Opera and Teenagers: What can opera companies do?

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.

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33 thoughts on “Opera and Teenagers: What can opera companies do?

  1. I agree with everything you say! I remember the process of becoming an opera lover when in my early teens… maybe I should write my own piece about how it happened for me, which could also inspire opera companies, teachers, etc.

  2. When I was in 6th grade, a teacher – all on his own, but of course with permission from the school – started an after-school opera “club” that met once a week. Each week he would tell the story of a different opera and illustrate it by playing excerpts from different recordings. He also encouraged us to compare different singers in a particular aria and to explain why we liked a particular one best, etc. There was sure no talking down in his approach! I remember one girl being amazed by the story of “Tosca,” saying that is sounded to her “like something that could happen today.” (So much for opera stories are stupid, etc.) Attendance ranged from between two to six curious kids each week, and at least one – me – because hooked on opera for life.
    Any opera-loving teachers or aspiring teachers out there, this is one way you can make a difference – even with younger kids.

    • Opera is the ultimate success of binding the sublime and the dirty- It takes a heck of a lot of education and training to do, and that’s often discredited these days. But to understand and connect with? Just a willingness to be like “Oh, she did NOT!” Even as a kid it shocked me how people were so surprised that most opera plots are just loud anger, love, and sex- they put US Weekly covers to shame. Part of me blames the academic, elitist mid-century composers, and lack of exposure and education.
      But really, you’re so right- even this blog’s title “Non piu di fiori”, from Clemenza di Tito- yes the story is classical, used by Shakespeare, and heartbreaking. And the opera is so beautiful it’s overwhelming. But it is so because it’s so immediate and understandable. The pity party that Vitellia throws herself in “Non piu di fiori” puts Twilight to shame. ;] As a director, I always feel like my main job is just to make all of that honesty and resonance easily reachable for the audience.

  3. I especially agree with the “get rid of the minimum age” suggestion for young opera-goers groups. It drives me crazy when I can’t get those discounts and perks because I’m not *old* enough.

    I think the best way is people-planting, though. You can’t make parents introduce their kids to opera, but you can encourage kids to introduce their friends to operas. I run an opera club at my college, and lots of people attend their first operas through our club. Some return for more opera and some decide they don’t like opera, but at least they tried! It doesn’t take much arm-twisting to get people to attend an opera for the first time–just an enthusiastic e-mail or conversation about the opera, a suggestion that the student to whom I’m talking join us, and a reasonable (no more than $30 or so for decent seats) student ticket price.

    And NEVER apologize for the stories. The stories were part of what got me into opera–reading books and plays like La fuerza del sino, El trovador, Don Juan Tenorio, Carmen, Hernani, Kabale und Liebe, Werther, etc. … all of which have operas based on them–made me much more excited to see operas.

  4. Great blog post! As an educater I agree that what teachers and schools are doing and not doing to promote the interest for opera (and for the arts in general) is also of great importance. But opera companies must play their part in getting young people inside their institutions.

  5. Great post! I started going to opera as a teenager and more recently one of my opera going friends, a high school teacher, has been taking some of her kids and I think our experiences bear out what you say.

    The only thing I would add is don’t assume teenagers’ tastes are as narrow as the core opera audience. When I was a teenager I loved 20th century music including opera. I loved Wagner too but Verdi and Puccini left me cold. OK I was a bit bemused by Henze’s We Come to the River but then I think I still would be. I know my friend took a group to see Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and they loved it.

    One thing opera companies could do to make things more accessible would be to distribute more dress rehearsal tickets to schools.

  6. You have some really incredible points in here. As a teenager, I did not live in an area where I was really capable of being exposed to opera, so my love for music formed strictly in the musical theatre and choral and my love for opera didn’t really bloom until my early twenties. Here I am, mid-twenties, and I feel like I have so much catching up to do and wish I had been exposed at a much younger age! These are all great points and should certainly be taken into major consideration

  7. Intriguing and intelligent thoughts! As an opera singer, I agree completely with your assessment. Thank you for putting it in print. And, for reference, I think that Radvanovsky is every bit as talented as her predecessors. Enjoy every moment of your operatic experience!

  8. Great points my parants took us to symphanies when we were in grade school ensuring that we all loved music of all sorts

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  10. As someone who frequents the opera and is still a teenager concerning the point of modernizing opera settings I actually much prefer if the opera’s setting costumes and such are of the original period the story was intended for. I saw La Traviata broadcasted from the met and I think that not having that extra aesthetic quality to it actually took away from the overall performance.

  11. When I was an opera-addicted teenager, James Levine was lamenting in the press the casting situation in his own opera house, and was asking up front if there were operas that shouldn’t be done just because there was no one who could sing them. He was talking about Verdi and Wagner.

    I can’t speak for what things looked like in the ’60’s, but opera looks a whole lot less like a dying art form now than it did in the ’80’s, so don’t let anyone tell you your experiences in the opera house don’t measure up.

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  13. This is brilliant and utterly NECESSARY for the growth of the art form we so adore. As a late twenties working singer, I only wish I had this insight my teens! I tip my hat to you and thank you from the bottom of my heart for your willingness to be a voice (no pun intended 😉 for your generation of opera fans!

  14. Thanks for this post! I was fortunate to grow up in a family that loved all kinds of music and participated actively in choral, orchestral, and theatrical performing. Although I did not have easy access to live opera. I wish we’d had the internet back then, so I could have found others my age who also loved opera.

    I agree with Operaramblings regarding taste. I started with Nozze di Figaro, Tosca and Traviata, but quickly branched into Wozzeck, Lulu, Henze’s Der Junge Lord, some Dallapiccola & Penderecki and lots of Britten. (Unfortunately only via audio recordings).

    In defense of contemporary and/or regie productions (clearly not the same thing!) I would say that to some extent regie is an acquired taste. I was kind of freaked by the Willi Decker Traviata when I saw bits of it on YouTube, but had an “aha!” moment when watching the whole performance. Of course I already knew Traviata really well. I am not sure I would introduce an opera newbie via that production (find the DVD; the performace is spellbinding!)

    Anyway, thank you for your post, and for your blog. I am glad to have found it! (and thanks to operaramblings for pointing it out to me!)

    Rob
    regieornotregie.blogspot.com

    • I actually really love non-traditional productions myself – I find them more thought-provoking, and even if it doesn’t work overall, I can always discover something new and interesting. I just disagree with the statement that opera MUST be updated to make it relevant to today’s audiences.

      • In fact, opera is partly refreshing precisely because these out-of-date works actually continue to speak to us today.
        Well put.

  15. A truly awesome piece. I’ve tweeted multiple links to it. As someone who got hooked on opera at age 11, I feel passionately about the importance of pulling in young people. (I’m still about 30 years below the average Met-goer’s age!) I think so many of your points are absolutely spot-on, and apply to other art forms as well — ballet, theatre, etc.

    And loudlady2, I tend to agree. I’ve seen a few excellent modern-dress theatre productions, but the vast majority of the really excellent productions I’ve seen in any art form have been faithful to the piece’s original period. So often “modern” productions get more hung up on the gimmick of the time period they’re switching to that they give no real insight into the story and/or distract from the story in a big way.

  16. Enjoyed the post, especially #1: Don’t apologize for the art form. I couldn’t agree more. Respectfully though, I have to disagree with #9, don’t make comparisons. I came to opera very late (55 yrs old, Yeesh what was wrong with me), but part of the enjoyment is hearing about other greats who have sung various roles. Like sports, opera has a grand history, celebrate it!

    • It’s true: comparisons are going to happen whether we like it or not. They are not always true- they are highly subjective, but interesting nonetheless.
      However comparisons can too often be a medium for name-dropping, bragging, or condescension. Unfortunately with such an elite art form, it can get to a lot of people’s heads!

  17. Very well written piece, and some great insight. As someone who started a small opera company several years ago, and recently took over the reigns at a larger regional company, I must say that it’s nice to read this from the perspective of a teenager, rather than trying to imagine what would appeal to a younger audience. I’m not convinced that a YOUNGER audience is the solution…don’t get me wrong, I love seeing teens and twenty-somethings at the opera. I’m concerned about developing different audiences….young, old, middle-aged. I think that many of your points apply, regardless of age.

  18. What you say here can be applied just as successfully to any sphere of art music, and not just with teenagers. I am a composer and mostly revolve in the contemporary music scene. Adults who are new to this kind of music need to be approached from a similar place.

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  20. “Opera is an art form that has the power to deeply move and captivate its audience, and despite the popular misconceptions, it is for everyone”

    http://www.columbiaspectator.com/2012/09/21/metropolitan-opera-provides-something-everyone

    No, opera is most definitely NOT for everyone.

    Opera requires a degree of focus and concentration and a willingness to subsume oneself in the art form. Opera will never, ever be a medium of wide popularity. Its appreciation and love will always be confined to a relatively narrow segment of the population. Why? Because listening to and assimilating the great masterpieces requires a level of commitment and patience that most people are not prepared to give (or, more likely, interested in giving).

    As an aside: the scientists who mapped the human genome say that ‘aesthetic perception and sensitivity’ is largely ‘programmed in’ (genetic). In most cases people come to an appreciation/love of the great masterpieces without getting it from their parents, teachers, or formal study and simply through exposure…. That sensitivity to music and opera is almost like an aptitude, you either have it or you don’t and therefore it is useless to assign blame or censure.

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