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?”