About a month ago I was attending a cocktail hour with other arts professionals a gentleman expressed concern to an orchestra administrator over the fact that he didn’t get classical music. He figured that as he got older, one day classical music would click for him but it hasn’t and he didn’t know why.

The answer the administrator gave didn’t really impress me. It is a tricky question to be sure, but she didn’t seem to be trying to convince him to attend or even offer suggestions for how to prepare ones self to attend. But I think a lot of arts organizations, regardless of genre, fail in this regard. That wasn’t what I wanted to address today anyhow.

Even though his comment carries the implication that classical music is only for older people, it also suggests that he sees enjoying the music as a sign of maturity. He seems to feel it is part of his development as a person and is a little concerned it hasn’t clicked for him. That he wants to like classical music may be reason for optimism if it is an indication of a sentiment that permeates the culture.

If it does, then that means there is still something that classical musical organizations can appeal to if they can figure out how to address the unease of not liking something you figure you should. The guy I was talking with was only 40 something so addressing the concerns he and his cohort have can go a long way in skewing median audience age younger.

I really don’t know what the answer is. I am essentially in the same camp of wanting to like the music more but not really able to get invested in it yet. Not finding the answer will represent a missed opportunity. This assumption that one should become more involved with classical music as one gets older may only be generational and a result of values passed to us by our parents. There is no guarantee that this idea is sitting as a subtle compulsion in the subconscious of the next generation.

Fuzzy Definitions

During his talk prior to the design charette for Performing Arts Center Eastside, Alan Brown cited the 1997 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts. Brown apparently has access to the raw data which is not listed in the NEA report. The answers Brown lists from the survey may cause you to question the results of the surveys you conduct.

Brown lists an admittedly small excerpt of the verbatim responses to the question: “What was the last “classical music” concert that you attended?” Among the answers listed are Tito Puentes, The Stompers, Showboat with Tom Bosley, Music Man, King and I and Oliver.

For the question, “What was the last “opera” that you attended,” Phantom of the Opera appears five times along with Les Miz, Brigadoon and “It was on Broadway” (remember, these are recorded verbatim).

Not having access to all the raw data, I have no idea what percentage of the answers these represent. As I suggested, it does make you wonder when people answer surveys that they enjoy and want to see more classical music or opera, if your concept of classical music/opera is the same as theirs. These results are from 10 years ago so I wonder how much less significant these categories are to people these days.

I also wonder if there isn’t a constructive way to make use of this situation. By and large people attending a performance have absolutely no idea if the hosting organization is for profit or non-profit (and a foggier notion of what that may mean). They aren’t there to support their favorite non-profit, they are there because they enjoy the product. They may feel a loyalty and trust in the organization but it might not have any relation to the tax status.

With this in mind, would it be a benefit to arts organizations to de-emphasize classical and opera and focus on the idea that they produce great performances? You wouldn’t want to abandon the label altogether or misrepresent what you were offering because you would alienate people who did know the difference between opera, classical music and musical theatre (or ballet, modern, jazz; Shakespeare, Miller, Godot, etc) The Philadelphia Orchestra isn’t going to get away with advertising a concert as their latest remix of that rockin’ composer of the 20th century, Rachmaninoff. Unless, of course, they do treat his music to a remixing, the nuances of their interpretation vs. another orchestra’s will hardly constitute a remix.

Acknowledging that people don’t care how performances are categorized as long as they have an enjoyable experience changes the way you market performances. If the definition of classical music is rather nebulous, the fact that the violinist received a Pomme Rouge when they were 17 is nearly bereft of meaning. (As it should be, my mother was giving me pommes rouge before I was 5 years old.) Marketing has to focus on why someone will enjoy the performance and not overly concern itself with convincing someone they like the organization’s definition of classical music or whether the recipient likes classical music at all.

This probably sounds strange because the performance is of the organization’s definition of classical music. But what I am getting at is that the focus shouldn’t be on telling everyone what a great and important guy Beethoven was. Certainly, mentioning Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 is a waste of column inches in a newspaper for all the influence it is likely to have. Telling people they will enjoy it because the opening motif is one of the most recognizable phrases in the world and has been appropriated and integrated in numerous compositions since can be convincing. The idea that it is Death knocking at Beethoven’s door is certainly compelling.

I know that this is pretty much discredited but that is the story Pat Conroy tells students in The Water Is Wide. I first read the book 20 years ago and that fact has stuck in my mind since. If the piece can inspire excitement in poorly educated students who were entirely unaware of classical music, what impact will it have on people who are marginally or generally aware of it? Even more importantly, the kids didn’t know classical music to know if they liked it or not. I’d bet they would have categorized Beethoven alongside any other piece of well played music they came across.

Of course, the water flows both ways in regard to this sentiment. When asked if they liked opera, someone might say they liked Phantom but didn’t really care for The Magic Flute. A good experience with what they think is opera, classical music, Shakespeare (but really Oscar Wilde), won’t guarantee liking the “real” thing. Nor may it inspire experimentation even if they equate Phantom with opera due to simple lack of name recognition.

So what I am saying is, just put the information out there telling people why they will enjoy a performance and let them decide if they will or not. In some respects, if people are defining what might traditionally fall in a Pops concert (Marvin Hamlisch, Burt Bacharach) as classical music, it could help, however marginally, to gently dissolve the barriers of definition and include familiar pieces like Beethoven’s 5th. The 1812 Overture certainly hops back and forth across this fence. Bugs Bunny helped turn classical music into pop music. Perhaps there is something to be gained by tossing the Blue Danube Waltz into the pops. I still associate that piece with the cartoon of swans swimming behind their mother (starting around 4:15 in this video) And who can forget “Kill da Wabbit” and “Spehwur and Magic Helmut” from “What’s Opera Doc?”

Opera Has Sex Fiends? Sign Me Up!

This week the readers of England’s Sun tabloid got the opportunity to attend the opera for between $13 and $52 where the tickets generally run around $175. The Sun announced the opportunity back in July. People had to buy the paper one Sunday to get details so they could enter a lottery for tickets. At the time, there was a bit of negative reaction (note this one is on rival paper, The Guardian) with people decrying it as an ineffectual move since those who normally read the sensationalistic Sun were not the type to return to the opera at regular prices. Some opined that those who liked the regular misogyny exhibited on Page 3 would hardly appreciate high culture.

But the opera in question, Don Giovanni, seems ready made for those who read of the peccadilloes of young lotharios on a daily basis.

In something of an inversion, the unrefined masses got a night in Covent Garden while afficiandos had to satisfy themselves with a simulcast at a movie theatre chain…or wait until another night. (Actually, this characterization makes it sound like a reversal of the usual. In fact, unlike the Metropolitan Opera, this was the Royal Opera House’s first simulcast.)

If you watch the video accompanying the BBC article , you will see the reactions were mixed. Some had a wonderful time and will come again. One woman said it was a nice evening but she wouldn’t hurry back. Another woman listed her concerns over the high cost of attendance (transportation, food) even with the reduced prices. Then there is the guy at the end who proudly proclaims he read the The Guardian.

This illustrates that even when offering reduced tickets, you have to be prepared to answer concerns and motivate people to attend again above and beyond the quality of your product. There was one man quoted in the article as he left at intermission because the seats were uncomfortable.

“We left because it was rather cramped,” said Mrs Tweedy.

“It’s not a reflection on the opera – it was amazing. The voices were great and the lighting was fabulous, but there was a gentleman who decided to share half my seat with me.”

Mr Tweedy said: “It was my first time at the opera – it was ok but after an hour and a half sitting in a cramped seat it was getting a little bit too long for me, but I’d go again.”

This put me in mind of the Urban Institute study on arts attendance I cited a couple years back which found that the two elements that people said would cause them to decide not to attend a performance at a venue again were not having a good social experience and not liking the venue.

It is impossible to say now whether the man will indeed attend again or not despite his experience. Covent Garden has a certain cachet which can’t be overlooked. If this had happened at a less famous facility, perhaps the judgment would have gone against the opera.

Audience Theory

As wonderful an opportunity it was to influence staff workplaces, those of us in the PACE advisory group still understood that the success of the building would be in how comfortable audiences were interacting with the space. When I was preparing to travel to Bellevue, I was mindful of Andrew Taylor’s observations wandering around the streets of Denver at the National Performing Arts Conference that

“block after block of glass or stone walls at the street level, many of them without a door (at least an open one) for hundreds of feet at a time. As a result, there are very few people populating the street, stopping to talk with each other, people watching, lingering, and realizing they’re in an urban streetscape of diversity and energy.”

I approached the facility design with the intention of insuring the building appeared engaging to foot traffic since there are quite a few residential complexes being constructed nearby.

The importance of physical design was actually reinforced for me as we walked to the meeting with the architects. About four-five blocks from the future PACE site, we passed a small area next to the sidewalk with hedges and benches. There was a sign noting that the area was open for public use. I would have never known that because of the way the hedges and a short set of ascending stairs lent it a sense of being private property. Because of this they had to essentially grant people permission to enter.

But to back up a little…. I had mentioned earlier that Alan Brown made a presentation on the value of live performance. Obviously, it is in relation to the audience’s experience that his thoughts are most applicable. It wasn’t until after his presentation that I realized how significant a moment in the design process it had been. The architects and project manager had never really had these ideas addressed in connection with their work before and so were pretty attentive and taking notes. The same was true for a couple board members who were present.

Of the concepts he covered, a number of them caught my attention. The first was his suggestion that interactive experience the Nintendo Wii offers predicts one day being able to virtually perform with Pilobolus. Since he is the first person I have met who has advanced this idea since I began promoting it in 2004, he instantly endeared himself to me.

He also addressed the situation where people were waiting longer and longer to buy their tickets. He spoke of a focus group where he basically discovered young people were afraid to buy a ticket until the last minute because committing to one option closed the door on all the other possibilities. I wondered if this was an element of Generation Y’s problem with decision making.

He said he asked them to describe what they would envision as a perfect jazz club. They said it would be a coffee house during the day but a bar at night with a separate room where those who wanted to be full immersed in the music could go. However, there would also be an anteroom where people could talk with friends and still listen to the music and still another anteroom where people could interact with friends more and listen less.

It seems like a tall order to design a building to provide this experience. However the impression I took away from what Brown had to say was that people at every age really desire an experience at an intermediate stage between listening to a recording and fully attending a formal concert. He described this as a place to drop in and hang out and get more information. One suggestion he made which he certainly did not represent as encompassing all possibilities was having kiosks in the lobby where one could try all sorts of new music. (I imagined something like the listening stations in record stores.) Having a DJ mixing in an area surrounded by comfortable lobby furniture.

Alan Brown’s presentation had a tangible effect on the discussions that followed. The building design already allowed for many of the activities he mentioned so conversations revolved around the possibilities. This is fortunate because if Brown is right, there might be an increased necessity of having such a space as venue for value added benefits. Acknowledging that there are some people who are voracious for an educative experience, Alan Brown proposed that while arts organizations gave education away for free as part of their mission, he suspected people would pay a premium for a private, executive briefing on events.

I have read and heard suggestions that were related to the core idea behind this. There are some complexities to this that I haven’t fully considered so I don’t quite know what I think about this. I suspect for some communities and organizations, he is right on the money with this idea.

As you might imagine from the thought the PACE administration put into the staff work areas, there had been some investment into the design of the public areas as well. As I already mentioned, the layout lends itself to sponsoring some of the programs and features Alan Brown suggested. Some other notable concepts they had were arranging the ticket office so one’s experience was more akin to interacting with a concierge than a reinforced security checkpoint. They have also looked into situating the restrooms so that the lines at intermission don’t become the half time show.

Our advice seemed to be viewed as insightful and even viable within the overall plan and budget. I am demurring on many of the details because so much is undecided at this stage in the game and I don’t want to create any unwarranted expectations about the ultimate result. Participating in the process was very exciting and engaging. While our status as outsiders lent some weight to our observations, Alan Brown’s occasional, but well timed comments lent some reinforcement.

Believe it or not after all this writing, I still have some additional observations to make! My next entry will have some really basic suggestions for those who might want to replicate this exercise.

(Details of this entry have been altered since the original posting to comply with confidentially agreements)