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The Dallas Opera Vs. The Met Opera Over The Future of Opera

Cernyhead_24bPeter-GelbSo, who you liking in the odds for tonight’s match? Dallas Opera’s Keith ‘Kid Opry’ Cerny, left, or the Met’s Peter ‘Punchy’ Gelb, right?

As was noted earlier this year, some serious doubts have been raised about whether opera simulcasts — like the ones Dallas Opera has done at AT&T Stadium and the Met Opera live simulcasts in cinemas (or the ones that Booker T. Washington Arts Magnet holds) — are truly reaching a younger, new audience. Happy claims have been made for them, claims that sound a little desperate when it comes to ensuring opera’s future: i.e., if this doesn’t bring in the kids, what in the world will?

The comparison in that British report was not exactly apples to oranges, however, seeing as the relevant survey was based on paying audiences in England, not free-admission crowds in the US. Let’s stamp this: More data needed.

But now Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout has pushed the argument forward a bit with head-to-head claims and conflicting audience figures. Met Opera general manager Peter Gelb is seriously worried that the MetLive’s simulcasts are mostly seen by old folks (75 percent are older than 65), while Dallas Opera’s Keith Cerny finds hope in the fact that the DO’s simulcasts on the Cowboys’ turf are drawing mostly younger people (60 percent younger than 50).

Teachout goes on to mull over questions of repertoire (the Met’s is downright stodgy) vs. a changing entertainment culture among millenials:

I don’t know anybody in the opera business who isn’t worried sick about how best to reach out to underpaid millennials who were suckled on the new on-demand pop culture, which supplies them with cheap, unchallenging amusement around the clock. Many of them inevitably see old-fashioned grand opera as hopelessly unhip. But anyone who gives it a try nowadays is in for a surprise. A growing number of U.S. companies, including Dallas and Houston, are jumping on the new-and-unfamiliar-opera bandwagon, and doing so without busting their budgets….

That said, Mr. Gelb would surely hasten to point out that innovation for its own sake is no guarantee of box-office success, as the Met discovered yet again when “Two Boys,” a newly commissioned opera by Nico Muhly, tanked last season.

Once again, though, Teachout fails to consider the difference between paying to see the Met’s simulcasts at a cinema and the Dallas Opera’s free shows — with the added attractions of beer and stadium food or, if the show’s at Annette Strauss Artist Square, picnic hampers and coolers. It’s like comparing the smaller numbers a major resident theater company might draw for its Shakespeare production vs. a Shakespeare-in-the-park summer outdoor performance — and then trying to find significance in the choice of play or the directors’ stagings while neglecting to recognize the possible significance of the comparatively high-ticket price at the theater vs. the low-if-not-free admissions policy at the public park.

I don’t know that the free admission policy for the Dallas Opera is a deciding factor, whether that’s what attracts a younger demographic nor — perhaps even more importantly here — whether, having attended a free performance, younger viewers are magically infected with the opera bug.

Oh, and one  more thing: With the exception of Death and the Powers, it’s not like the Dallas Opera’s simulcast programming has been electrifyingly new: Magic Flute, Carmen, Don Giovanni.

So I’m still getting out the ‘more data needed’ rubber stamp. In fact, this looks like a job for SMU’s National Center for Arts Research.  Question 1: Do free performances of opera (or theater or dance) attract younger crowds than ticketed ones? Question 2: Does exposure to such free performances deliver a sufficient number of ‘converts’ to an art form that they honestly can be viewed as building a new audience?