Every opera company wants to achieve the seemingly unattainable goal – to lower the average age of operagoers, to attract young people to the opera, to make opera hip and part of the regular arts scene. Of course, nobody gets any younger, so it makes sense to try to appeal to a younger audience who will hopefully return. Sometimes, the results can be painfully embarrassing – after all, how can a group of adults know what teenagers want, especially in today’s fast-changing society? I’ve assembled a list of 10 things opera companies can do to attract teenagers to not only attend, but regularly return to, the opera.
1. Don’t apologize for the art form. Everybody I’ve talked to who works in an opera company starts off with “Well, we know it’s an unrealistic, archaic art form, but…” or “The stories are really stupid, but…”. Most teenagers have had no prior experience with opera, and may not even know about these stereotypes. If you work in the area and even you think it’s “stupid”, who are we to argue? Besides, our idea of entertainment is Twilight or Gossip Girl – we can probably follow the plot of Trovatore and not find it stupid.
2. We’re not 6 years old. Teenagers hate being talked down to. In fact, we tend to have an inflated sense of our own knowledge. Instead of explaining that “sopranos sound like little squeaky mice when they warm up”, just tell us that they’re the highest voice type in opera. If there’s something we don’t know, we’ll ask, or more likely, nod in agreement and google it later.
3. Don’t give away the ending. I was always taught to read over the synopsis of the opera before seeing it. With the text projected above the stage, that’s no longer really necessary. It takes all the suspense out of the story if you KNOW Mimi has tuberculosis, and as a result those arias where characters are wondering if she’s going to die seem pointless.
4. Perks are always good. Whether it’s going backstage after the performance, or a free coffee, or discount tickets, anything will help. Most of the time, we’re not rolling in cash and anything, no matter how small, will make us feel special. One thing about discount tickets though – why would there be a minimum age for student tickets? Quite a few opera houses have a minimum age of 18 or 21 to join a student discount program, which really makes no sense to me. We’re students too.
5. Get rid of the elitist image. This is a tough one, because many people ARE attracted to the glamour aspect of opera. However, I think this gives the impression that opera is only for special occasions, which is simply not true. If we have that impression, we’ll come once a year at best, but if we know that we don’t necessarily have to wear a tux or gown, we’ll be a lot more comfortable going to the opera regularly. A lot of my friends ask “But don’t I have to dress up for that?” or something similar. Put it this way – you can make the opera a special occasion by dressing up if you want, but it doesn’t have to be. If I’m seeing Tristan or Troyens, there is no way I’m wearing a suit.
6. It doesn’t have to be ‘cool’. Many opera companies try to sell opera based on the fact that it’s “super hip!” and “the place where all the cool people hang out!”. I’ve seen so many posters advertising modern retellings or English translations, and that doesn’t seem to help. Half-naked singers and dramatic taglines on billboards don’t make opera seem any cooler either. We don’t go to the opera because it’s modern or attractive or cool, but because it’s so different from anything else we normally do.
7. Use the internet. Facebook and Twitter are both great resources, so use them. Make sure the Facebook page is professional and has a variety of photos, videos, and links – it should have as much information (including pricing, dates, and cast) and be as regularly updated, as the company’s regular webpage. Most of us now have Twitter, and we use it to ask questions. Please make sure that somebody knowledgeable actually reads and responds to these tweets. Yes, we could pick up the phone, but for some reason, that’s not something we ever do.
8. Create a community. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but maybe set up a meeting point within the opera house for youth, or an online forum. Nobody likes to feel like they’re the only one interested in something. If we know that there are others just like us, we’ll feel less awkward and inexperienced. If we can have a group of people to discuss our experiences with, ask questions, recommend recordings, or even talk about non-operatic things, we will be happier to return.
9. Try to avoid comparisons. A very common refrain I hear is “Oh, but you should have heard so-and-so in the role. There are no good singers performing any more.”, and while this is more common among fans than with the opera company itself, this is incredibly off-putting. We always hear that opera is dead and there are no longer any good Verdi singers and verismo is dead and…Is it really that surprising that we find opera, and its fans, rather intimidating? So Radvanovsky wasn’t as good as Milanov – great, is it my fault that I was born 50 years too late? I know that these people really have the best intentions, but it’s not at all helpful.
10. Present a good-quality performance. Really, everything depends on the performance. It doesn’t matter whether the production is updated to today, or it’s in English, or whether the soprano is in a bikini – if all the singers and musicians and dancers and backstage crew really buy into the performance and try and communicate with the audience, that’s enough. My previous 9 points may bring in a new audience, but if the performance isn’t effective, they won’t come back. The singers don’t have to be famous, and the production doesn’t have to be lavish, as long as they’re convinced in what they’re doing. Challenge, provoke, and communicate with us – and we’ll come back again and again.