On June 7, 2014, Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, said, “We are getting a newer audience, a younger audience, but there aren’t enough new audience members to replace the old audience members who are dying off.” He mentioned this in relation to certain cost-cutting measures that he believes are needed to avoid bankruptcy. Feel free to mark this as the day that American opera admitted defeat and began planning for its demise.
When the leader of the world’s largest opera company says his audience is in irreversible decline, and that the only hope for survival is to start shrinking the organization, it’s a fairly clear sign that American opera is on its way out. The ship is sinking, there’s no land in sight, and the only way to stave off catastrophe is to start rationing supplies.
The fact that such a comment can pass without stirring up a furor in the arts community is testament to how bad things have gotten in the last few years. If Gelb had said five years ago that sustaining audiences were unlikely to materialize, he’d have been roundly rebuked by an indignant and still optimistic cultural community. But he says it today, mere months after the demise of New York City Opera and the crippling crisis at San Diego Opera, and nobody bats an eye. Opera is dying. So what else is new?
Does Gelb really believe there aren’t enough new audiences to replace dying audiences? Who knows? Diminishing ticket sales and disappointing returns on simulcast programs could certainly support such a perspective. But I suspect this recent admission is really about posturing in preparation for upcoming union negotiations. Warning everyone of impending disaster and then blaming the unions is a great way to gain advantage before heading into battle: “The hull is breached, a watery grave is immanent, and the unions are gobbling up more than their fair share of the rations!”
The problem with this strategy is that Gelb has embraced a “new audiences aren’t going to happen” prophesy, and in so doing may have invested himself in its fulfillment. Can the leader of an opera company who has announced to the world that new audiences can’t be found, and who may be planning to leverage the crisis to cut costs, really be expected to devote his energies to finding and satisfying new audiences?
Sadly, this “no new audiences” meme has evolved in just a few short years from a whispered worry into a facile excuse (Ian Campbell said it when he tried to waltz off the deck of his sinking ship) and now it’s a political football. But the real tragedy is that when leaders like Gelb and Campbell speak so publicly about their lack of faith in tomorrow’s audiences, they give the rest of the world permission to agree with them. If the opera world’s veteran insiders are telling the media that the ship is going down, why would any new audience member (or donor for that matter) want to to climb on board?
Is it true? Are opera audiences in irreversible decline? No. Of course not. Arts audiences are abundant and more than willing to respond to organizations that treat them with deference and respect. But the worst way for arts organizations to attract future audiences is for industry leaders to go around telling the world they don’t believe they exist.