The coronavirus pandemic poses a grave challenge to all of the performing arts. There are few ways to mitigate the risk from packing performers and audiences tightly together without fundamentally altering the experience of these art forms, which thrive on crowds.
Yet classical music has been singled out as being especially vulnerable at this challenging moment. Why? Because of the perception that its audiences lean toward the senior set. “In many places in America,” David Rohde wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal, “the classical audience is a snapshot of the most vulnerable population for bad Covid-19 outcomes.”
It’s true that classical music tends to attract older patrons, and that seniors are indeed the most vulnerable to the virus. The average age of the audience at the Metropolitan Opera last season was 57, the same as at the New York Philharmonic. About 62 percent of the Philharmonic’s audience was 55 and older. (By contrast, the average age of the Broadway audience has hovered between 40 and 45 for the past two decades.)
The relative scarcity of younger people is discouraging. Especially the fact that just 24 percent of the Philharmonic’s audience was younger than 40, people who may well have developed habits around the culture they do (and don’t) consume that could last the rest of their lives.
But the current fretting over classical music feels all too familiar: Yet again, aging audiences are pointed to as an ominous indicator that this art form continues on a slow, inexorable death spiral. The support structure for any of the performing arts cannot be sustainably based on older patrons and subscribers; at least that’s the assumption, for which the only answer entails elaborate efforts to court new and younger audiences. In recent years, the Paris Opera inaugurated an ambitious program to catch the attention of people in their 20s with edgy promotional videos and to bring thousands of them to preview performances at discount ticket prices. “You have to find your public by taking risks,” the company’s general director, Stéphane Lissner, said in 2018.
Of course he’s right. And the company has had success with the campaign. Still, elements of dismaying ageism run through the chronic bemoaning over the graying of classical and opera audiences, something that bothered me even before I entered this older demographic myself.
For one thing, audiences for classical music have always tended to be older. Demographic surveys from earlier eras are spotty. But images and television broadcasts make plain that even back in the 1960s, when Leonard Bernstein was galvanizing the Philharmonic and attracting young people like me to his concerts, audiences were dominated by those in their 50s and older. Yet, year after year, devoted older fans continued to appear. This suggests that the over-50 demographic keeps reproducing itself inside concert halls, a sign that at a certain point in their lives, many people start attending classical concerts, even if they did not when they were 20 or 30.
A study commissioned by 15 orchestras and published in 2002 found that about half of those ensembles’ subscribers were 65 or older, and that 17 percent were 75 or older. Things haven’t changed much in the past 20 years: Last season at the Met, the average age of subscribers was 65. (These days, few people of any age want to commit to buying tickets many months in advance, so the overall numbers of subscribers are widely decreasing — which is worrisome for organizations that have based their business models on this system.)
Classical music should do its best to cultivate new listeners — to be accessible to anyone who might want to participate. But having an aging audience is not necessarily dire.
At classical events, you tend to encounter more people with walkers, and to see older couples steadying each other as they make their ways to seats. Yet isn’t that a testimony to the devotion of loyal patrons? It may take some doing to get to a performance, but they make the effort; they’re not at home watching television. During a recent online panel sponsored by the League of American Orchestras, several artists and administrators commented that classical music attracts passionate fans, including older ones, and that institutions should cherish and serve that passion.
Many institutions seem to tie cultivating younger audiences to presenting newer repertory. But it’s hard to generalize by age group about what kinds of music will bring in which audience members. I’ve argued for years that orchestras and opera companies inordinately beholden to standard repertory are not speaking to younger people who are instinctively curious about new, more adventurous work in all of the arts.
And it’s always heartening to see many younger people turn up when an ensemble presents something new and bold, like the Philharmonic’s 2019 premiere of Julia Wolfe’s searing, multimedia oratorio “Fire in my mouth.” Those coveted millennials have been ever-present, in my experience, at the Philharmonic’s Sound On concerts of contemporary music.
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Updated August 4, 2020
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But the whole story, I’ve found, is more nuanced. It’s easy to overstate the instinctive curiosity of young people for new music, and unfair to assume that older people are conservative in their tastes and resistant to contemporary work. True, over the years the majority of notes I’ve received from readers complaining of some awful new piece they had to endure — “another 20 minutes of my life that I can’t get back,” one person wrote recently — have come from those who cite many decades of concertgoing to back up their assessments. But you can’t attribute such close-minded attitudes to age. Lots of young people are similarly resistant.
Programs of ambitious contemporary fare still draw plenty of older people — many of whom, from my observations, seem eager to be there. This was certainly the case last summer for the premieres of two wrenching and timely operas on racial themes: “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” at Opera Theater of St. Louis, and “Blue,” at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, N.Y.
For some time now, I’ve seen the main challenge of engaging new classical music audiences — of all ages — as related to diminishing attention spans in an era of nonstop connectivity. Whether a piece you’re hearing is a compact Haydn string quartet or a teeming orchestral work, an audience at a concert has to settle in and really pay attention to a performance that, for all the dynamic involvement of the musicians, offers only so much visual stimulation. Classical music should embrace this reality and promote performances as rare opportunities to disconnect, at least for a while, from the digital life outside. Seated in an inviting hall with good acoustics, you enter a musical realm that a composer has created, passed on through the artistry of superb musicians.
This isn’t necessarily a generational issue. Philip Glass’s opera “Akhnaten” asks listeners to give themselves over to music that on the surface may seem strangely repetitive and hypnotic, starting from the first ripples in the orchestra. It’s long and unchanging — and it had a sold-out run at the Met last fall, with lots of young people in the audiences.
Whether old or young, if you have the patience to embrace such experiences, you are primed to love classical music. If you’re too fidgety, then this art form is probably not for you. It may be that simple, whether you’re 25 or 75.
At this challenging moment, when new social protocols are being worked out and a deadly pandemic lingers, there has been a disturbing undercurrent in America, an exacerbation of existing societal trends, that marginalizes older people. This reached its zenith when the lieutenant governor of Texas said in March that “lots of grandparents” would be willing to sacrifice themselves to facilitate the opening of the economy. The implication of this disturbing argument is that old people are expendable.
In working so hard to engage younger people, classical music institutions must be careful, now more than ever, not to take older members its audiences for granted. These veteran music lovers keep showing up — something for the field to celebrate, not fret over.