In 1994, punk/pop band Green Day took the stage in front of 100,000 fans packed into Boston’s Hatch Shell. The performance took on a life of its own, exciting the crowd. Very quickly, things got out of hand. Organizers shut the show down, and a riot ensued. the police cracked down, shipping people to jail or to the hospital.

Now rewind 133 years to 1861 and the premiere of Richard Wagner’s opera, Tannhauser, at the Jockey Club in Paris. Because of Wagner’s non-conformist timing of the ballet segment, audience members shouted and blew whistles over the performance.

It’s clear we take our music seriously, even when it involves an orchestra. And it’s past time we put to rest the notion that opera is somehow an elitist indulgence only enjoyed by the few. With opera poised at the edge of a cultural renaissance, those of us who already know and love opera need to share what we know: Opera is the ultimate art form. And we need to start owning that if we are going to begin attracting new opera audiences.

Opera: The Ultimate Art Form

Once a part of popular culture, opera easily fit into everyday life with the 19th Century brass bands playing the latest operatic hit, Richard Wanger of Tannhauser fame said, “I believe that he who once has bathed in the sublime delights of this high ARt, is consecrated to Her forever, and never can deny Her.” If you’ve ever worked to create operas, you know exactly what Wagner meant.

Opera encompasses multiple art forms by bringing together writers, singers, dancers, musicians, designers, and visual artists to create a transcendent experience. At the heart of opera lies the ability to transport the audience to a new world by blurring the lines between our earthly realm and the infinite universe, and elevating the hearts of men and women.

While the masses regularly attended the opera in the 19th Century, today’s lack of interest can be traced back to three issues:

  • Expensive productions means higher ticket prices. Prices at the Metropolitan Opera can run over $400 per ticket for the best seating and opera audience members are looking at $100 or more per ticket if they want to have a place to sit.
  • Many productions do not resonate with modern audiences who prefer musicals.
  • Opera doesn’t make the cut in most education systems, if it is included at all.

Traditional opera houses now face audiences more inclined to show up to see the musical Rent rather than the opera La bohème (which Rent rips off). The effects have been devastating:

  • New York City Opera filed for bankruptcy in 2013, 70 years after it was founded to bring opera to the masses
  • The San Diego Opera is struggling to keep its doors open and had to put Ian Campbell on leave
  • The Metropolitan Opera, which had a 97% attendance rate in 1959, currently has a 79% attendance rate
  • The Chicago Opera House is down to 80% attendance from full attendance 20 years ago

Even though New York’s Metropolitan Opera is actually raising more money from donors than ever before, it’s not enough. Between the need for austerity and obligations to powerful unions, the traditional opera business model isn’t working. Fortunately, we have more innovative ways to run an organization than relying on rich donors.

“The opera industry is suffering from the same setbacks that many other sectors have suffered in our recent economy,” says Brooke Larimer, founder and board member of Boston Opera Collaborative. “We, collectively, have betrayed the confidence of thousands of audience members whose tickets were rendered void by company closings and production cancellations.”

To reimagine opera and start bringing in a new wave of opera audiences, we’re going to need to embrace a wide range of solutions.

An Entrepreneurial Approach To Opera

Opera houses need to think like entrepreneurs and take a cue from their working artists. Last year, 61% of artists with a second job were self-employed. These artists are the epitome of creative entrepreneurs. Companies need to think outside the orchestra box.

The American Lyric Theater (ALT) implemented an innovative model that’s working. Founded in 2005, ALT matches composers to librettists. It also provides free training and workshops, through its flagship initiative, the Composer Librettist Development Program (CLDP). Last year, CLDP went national via HD teleconferencing technology. Now, artists throughout America can workshop new material in front of opera fans and under the guidance of opera masters.

ALT states that, “While the traditional company model focuses on producing a season, ALT’s programs focus on serving the needs of artists, developing new works, and collaborating with producing companies to help usher those works into the repertoire.”

Non-profits like ALT (along with for-profit companies) could also explore incubating smaller companies, giving them both the resources to scale and the freedom to experiment. And all of us, from singers to writers to choreographers, must bootstrap whenever possible

Opera houses need to learn from groups like ALT if they want to survive in this brave new world. Meanwhile, all members of the arts community (not just opera house management) need to help our creative partners. “For those of us who are not in the business of running opera companies but are instead singers, conductors, directors, costumers, orchestra members, or any number of the other contributors to our wonderful art form, it is easy to point fingers at the boards of executives of opera companies and hold them responsible for the state of our industry,” says Larimer. “But we are all equally culpable. We need to be as invested in the success of our art in this country as we are in our own success. We are all ambassadors for this amazing art form.”

Rethink Your Structure

It’s time to ditch the scarcity mentality and start pooling resources. Small businesses grow by partnering and leveraging one another’s resources, but that also means paying for those resources! Some companies try to justify paying a cut rate to artists, but it hurts both companies and artists alike.

Instead, adopt a business model that will appeal to both existing and new audiences.

Companies don’t have to default to a non-profit setup. Other options include a for-profit or a B-corp organization. Non-profits tend to rely on wealthy donors, but it’s not a sustainable option for most houses.

Noah E. Spiegel, chief operating officer of Nashville Opera, views the survival of opera depending on a paradigm shift. “First of all, I don’t think Opera is dying — not by a long-shot,” Spiegel says. “Outmoded methods are showing their age and we haven’t responded quickly enough, as an industry, although several companies have been doing well since the economy started coming back. The Great Recession forced the hand of some companies which were financially precarious, but others with some fortitude and foresight were able to hunker down, think innovatively about how to ride the wave into a new paradigm.”

Start small. Agility is the key. A small production with an audience feedback loop allows you to develop metrics on what audiences want and to build out from there. This loop also lends itself to implementing a crowdfunding program. Crowdfunding depends on a broad base of support (versus a wealthy few), offering greater flexibility. However, depending on the crowd means paying attention to the crowd. What will they pay for?

Involving audience members in the creation of an opera will build trust through transparency and the feeling of belonging. The behind-the-scenes experience will also help connect audiences beyond the performance and give them insight into what it means to produce and opera.

Experiences Over Productions

Opera can transport the listener to faraway lands and encompass all the senses. Knowing the power of opera, it makes perfect sense to embrace the idea of “immersive” productions that bring the audience into the action.

Audiences that attended a staging of Performa 13’s Dutchman in the East Village’s Russian and Turkish baths got a taste of this immersion approach. Audience members get very close to the actors (and very warm), since they place them on the sauna’s stadium seating.

Audiences of Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More must wear Venetian carnival masks and follow the performers throughout an intricate set spaced throughout the rooms of 3 abandoned warehouses. The production riffs on the exploits of family MacBeth (of Shakespeare) fame. Audience members are encouraged to follow a single character around, but are free to switch it up as the spirit moves them.

In a truly inspired move, composer Judd Greenstein and director Joshua Frankel are working on an opera about the epic 1960s battle over a proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway. Opera need not always immerse us in the flight of the Valkyries, it can also immerse us in the fight of the city planners.

New York’s annual PROTOTYPE: Opera/Theatre/Now, gathers pioneers of opera-theatre and music-theatre from all over the world. The January festival focuses on “revolutionary chamber-scale works.” And it has been selling out!

The Digital Dimension  

Mr. Spiegel also believes opera must address the digital age. “…The arts—traditionally a first-person/in-person type of event—need to develop new ways to attract audiences out of their isolation, or conversely bring the arts into the new digital experience,” said Spiegel.

With today’s technology, people don’t have to go to an opera house to experience opera. In person and live are definitely the best way, but it’s not an option for everyone. With digital opera, companies can expect to see:

  • Almost twice as many people viewing or listening to an opera via broadcast or recorded media as see operas in person
  • Mobile devices narrowing racial/ethnic gaps in arts engagement. Whether listening to music, looking at a photo, or watching a dance or theater performance, all racial/ethnic groups show roughly the same rates of engagement via mobile devices.

If we want opera to regain its status in popular culture, we must expose as many people as possible to the powerful experience that is opera. We need to take advantage of all the available channels and imagine new productions that don’t depend on multi-million dollar venues or even a seating area. Imagine downloading an opera on your smartphone or accessing it via Netflix. Once we’ve given people a taste of the operatic experience, it’s not a stretch to assume we can lure them to an innovative, bootstrapping opera house for the full experience.

Opera doesn’t belong to the elites. It’s ours to claim and bring back for everyone to enjoy (minus the riots). But knowing what we know, we bear the responsibility for stepping up and making it a reality. It’s possible in our lifetime for opera to reclaim its spot at center stage. And that doesn’t necessarily mean attempting to entice audiences with revamps of classic operas. (We’ve seen that urban planning could be your subject). What we need to do is tap into the spirit of elevated humanity that the classics wielded in a way modern audiences can appreciate.

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2 Responses

  1. Kate Radcliffe

    Hi, I work for Graham Norton Show. I was wondering if you own the copyright to the image of the opera singer as we might like to use it on our show.

    Please email to let me know.

    All the best,



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