May 5, 2011 ~
Opera harmonizes the best of many art forms: vocals which are trained to a point so extreme it seems unnatural; orchestral music written by immortals and played by masters; the striking visual beauty of lavish costumes and elaborate sets at which the audience gasps as the curtain rises; and a passionate story that transports audiences to a time when stories — and indeed passions — followed a narrative curve, building to climax, and reaching finality, if not resolution, in the end. These many factors work together to bring an intensity of experience unrivaled in any other performing art.
And I owe my love of opera to Frankiln Delano Roosevelt.
The Works Progress Administration (WPA) program instituted by Roosevelt during the Great Depression not only created public-works jobs, but it also brought arts and culture to the working class. At that time, my father’s mother was slaving at the sweatshops, and his father virtually resided in the pub after having been laid off at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Whether charged with the care of his younger siblings, or at-large with the neighborhood gang, my father often sought the free or nickel musical, dramatic, and operatic performances made possible through federal subsidies.
Part bread-and-circuses, part cultural enlightenment, the arts component of the WPA played a large part in audience retention by making opera accessible to the disenfranchised elite. It also developed new audiences by bringing opera to an economic class that had been previously excluded. This was my legacy.
Now, however, as public funding of the arts dwindles, audience development is in the hands of the opera houses. I recently wrote a case study on the Metropolitan Opera’s outreach program launched by Peter Gelb in 2006, and its magnum opus, The Met: Live in HD — the wildly popular, often sold-out live Saturday-afternoon broadcasts into HD theaters around the world. Challenged by an aging audience and a poor economy, the Met has positioned itself to capture new audiences with this low-cost, widely accessible platform. The problem is that the same gray-haired opera-buffs keep showing up for the cinemacasts.
I’ve written a case study on the Met’s attempts to rejuvenate its audience. Please let me know if you’d like a copy.