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.