with dance. The newspapers have a tendency to lump ‘dance and opera’ together; opera and ballet companies are often resident in the same theatres. Ballet is something to which I have had physical access for as long as I’ve had physical access to opera – something which I have sampled occasionally out of curiosity, without ever finding a way in. About the House, the magazine of the Friends of Covent Garden, may as well have not contained ballet listings at all for all the use I made of them. I felt I should somehow be able to find a connection to one via the other, but it just never happened.

The turning point came as a result of Twitter, which I joined early in 2010. In the course of two years I have built up a large circle of regular correspondents, many of whom are as passionate about ballet as opera. Discussion of one led to discussion of the other; in London we already have a great deal in common (a venue, a membership scheme, an infuriating online booking system…!) Having also found that seemingly half the personnel of the Royal Ballet are enthusiastic Tweeters, I was publicly challenged last October by one of the company’s principal artists to explore ballet in exchange for her starting to explore opera. The gauntlet was thrown down…

Open, informal discussion with artists and enthusiasts is something I’ve taken for granted in opera for as long as I’ve been going (plenty of common ground on which to build conversations!) but ballet seemed like a separate universe – one in which, all of a sudden, I found that I’d managed to establish human contact. The mystique of an unfamiliar art form suddenly began to dissolve.

So, after a lifetime which had so far contained a tiny handful of half-hearted ballet visits, this season it’s seemed so much more accessible, and suddenly I’ve found myself embarking on a voyage of discovery. Since October 2011 I’ve been to Manon, The Nutcracker, three – three! – different casts of Romeo and Juliet, and four mixed bills. I’m booked in for two performances of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, another Romeo and Juliet, and La fille mal gardée. It has unquestionably been the enthusiasm of others – audience members and artists alike – which finally sparked my own genuine appreciation. It may sound sudden, but in the scheme of things it’s very gradual, and it’s only the start of what I hope will be a beautiful friendship.

So this one is for all lovers of art. Artists, audience members. If you love something, express your love for it. Enthusiasm can be so infectious in its own right that others will want a piece of what you’re having.


7 thoughts on “Spread the love

  1. Dear Ruth I just love this so much almost wanted to cry-this is from someone who has managed to get into her fifties before I managed to find opera (and a little bit of ballet too) for myself and it has now become my greatest passion in life, have never been happier than exploring this wonderful and diverse art form, so yes heartily agree that everyone must be reached, not just the young!!!! Bravo!! Hearty applause!

  2. Dear Ruth
    I so agree with your criticism “Another is to assume – or worse, to perpetuate the notion – that development of the enquiring mind and susceptible heart should be solely the preserve of the young.”. I was 47 when I saw my first opera, only a fraction younger than Anne, and I now see about 20 a year – nowhere near what you do of course. I think opera companies should somehow target people in their 40’s and older who may have a nagging feeling they are ready to move on from pop and rock (or at least to add to their rock and pop interests). I try to influence friends who are mainly over 40! Somehow ballet doesn’t seem so intimidating – I think ballet audiences at ROH are more diverse than opera ones. I notice that “modern” operas (even when not hyped as much as Anna Nicole) seem to attract a younger audience.

  3. Ruth, one of he findings of the market research on Midsummer Opera’s last show was that most of our audience are friends and family. Every time someone comes to one of our shows the comment is something like “But, it was wonderful…” I question the “but”. What are people expecting? Scratchy strings and screechy singers? So somehow we’ve got to spread the word that this is of a higher quality than people are expecting. Grateful for any ideas.

  4. I have no idea who the big opera companies like ROH or the Met think they are marketing to. I have even less idea for the even more heavily subsidised German public theatres. I suspect they think “marketing” is beneath them.
    It’s much easier to figure out what the limited season majors in North America (SFO, Lyric, COC etc) are up to. It’s mostly about subscribers; keep the existing base and get new ones. Get them young if you can because they have more potential seasons ahead of them. If they are young and from wealthy families so much the better because they are your future board and donors.. Stick one or two “bums on seats” productions with lots of performances in for the “big weekend in Toronto/SF/Chicago” crowd and there you have it.

  5. Pingback: Solgerd.com » Blog Archive » Tristan i dagarna tre

  6. Hi Ruth,

    Sorry if this is off topic or in the wrong thread but I would appreciate your thoughts (however brief) on Debussy’s “Pelleas et Melisande”

    Two questions if I may:

    1) Would you agree with me that “Pelleas et Melisande” is the finest and most addictive of all operas?

    2) Does it mystify you that it has never had the impact of Mozart, Verdi, Wagner and Strauss?

    Needless to say I adore Wagner (my first and greatest love), Strauss, Verdi along with Mussorgsky, Offenbach, Puccini, Delius, Hans Pfitzner, Schoenberg, Hindemith, Messiaen and others but “Pelleas et Melisande” for me just contains so many extremely unique and intoxicating passages.

    (There are also many times when I’d like to temporarily rename it ‘Genevieve et Arkel’)



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