Shades of Gray

Oops. The Metropolitan Opera, in its eagerness to demonstrate that a recent emphasis on new productions, prominent directors and live cinemacasts has had an effect, was a little overzealous this week in stating that the average age of its audiences had dropped from 67 to 57 over the past five years. The Met had to backtrack quickly from numbers given by General Manager Peter Gelb, clarifying that the average age of subscribers had decreased from 66.4 to 64.8, whereas the average age of overall audience members, which includes single ticket buyers, has dropped from 60.4 to 57.7.

Granted, the drop would hardly be considered a blip on the radar for pop culture, but it does register an improvement in the time since mover-and-shaker Gelb’s tenure began. And it’s a big deal in the classical world, which lives in mortal fear of the graying audience. It’s a rare news story about the performing arts that fails to reference “the graying audience,” much to the consternation of arts administrators, who grow apoplectic at the very mention.

I was reminded of that at a Met Live in HD broadcast of the much-anticipated Nixon in China. These cinematic broadcasts of live Met performances have been wildly popular since they were introduced in 2006, and they’re now seen in 1,500 movie theaters in nearly 50 countries. I’ve been to a few and have always taken stock of the audiences, looking for signs of diversity. They’ve tended to look pretty much like those at the actual Metropolitan Opera House—pretty gray. Nixon in China filled two theaters to capacity for the Brooklyn Academy of Music showing I attended, but the crowd included a handful of individuals under 30. The youngest person in the auditorium, a pre-teen girl, was soundly asleep on her dad’s shoulder by the second scene of Act 1.

It made me wonder about the students nationwide who, as touted by the Met, were viewing the Live in HD broadcast as part of classroom studies. Were they any more engaged? Nixon in China seems a natural way to bring music and history lessons together in context. But to a preteen, Nixon’s door-opening trip to China in 1972 is about as relevant as the 17th-century Scotland of Lucia di Lammermoor. In other words, ancient history. Nixon in China, with its emphasis on the inner live of its characters, assumes some knowledge of the personalities involved. Even the buffoonish, amoral characterization of Henry Kissinger plays up his public persona as an unlikely playboy of the time, with slight references to his role as a negotiator in the Paris peace talks over the Vietnam War. Those subtleties were fresher in the minds of audience members when the opera debuted in 1987. Twenty-four years later, with Kissinger the only one of the main characters still living, the memories have faded. (Nixon’s Secretary of State declined invitations to attend the Met’s premiere of the work, apparently having heard of his rather unflattering portrayal.)

That’s no reason newer audiences shouldn’t enjoy the opera anyway. Composer John Adams’ minimalist style appeals to contemporary listeners who revere Philip Glass. The rise of China as a world power also gives new currency to the events depicted. Still, the opera has a leisurely pace, little plot, and a libretto filled with philosophical musings and political nuances. All of which requires a certain patience that does not come easily to restless minds and bodies. And therein lies a key to grayer audiences: patience. Patience plus accumulated knowledge and experience equal greater appreciation.  As one orchestra exec I’ve known explains it, audiences aren’t graying, they’ve always been gray, because individuals tend to gain fuller appreciation of classical music and opera as they get older. They also have more time and  income to invest in tickets. But that’s another story.

2.18.2011

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