More age footnotes

On a post dated March 4, 2007, Greg Sandow, one of my favorite bloggers and an insightful writer on music, classical and otherwise, wrote with his usual perspicacity about the positive state of audience development at the “new” Met in New York.

As we often do, we had a pleasant exchange by way of the Internet. For more on and by Sandow, visit him at: www.gregsandow.com

Here’s his post and our ensuing exchange

More age footnotes

Here’s something I’m told (by a highly reliable source) that Peter Gelb said, at the press conference last week, at which he announced what the Met will do next season. He said that when he started his job, the Met’s subscribers were 65 years old — and that this age this age had shot up from 60 in the five years before that. This, Peter said, he took as a wakeup call. The audience was aging, rapidly; something had to be done.

For those who are finicky about statistics (as we all should be) I don’t know whether Peter was talking about the average age, or the median age. Nor, of course, did he confirm what I’ve been saying here, that in past generations the classical audience used to be drastically younger. But he did give us this — the experience of seeing someone who runs the biggest classical music institution in America say that his audience has been getting older, fast, and that this is a serious problem. Bravo, Peter. Especially since he’s really doing something about it.

As a further footnote, I might say that I continue to be amazed when people take the old line, and confidently state the audience has always been the same age it is now. This is the conventional wisdom, I know, and conventional wisdom is hard to change. But there isn’t any data supporting it! Or at least none that I’ve found, or that anyone has been able to find for me, even the people who say the conventional thing most strongly. So I’m going to post a challenge to everyone who still says the audience has always been the same age. Either support what you say, with solid data, or stop saying it.

And of course if anyone has such data — please let me know! I’ll post it here immediately.

About the distant past, by which I mean everything up through the 1950s…there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that the audience used to be younger. Just recently, for instance, in the first of Geraldine Farrar’s two autobiographies (Geraldine Farrar: The Story of an American Singer, published in 1916), I came across a very satisfying story — satisfying to herself, I mean –about how in her early days, when she became a big star in Berlin, young men flocked to the opera house to see her. Would they have done this, if they weren’t going to the opera anyway? They came more often when she was singing — but they were there in any case.

And the same must be true of the “gerryflappers,” the girls who came to scream for Farrar later on, when she sang at the Met. They can’t have been the only young women in the opera house. Could we imagine such a thing today? The Metropolitan Opera, full of 65 year-old subscribers, and suddenly, when Cecilia Bartoli comes on stage, the house is full of women in their 20s, shrieking? That just doesn’t compute. The gerryflappers weren’t the only women their age at the Met; they just were more than usually enthusiastic.

To these stories I could add E. M Forster’s famous account of Beethoven’s Fifth, in Howard’s End, in which he describes the reactions of six people who hear the symphony, five of whom are in their 20s. He was imagining a concert given at the time he wrote the novel, in the early years of the last century. Would the people he describes have been the only people their age at the concert? Forster doesn’t even hint that their presence was unusual.

These examples could be multiplied. (If anyone has more of them, please tell me.) And they pose yet another problem for people who believe the classical audience has always been middle-aged. If it was younger than that in the 1900s, and the 1910s, and the 1920, when did it get older? There’s absolutely no account, at least that I’ve ever seen, of such a thing happening. Compared, for instance, to right now, when the painful absence of younger people is so widely lamented.

Hello Greg. In 1920, the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso came to Havana to sing Aida at the Teatro Nacional. When the performance was about to start, Caruso ordered the doors of the theatre open so that the crowd that had congregated across the street could also enjoy the performance (Peter Gelb was not the first populist!) Among the crowd gathered just outside the theatre along the Paseo del Prado in Central Havana, was my late father- age 16 – getting his free opera experience.

Years later, he and my mother met at the Sociedad Pro-Arte Musical, next to the Auditorium in the Vedado section of Havana, and there joined the guitar ensemble led by the late Abel Nicola.  Still more years later, when I had grown up to be a young teen about town, I got my first taste of live opera at that same theatre, hearing Tebaldi in La Traviata. I don’t think I was the younger member of the audience, nor was my late father the youngest member of the crowd standing outside the Nacional in 1920. It really was a younger audience then, Greg

Thanks, Rafael! No, Peter is hardly the first populist. And in past eras, populism in the arts didn’t have the special meanings it does now, either positive (we need a new audience) or negative (we’re dumbing the music down). Caruso recorded pop songs; Lauritz Melchior made films in Hollywood. There was a much easier exchange between classical music and popular culture.And your story is lovely. Thanks. I went to the Met for the first time in the ’50s, when I was a teenager (“Die Meistersinger,” with a standing-room ticket). I wish I could remember how old the audience was!

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