By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)
This article is based on opinions I have held for years on the cost of attending operatic and classical performances in Australia. As COVID-19 has halted all live performances since March (and they are yet to resume in Melbourne), some people may not see the point in discussing specifics like ticket prices in the ‘before times’. But I’m of the opinion that the performing arts industry in Australia was facing massive challenges before COVID-19. Factors such as ticket pricing played a role in this, and the pandemic has simply pushed problems that already existed to a breaking point.
To answer the question, “Why aren’t the younger generation consuming classical music?”, we need to ask the young people who are already part of the classical world. Whether they have grown up playing in youth symphonies or singing in choirs, or stumbled into musical training in their teens and twenties, young people within the arts industry can tell you the answer. They know why their friends don’t want to experience their first opera or symphonic concert.
Why do young people largely feel like classical music has no relevance to them? Because arts organisations are putting absolutely no effort into showing young people that it is relevant to them. (I use the words ‘young people’ to refer to the elusive patron demographic of 18-30).
Okay, when I say ‘absolutely no effort’, I mean ‘very little effort’. A handful of organisations have clearly had this on their radar over the last few years- a good example is Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s film score concerts, where the orchestra accompanied projections of crowd-pleasing films such as Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and James Bond’s Skyfall. I think that’s a fantastic way to introduce new audiences to the richness and kaleidoscopic colour of live orchestras.
But I want to turn the spotlight onto opera.
Why don’t young people go to see live opera?
Well what are they supposed to do? Fork out $200 dollars for something that looks like a snooze fest and is predominantly marketed towards patrons 60+ years of age?
I decided to do the calculations. When I started writing this piece, Opera Australia’s 2020 season with ticket pricing was still accessible online (briefly transporting me into an alternate universe where that thing never happened).
Using the most discounted rate, a booking of seven productions with A reserve tickets (no pension card) would come to about $990. This averages out to $140 per show. The same seven shows booked with C reserve tickets would come to $560, with about $60 off if you were younger than 30, and chose Tuesday performances instead of Saturday ones.
But bear in mind this is the bulk price, and to get this, you’d have to book at least five shows in the one transaction (at the beginning of the season). What 24-year-old is going to pay $500 for seven operas in one go, even if they’re working full time? I am both of those things and I still wouldn’t pay that. The inflexible timing and monetary commitment itself is enough to put you off.
OA also offered $68 tickets for patrons under 30- but only if you booked two tickets in one transaction, and only out of a choice of four specific productions. And you’re kidding yourself if you think $136 is an easy bet for someone to make if they’re sitting on the fence, or perhaps even assuming they’re going to hate the experience (many people I’ve talked to outside of the classical world do).
I don’t understand why organisations can’t offer actual discounts in limited runs, rather than faffing around and still asking patrons to commit to $136 in one go. For example, you could slash the seats of the entire dress circle to $40, for two performance dates only (out of a full run of ten, perhaps). The company and venue could market the crap out of it, and if there were only two dates to pick from, it would be similar to a student-rush deal in principle.
And on that topic, whatever happened to student rush tickets? During the four years of my Bachelor of Music, I never heard of any student rush tickets offered by Australia’s national opera company. The Arts Centre (aka the venue, not the company itself), offered Tix At Six, which was when you could line up in front of the box office before 6pm, to claim $30 tickets (max two per person) available for two separate shows currently on at the Arts Centre or Hamer Hall. On one occasion I was able to purchase an OA ticket through this (and it was a really good seat).
It’s as if Opera Australia, consciously or unconsciously, is making it as hard as possible for young people to take a risk on something new.
Is ticket pricing the sole reason I have a low opinion of this national opera company? Nope. Another would be its repetitive programming. I’m surprised OA hasn’t changed its name to the Puccini Repertory Company™ over the last few years.
Between 2014 and 2019, Opera Australia mounted 67 productions in Sydney (including 5 musicals). Operas composed by Puccini accounted for 25% of this number, and operas by Verdi accounted for 13%. In total, works by six composers (Puccini, Verdi, Mozart, Bizet, Rossini and Donizetti) accounted for 65% of Sydney’s season during this time, and 60% of Melbourne’s season during the same period.
I think there are three main reasons why the vast majority of young people don’t take a chance on live opera productions. I’ve outlined two: the prohibitive prices and repetitive programming mired in dusty old clichés and outdated values.
The third factor would be the length and scale of most canonical operas. Those who have never attended an opera often assume they would be bored shitless for three hours. That’s a valid concern. Concentrating on a staged show for three acts can be a big ask, particularly if the story moves slowly.
I propose a great way to counteract this would be for opera companies to incorporate lighter fare into their seasons more often. It’s a fabulous way to get a taste for what live opera sounds and feels like, without being overwhelmed. One act-operas, comedic operas, chamber operas which run for an hour straight through- these are far more enticing to beginners. (And you could commission living composers to write them!)
This would ease the minds of prospective ticket-buyers- if you don’t end up enjoying it, you’ve only dedicated an hour to the experiment. Staging operas in a variety of smaller and more casual venues (and letting people bring in their drinks) would also sweeten the deal and help break down the intimidating cloud that can hover above the art form.
I hope the tumultuous year that was 2020 will bring about a more open-minded 2021. It’d be fantastic if the out-of-the-box thinking necessitated by a global pandemic is permanently adopted by arts organisations. We’ve used all kinds of creative mediums to connect in a time of physical and mental distancing. Why not use this mindset to develop expansive approaches to bring classical music (and the genres adjacent) to as many people as possible?