audienceMaybe this should be titled “The bear and lemur freak show”.  Anyway, no surprise to anyone who knows us or reads this blog, the classic 19th century Italian rep is not our sweet spot.  Give us Handel or Berg or Britten over Rossini or Verdi (let alone Donizetti) most days.  (We’ll make an exception for Don Carlos!).  So, last night as the Four Seasons Centre erupted in frenzied applause I couldn’t really share the wild enthusiasm, fine as the performance was, but what startled me was when I heard a smug, female voice to my left say “Well that makes up for Hercules”.  I restrained an urge to remonstrate violently (I’ve been taking lessons from Peter Sellars) but I did leave the theatre puzzled and a bit upset; a feeling shared by the lemur and subject of much conversation on the subway home.

If last night’s Roberto Devereux had been a “traditional production for traditional folk” I’d have shrugged it off.  We all know the Zeffischenk crowd is still alive (though perhaps only just).  But, and it’s a huge but, Stephen Lawless’ production wasn’t particularly traditional.  I don’t think for a minute that Donizetti’s “original intentions” included a pageant staged by Willy S. or assorted monarchs in glass cages.  Nor were the costumes “traditional”.  Maybe “not obviously modern” is enough for some people?  Besides, Sellars’ Hercules wasn’t exactly far out there Regie.  So what’s happening?  Is it just that certain names trigger certain pre-programmed stock reactions; “Handel is boring”, “Sellars is shocking”?  What are the elements in Lawless’ production that allow him to escape the ire of the “composer’s original intention” zealots?

I’m puzzled in some ways and in some ways optimistic.  If the “traditional” audience has now been brought to the point where Lawless’ far from traditional staging doesn’t generate a knee jerk reaction we are making progress.  On the other hand if something as wonderful as Sellars’ Hercules still gets sniffed at there is a long way to go.

5 thoughts on “Audiences

  1. Tis a puzzlement. I think the problem –that is, the experience you report, which i felt doubly the night before while seeing Hercules a second time– has to be framed by the way the product is sold. There we are having our rapturous experience surrounded by what seems to be entitled octogenarian curmudgeons. Sorry if this sounds agist but i am not youthful myself. If only i could bring some of my theatre friends –the ones who are rapturous for Lepage and The Double and Kidd Pivot–to see Hercules, a brilliant show they’d never expect. The values Sellars celebrates (for instance all the tears & hugs) just don’t wash among wealthy bankers who think their $ are a proof of their merit. At its core i feel that the response is very political. It’s troubling. When one looks into this mirror we see that we’re in a very dark place. Remember the end of AMADEUS –where the artist goes to an anonymous pauper’s grave– and what it implies about art? Sometimes even the wildest successes can lead to despair.

    Oh friends, not in these tones. Joy instead…..Joy

    • I think you have pretty much hit the nail on the head though in my experience “entitlement” can set in at a frighteningly early age. I have experience managing 20 something Harvard MBAs! There’s an aspect of privilege that consists of never having to suffer your ideas, assumptions, preconceptions being challenged and I think it’s the process of challenging that so disturbs the curmudgeons. Sellars takes on the notion that the rich can send others to fight for them (while their offspring skulk comfortably at home in the National Guard). Lawless doesn’t do that. I can’t imagine a Canadian banker being so invested in 16th century theological politics that had any genuine emotional response to how Donizetti treats Elizabeth.

    • A further thought… Maybe this explains the whole San Diego Opera fiasco. “If we, the entitled executives/donors/board can’t have opera exactly the way we want it we are going to take our ball home and shut the whole thing rather than risk/facilitate someone else making a go of something that’s not exactly our thing”.

  2. It’s frustrating. Opera producers can’t win. In the Bradshaw era you had loads of traditional productions with indifferent directors and unknown cheap eastern euro singers (who were all pretty good). Hungry for more sparkle Poor Richards passing allowed for the opportunity to get top singers, directors and a double win, top cdns in both categories – long absent from the COC stage. But artistic vision doesn’t equal entertainment. The struggle all opera and theatre and dance companies face is staying relevant artistically while making their audience feel included and welcome on the ride to the future. A fine balance indeed.

    • It probably is a “no win” situation. There seem to be three main audience groups in play here. There are the “curmudgeons” as Leslie would say; strident when their sense of entitlement to the dullest of dull ideas is challenged and disproportionately represented in the subscriber/donor base. (Note: I don’t consider, by any means, all older, long standing subscribers and donors to belong to this group. I know many of them are as open minded as anyone.) This is a difficult group for opera management as they are very willing to walk and they have money. Then there are the arts lovers who simply don’t think of the traditional, large opera company as an “arts organization”. They see it as a sort of museum for people who are way older and more boring than they are. This included me during the Bradshaw years! Then there are the people who are frustrated by the necessity to pander to the curmudgeons but who hang in there for lack of choice. The dilemma is that pandering to the curmudgeons drives away the new, potential audience. Consider my friend sabotabby; a young, smart, radical high school teacher. She will come and see stuff I recommend and, usually, love it. But the shows I take her to are exactly the ones the curmudgeons are up in arms about. Tim Albery’s Aida would be a perfect example. The COC needs to tip her over the edge to becoming a subscriber because she will be around for 50 years, not 5. Of course by then she’ll probably be claiming that they don’t do traditional productions like that nice Mr. Alden’s.

      So, at what point do you take the risk of tailoring to the potential audience, if at all? Or do you just slide gently to extinction along with the older audience?

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