Keeping opera alive

Georgeanne’s post about the non-death of opera sparked quite a bit of discussion. One aspect of the debate is what sort of productions will keep opera companies in business. Do audiences want traditional stagings of popular operas? Restrained stagings of new works? Regietheater with both types of repertoire? What strikes me about these types of discussions is the lack of data. Opera lovers tend to extrapolate from their personal preferences—what sorts of shows they buy tickets for—to what opera companies ought to do to fill seats. However, small though the opera-going population is, it is much larger than the group of people who write and comment on blog posts. If opera is to survive and thrive, its programming mixture must be data-driven.

Which raises the question: Do opera companies collect detailed data on their audiences? If they do, they keep it under wraps. As a member of the general public, I have a rough idea of how well a particular opera at a particular company has sold, but I have no idea of the demographic break-down of the audiences for each production. And this is vital information. If they are to succeed in both the short and long term, opera companies need to balance current best-sellers with productions that attract young audiences and build up a future fan base. Of course, they also need to deploy targeted advertising accordingly, but that’s a separate issue.

I won’t venture to say what belongs in the latter category. Georgeanne mentioned what appeals to her and her opera-going friends, and I suspect that is generally true of young opera-going public. But I don’t know for sure, and only data can tell opera companies whether that’s actually the case.

Opera is, in the end, a form of entertainment, not a sacred art form. Passionate fans have strong opinions about what should and shouldn’t be done, but opera companies needn’t be held to those rules. They have to prioritize selling tickets and attracting and maintaining the audiences of the future. That, rather than staging my favorite works in my favorite ways, is my prescription for a healthy future for opera.