Quote of the Day

As the new art form of the 20th century, cinema has had an effect on opera. The audience for opera has shrunk, like the audience for all classical music. But don’t blame that on the movies. It’s because of a breakdown in education that is scandalous and disgraceful. And it’s because America’s leaders take orders from corporations that believe culture need play only a small role, just enough to give their workers something to do.

Tobias Picker, 2005


  1. Mr. Picker’s comment is not only paranoid but incorrect. < HREF="http://www.operaamerica.org/pressroom/quickfacts2006.html" REL="nofollow">According to the NEA (via OPERA America),<> opera audiences grew 46% from 1982 to 2002 (35% in 1982-92 and 8.2% in 1992-2002).By comparison, total admissions to US movie theaters increased 33% from 1987 to 2006, < HREF="http://www.natoonline.org/statisticsadmissions.htm" REL="nofollow">according to the National Assn of Theater Owners.<> Not quite the same period, but compare the average compound growth rates in attendance: 1.9% for opera, 1982-2002, vs. 1.5% for movies, 1987-2006. In the directly comparable period, 1992-2002, movie audiences did grow faster than opera audiences: 3.3% vs. 0.8% – but both were growing.Of course, the audience for movies is orders of magnitude bigger than that for opera – but movies are a mass product, costing $9 vs. $50-$500 per seat.I didn’t find any more recent data than 2002 for opera, but even if audiences went sideways in 2003-05, American opera is in good shape. Movie attendance actually declined in 2003, 2004, and 2005.My guess: movies and opera are very limited substitutes. Demand for both is more strongly affected by population growth and per capita income than by either taking audience from the other.

  2. Thanks for the numbers, Timothy. It should be pointed out that I’m pretty sure that OPERA America’s attendance numbers also includes free shows and outreach performances, so the ticket-price comparison is more complicated than it seems.Also, to be fair to Mr. Picker, I think he’s comparing today’s opera audience with the pre-cinema opera audience. A 21st- to 19th-century statistical comparison is probably a little too apples-and-oranges to be terribly meaningful, but I think the idea that, say, Rossini was embraced by a larger percentage of the available entertainment-consuming public than opera is now rings pretty true.

  3. I think your interpretation is right. Their numbers are “people who attended at least one opera performance.”And yes, if you look at box office revenue over the same period, movies have more than doubled (123%). To really get into this, one should also look at the number of screens and locations, and the share of blockbusters. Chris Anderson is doing some intersting stuff on this at The Long Tail.You and Mr. Picker might be right that penetration is lower for opera today than in its heyday, but I would submit the following:> Probably true only for pretty tightly defined geographies and timeframes – during Rossini’s and Verdi’s lives, but not when opera was court entertainment.> Entertainment-consuming public is much larger today. Without some real numbers I wouldn’t say that more people attend opera today than 120 years ago, but I suspect it.> The economics of distribution are overpowering for film. Separation of film as a mass media and opera as a “specialist’s media” was inevitable.In any case, as you say, this is an apples and oranges comparison. We should be delighted with the very admirable growth of opera audiences in the last 20 years, as well as all the riches of the cinema in the last 100, instead of railing against water under the bridge. It’s as though railroad executives today, instead of enjoying profitable growth in the last few decades, grumbled about airlines taking over long distance passenger travel.

  4. If I had the time and the money (quick! someone give me a grant!) I’d love to try and really pin down the cultural awareness of opera and concert music in the 18th and 19th centuries. On the one hand, there’s the fact that the sort of middle-class-and-higher portion of the population able to afford opera or symphonic performance was certainly smaller in real numbers, and probably smaller in percentage. On the other hand, there’s all those stories of Verdi tunes, being embargoed like Harry Potter novels and then becoming widely popular, Mozart hearing his tunes played on street corners, etc. Is there a study out there that tries to fix this in a more than anecdotal way?

  5. I know. That data has to be out there for some enterprising PhD candidate. I’ve never heard that Verdi embargo story – cool.James H. Johnson’s < HREF="http://www.amazon.com/Listening-Paris-Cultural-History-Studies/dp/0520206487/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/002-0759716-0245622?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1184796366&sr=1-1" REL="nofollow">Listening in Paris<> is very interesting, it probably has some audience data.< HREF="http://www.jstor.org/view/00030139/ap030128/03a00040/0?frame=noframe&userID=a57ca2cb@nwu.edu/01cce4405c00501c42b44&dpi=3&config=jstor" REL="nofollow">Here is a paper about the socio-economics of music in 19th century Boston.<> In 1815, 1000 people attended the first performance of the Handel and Haydn Society, out of a population of 38,000.Here’s one about < HREF="http://www.jstor.org/view/01482076/ap020009/02a00030/0" REL="nofollow">music festivals in the Rhine Valley.<>Here’s a related book I would love to read: a study of how the meaning of art changes with time and society. (It’s on my mind because of < HREF="http://zealandactivityblog.wordpress.com/2007/07/14/review-in-praise-of-commercial-culture/" REL="nofollow">this recent post.<>) How have Wagner’s operas meant different things to different audiences?> In their own day, Wagner and Brahms were poles in an aestheic battle.> Wagner was hushed by the audience for cheering an aria in his own opera.> Not sure if Wagner was ever popular in the way Rossini was.> Hitler said, “You cannot understand National Socialism unless you understand Wagner.”> At about the same time, The Ring prompted a spiritual/aesthetic awakening for CS Lewis.> Today in the US Wagner is highbrow art, supported and enjoyed by the wealthy and conneseurs.> But for Daniel Barenboim, who performed him in Jerusalem, Wagner is an instrument of reconciliation.Maybe this could be a follow-up for Alex Ross.

  6. In the 18th and especially the 19th, remember, most classical music was consumed in the home in the form of piano reductions. Even if someone couldn’t hear a symphony or an opera in the concert hall or the theater, they could perform the music themselves, thus enabling the whistling and humming on the streets. That audience increases the listenership exponentially.

  7. Unless Picker is talking about the failure to educate musicians how to make opera relevant to the 20th century, let alone the 21st, I don’t see how a learned appreciation for the machinations of your standard repetoire opera company is going to make anyone more cultured.

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