Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Hope for the Arts (or not)

The audience for the recent Metropolitan Opera high-definition movie broadcast of Madame Butterfly was much the same as for previous Met movie broadcasts: most of the audience appeared to be in their seventies. The conclusion often expressed is that public support for opera in America is in decline and will largely vanish within a generation.

Perhaps the outlook is not quite so dire. The people most likely to appreciate an opera are those who respond most deeply to the opera's story. Response is largely a matter of what personal connections and associations are triggered by the opera. As I grow older, I see more and deeper human implications in an opera than I did in my youth because I can connect the opera with a web of my experiences, the experiences that others have shared with me, and memories of similar events in histories or novels. If, according to this analysis, older people are the natural audience for opera, then we should see a surge in opera attendance as the great wave of Baby Boomers reach a (greatly overdue) level of maturity and sensitivity to great art.

I put myself in a hopeful mood with these thoughts. However, further reflection concerning my Madame Butterfly experience restored my accustomed sense of gloom. I had arrived at the movie theater a full hour before the showing to guarantee myself a good seat. There was already a long line of fidgety old folks, a line that began inside at the ticket taker station, stretched back in two coils around the ticket booth, and then spilled out the doors to the street. I was discouraged at first by the crowd but then did a quick mental calculation and determined that the people ahead of me would fill no more than a third of the two theater rooms reserved for Madame Butterfly. All was well. I should have no trouble finding a good seat.

When I entered Theater #5 and took a look, I realized that my calculation had been correct. There were only enough old people to fill about a third of the room. However, each of them appeared to be saving seats for two others. The great swath of prime seats was covered by jackets, sweaters, scarves, suitcoats, etc. It looked like wash day along the Ganges, with clothing laid out far and wide to dry in the sun. The only seat that was left to me was in the very top row.

If you are betting on the future of the arts in America, the odds right now appear to be stacked toward selfishness and decline rather than a coming groundswell of audience sensitivity.