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Maybe the audience is the problem?

Audiences for classical concerts and opera could learn a lot from those for theatre and dance.

Classical audiences are a conservative bunch. The aversion to ‘new’ music has resulted in ensembles doing all sorts of workarounds to try and trick the audience into putting up with a new work. One of the more entertaining, and subtle, is to programme the new commission just before the interval: that way it can’t be avoided by arriving late, or by leaving at the interval. Posters will loudly scream ‘BEETHOVEN’ or ‘VERDI’ while hiding in the small print a great new work by a respected modern composer. Heaven forbid there’s a commission from a young unknown writer, or more than one new work in the same concert…

Even the definition of ‘new’ is being stretched. There are still audiences that will avoid Stravinsky, Shostakovich or Messiaen, and many of these pieces are nearly a century old. If nothing changes, you can expect mass audiences to get comfortable with Thomas Adès and Kaija Saariaho by about 2085. That’s a long time to wait.

I recently was able to get stalls tickets to the Royal Opera House for £7.50 because the work (a one-hour family friendly opera with 5 star reviews and great music) was unable to sell tickets to their usual audience. The horror that the composer is still walking the earth somewhere seems to put those people off. And that was only one week of performances.

Compare this to the audiences for theatre or dance works. Here newness is celebrated, and people will flock to see a 3 hour premiere from David Hare or Tony Kushner, and are happy to take a little more risk with a newer playright such as Lucy Prebble or Inua Ellams. Audiences are even happy to explore experimental theatre: witness the commercial success of Punchdrunk or Complicite, London Road or Warhorse.

Of course there are still companies doing piles of Shakespeare, or Ibsen, but even The Globe has an audience for new work, and new plays are constantly being brought to the attention of West End audiences.

It is frustrating that, while an opera house might struggle to fill 5 performances of Nixon in China (a modern classic), or the orchestra in a BBCSO total immersion weekend could beat the audience in a brawl, the National Theatre or the Old Vic can do 60 performances of a new play with a large cast and crew and still pull a full excited crowd.

There are other reasons a theatre audience might be reticent to see a work, but it seems an aversion to ‘newness’ isn’t one of them. Ironically this results in a secret and surprising source of contemporary new music: Harrison Birtwistle wrote for the National Theatre in the 70s, many ballet and contemporary dance companies are commissioning hour-long new works from living composers. More people will hear new composition at the Old Vic than at Festival Hall.

The challenge for the industry is joining these audiences up: how do we find that willingness for new experience in the classical audience? How do we get the theatre audience to attend concerts and experience opera? There is an attitude and willingness out there which would bring a renaissance in new music and concertgoing, but the constant fight to sneak new music past the ears of a opinionated and conservative concert audience stifles innovation and stagnates the artform.

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