The surprising musical origins of Star Trek
Battling Artistic Entitlement

Building Interest in the Classical Arts

8.8% of all Americans attended a symphony orchestra concert in 2012.  2.7% attended the ballet.  2.1% attended the opera. 

The classical arts have a problem: not that many people are interested in what we do.

While that may be difficult to hear, and many will refuse to acknowledge it, there is a tremendous amount of data from organizations like The National Endowment for the Arts and the Pew Research Center that tells us modern American audiences generally do not attend the opera, the symphony, the ballet, or any other “classical” or “high” art form.  There are a multitude of reasons, which we will discuss in future writings, but ultimately very few 21st century Americans attend classical arts events.

The economic pressure resulting from limited interest in, and support of, our art forms causes many arts organizations to labor over “audience development.”  Significant resources, both human and financial, are expended attempting to build audience, to entice people into the concert hall, while ignoring the actual things that keep people away.  “If only people would take the time to educate themselves about our art form and value it the same way we do, then they would better appreciate what we do and would come see a performance.”  This mindset permeates arts organizations, leading to audience development initiatives that demand that new potential audience members experience the classical arts on our (narrow) terms, instead of providing an arts experience for them on their own terms.

Instead, I believe we should try to build interest in our art forms through targeted and creative programming that focuses primarily on mode of presentation, while combining new repertoire with the best of the traditional repertoire.  By presenting artistic events that are interesting and desirable to people who do not otherwise love the classical arts, in an environment in which they are more comfortable, you create an opportunity for people to naturally develop an interest in our art forms.  This puts the onus on us as arts organizations to evolve with our community’s interests, instead of expecting people to change to appreciate or value us differently.

Townsend Opera has experimented with this concept in numerous ways.  Through the Opera Remix Initiative, founded in 2011, we have created musical events where opera has been presented in different settings and with different music: in a rock concert format at The State Theatre along with classic rock; at a congregation music night at a predominantly African American church along with gospel music; and at a barbeque on the lawn at the Mayor’s house. 

On the main stage, we have updated numerous productions of the standard repertoire to modern settings, to make operas written over a hundred years ago feel more relevant to a modern audience.  This has included a production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado in modern day Japan with extensive use of technology, a production of Rossini’s Cinderella in modern day Brooklyn with a ‘Jersey Girls’ twist, and a setting of Verdi’s La Traviata in San Francisco at the onset of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s.

In May 2014, Townsend Opera will present the world premiere of an African American folk opera titled Tawawa House, about a hotel in Ohio that was a stop on the Underground Railroad at the onset of the American Civil War before becoming the first African American college in the United States.  In conjunction with the performance, we will hold an African American cultural festival, which will attract not just opera-lovers, but people interested in African American cultural and history, American history, and gospel and spiritual music.

All of these events were designed to be interesting to people who otherwise would not naturally seek out an operatic experience.  By creating an interesting experience that included opera, in settings and environments where people are more comfortable, we are broadening our potential audience base significantly, and giving ourselves the opportunity to welcome new patrons to the opera.

If what you do is interesting, there will be an audience for it.  We need to stop focusing on building an audience, and instead focus on being interesting.


Matthew Buckman is the General and Artistic Director of Townsend Opera in Modesto, CA.  For more information, visit the Townsend Opera website or the Opera Remix website.  You can also follow Matt on Twitter.