Who The Hell Are You Calling Old?!

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There is little free time on any orchestra tour, and last month’s trip to Carnegie Hall with the Nashville Symphony was no different. The orchestra was scheduled to rehearse and perform on Saturday, so arrival the day before left little time to really do anything touristy. About the same point I was wondering how to spend the evening, I got a text from a friend asking if I wanted to go to see the opera at the Met that evening. I figured it would be something very New Yorky to do in the small space of free time.

My friend already had a ticket on the main floor and since there was nothing left in that “pricing level” I ended up tossing my seating fate to the box office. The “cheap seats” were all that were left, and I got the very last one. I was several stories above my friend’s seat, squashed between two fellow single ticket buyers.

At the first intermission I began a conversation with the man to my left. He was a self proclaimed hard core Wagner “Ring Cycle” junkie who came to New York from England just to experience the Ring Cycle along with a few other operas along during the week. The man, in his mid 30’s or early 40’s, was quick to share his knowledge about the evening’s first act (Janacek’s ‘The Makropulos Case’) and went on to say it was a far superior production than the one he’d see in London a few years back.

“These cheap seats are acoustically the best.” He continued, “It’s unfortunate that so many people sit in this section and don’t understand they are getting the best sound mixture from the pit and stage.”

And then he glanced at the seats behind us and rolled his eyes. “This is a terrible opera for first timers,” referring to the teenage girls dressed to the nines in their glossy prom-like gowns and glitter make-up. “They won’t last through the next act like the people in our row.”

And there it was; he was referring to them as young and our row as old. “I’m not old!” I wanted to scream! But I politely listened to him tell me how audiences were dying and there was no hope in this country.

At the second intermission, I looked back at the six prom queens diligently reading their program notes. I leaned over to the man and nodded toward the girls.  “They’re still here, and amazingly they laughed at all the right spots!”

That’s when the woman to my right, probably in her mid 60’s, joined our conversation about who would enjoy this particular opera and why. It turns out she was a brand new season ticket buyer who had only just come to love opera and classical music. She’d only been going a year and figured until she could understand and appreciate the art form, she’d only buy the cheap seats.

This was an astounding dichotomy surrounding me. The person I would have considered what most orchestras call “old” was the newbie. And the “younger” guy, most orchestras would’ve been jubilant to have in their audiences, was the stoic veteran concert-goer.

After returning to the hotel late that evening, I started wondering about the generic S.O.S call from so many in the classical music industry. “Audiences are graying up; audiences are dying off; there are no new and young patrons!” Certainly audiences numbers are declining in several cases, but do we point the finger at the young? The old?

Why do we have to address age as the benchmark for how successful an arts organization is? Why does the future look grim if there are 90% more white haired old ladies in the audience than young men between ages 16-35? Why should we assume that young equals a healthy organization and old equals certain death.

Shouldn’t the classical music industry be marketing more toward the people they classify as old? After retirement many people, such as the woman I met at the opera, seek out new hobbies and try to further their own appreciation in any number of things.

What about the young? How should they be marketed to? The girls in the seats behind me were unreservedly titillated by the salacious plot in ‘The Makropulos Case.’ Yes, they did laugh at the right moments, like any hormone raging teenager should. Perhaps classical music needs a marketing campaign directed at the young that used the television ratings guide. Don’t you think more young patrons would want to go see an orchestra, ballet, or opera perform Daphnis and Chloe if it was marketed with the letters DLSV, Mature audiences only? That would have caught my attention.

And then there is the grandparent factor. I have heard more stories lately about people learning to love and enjoy classical music because their grandparents took them to concerts.

date night with grandma
date night with grandma

Last fall I toured up to the small town of Ripon, Wisconsin with the Milwaukee Symphony to play a Dvorak symphony. In the audience there was a young man with the tallest Mohawk I’d ever seen. At intermission, curiosity got the better of me and I approached the young man to ask how he got his long hair to stand up so straight. During the conversation I learned that he was with his grandmother, he was a huge Dvorak fan, and he’d been coming to the MSO concerts with Grammy for the last 15 years.

No normal kid wants to do anything with their parents after they reach the teenage years. But these teens often love to spend time with grandparents, who usually are much cooler than their own parents. Market concerts to include the multi-generation gap date scenario; it helps create long term patrons of classical music, and even more important: a legacy. For a good example of that, read Jonathan Becker’s account of how his grandmother introduced him to his lifelong obsession of classical music concerts.

In a perfect world, there would be standing room only for classical concerts. But realistically, we need to stop categorizing people, and just creatively invite them to the cheap seats: where the fun begins and the conversations start.

About Holly Mulcahy

After hearing Scheherazade at an early age, Holly Mulcahy fell in love with the violin and knew it would be her future. She currently serves as concertmaster of the Chattanooga Symphony Orchestra and spends her summers at the celebrated Grand Teton Music Festival where in addition to performing in the violin section, Holly volunteers as an active chamber musician. Holly performs on a 1917 Giovanni Cavani violin, previously owned by the late renowned soloist Eugene Fodor, and a bespoke bow made by award winning master bow maker, Douglas Raguse.
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5 thoughts on “Who The Hell Are You Calling Old?!”

  1. Very good points and well-written, Holly. It gets tiring, and is incorrect, to broadly classify classical music audiences as monolithic and old.

    I think the marketing of classical/art music is important. I’m encouraged by some of the attempts to use social media and hope that more classical musicians, ensembles and organizations resort to social media for better promotion, branding and interactivity with audiences.

  2. Agree 100% with everything you said, but I still sometimes get discouraged when I attend an opera and find I’m among the youngest patrons in the house (I’m 50). I even went to see Jane Monehit last year at a local theatre, and besides the two Sweedish lesbians sitting behind me, (and Jane her band) I was the youngest guy in the building. Marketing concerts to a multi-generational crowd is a great take-away. lets hope some groups pick up on it.

  3. Thank you. Not only is it wrong to avoid an entire segment of the audience, it’s insulting. The entire rest of the universe acts like anyone with grey hair is poison — including performers. Do we really want classical music to turn into that, where female orchestra musicians are gauged on how short of a gown they wear, and once the women turn 40, they’re forced out? I like an industry where I can still go see Martha Argerich even though she’s 70, and where Anne Sophie Mutter won’t stop getting engagements when she stops being able to wear those strapless gowns she plays in. Where all the music is only about dating situations that a teenager can relate to? Even pop and rock aren’t that narrow and shallow.

    I often wonder how much of this obsession with youth comes from the midlife crises of academic music types who want to get across how “cool” they are to their teenaged students, and they do it by pointing the finger at anyone else with grey hair and going, “Look at the icky old person.”

  4. I’m an opera newbie (5 or so years) and I’m 50-something (I’m too young to be that old, but this is beside the point). What I have found so fascinating – other than indulging my new hobby by traveling to as many places as I can afford to see productions – is how TIMELESS so many operas are. Monteverdi’s Poppea – sex and revenge and death and jealousy – how more modern can you get??

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