Opera audiences may be shrinking nationwide, but the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center is finding new ways to draw a crowd from an unexpected source.
“I’ve always been aware that classical music and opera face an uphill struggle,” Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Met, told the New Yorker in March. “The audience is much smaller than it was 20 or even 10 years ago.”
According to a report by the National Endowment for the Arts, which compared Americans’ engagement with the arts from 2002-2012, the percentage of adults attending an opera sank from 3.1 percent in 2002 to 2.1 percent in 2012. Yet the study found something else surprising: while the biggest chunk of the opera-going crowd (20.8 percent) was made up of those aged 55-64, the second biggest chunk (18.6 percent) was actually made up of 25-34 year-olds.
The Met has taken several steps to reach a younger audience in recent years, including streaming its performances in HD, setting up an online system for student tickets, and featuring the work of younger composers like Nico Muhly, 33, whose opera “Two Boys” played in 2013. “It was the first time I’ve been to a major opera house like the Met and it felt like it was something by us and for us,” said Nick Lamm, 27, the Met’s School Program administrative coordinator, speaking about his generation of opera fans.
“We hear a lot of, ‘oh young people don’t want to attend the opera anymore,’” said So-Chung Shinn, the chairman of the Young Associates program at the Metropolitan Opera. But “when you look at our Young Associates’ Evenings, there are so many young people who are there.”
The program has about 500 members aged 21-45. Members see five operas a year, and enjoy perks like reserved tickets, behind-the-scenes talks and access to preview parties.
For some opera houses, the issue is dire. The New York City Opera shut down and filed for bankruptcy in 2013.
Small opera companies are courting new viewers with lower-priced tickets. LoftOpera in Brooklyn charges only $30 for tickets ($50 for the front row) and puts on their operas in loft spaces in Brooklyn, making it feel more like a party or hanging out with friends than the more formal Met. These tactics appear to be working: Loft sells out almost every performance.
The Met has revamped several opera productions to be more contemporary. La Traviata, famous for its lavish backgrounds, received a makeover in 2011 with a new bare-bones set, featuring only a clock, a red sofa and a white sheet.
Shinn said she does “miss the Traviata set” but recognizes that “it was really time for a new way of looking at that opera.” Though these new productions are controversial, “it’s important to keep moving forward and keep looking at opera in new ways,” she said.