On March 23, I met with two gifted conductors of different generations: James Conlon and Christopher Allen. Conlon was appearing with the New World Symphony, in a program that includes Shostakovich’s seldom-heard Symphony No. 12. Allen was concluding a run of Jorge Martín’s Before Night Falls at Florida Grand Opera, for which he received widespread critical acclaim. The two have a rich history: Allen served as assistant conductor to Conlon for many years at Los Angeles Opera. Allen is John L. Magro Resident Conductor of Cincinnati Opera; Conlon was for many years the music director of the Cincinnati May Festival. We met backstage at Miami’s New World Center for a discussion about the growing audience crisis in the world of opera and classical music.
BK: The issues of new repertoire, unusual repertoire, and dwindling audiences. It’s been on my mind as I have been watching Florida Grand Opera’s beautiful production of Jorge Martín’s Before Night Falls take shape. What are your thoughts on why it is so difficult to develop the audience for new or unusual work? Everyone is obsessed with talking about outreach and access these days—more than they are with talking about artistic matters. Any ideas on how we arrived at this point?
BK: I knew you would.
JC (Laughs): It’s a leading question! So: how did we get to what I call the great American paradox,where we have more conservatories, we are producing more great musicians than probably anywhere in the world; China will probably pass us by someday. We have more great orchestras than any country I know. We have a bunch of great opera companies. What’s the paradox? We have all this supply and we don’t have all the demand. What happened to the demand? I don’t know one cultural institution that isn’t fighting to keep its audience or to find a new audience or to build it up. And this entire issue has come full circle in my lifetime. We, the institutions, are faced with fixing the problem. But the problem did not start with the institutions. The problem started with the abdication of education in our country. And that problem started in the 1980s, and it was a political discussion to drop arts from the budget. And that is under discussion today.
Instead of everyone in the country having a basic, elemental familiarity with the classical arts—opera or ballet or playing the piano, or playing in a band.… I was in the string orchestra—you name it, we did it—and I didn’t go to a special school. I went to New York City public school. So is it any surprise now—
CA: That you don’t have an audience.
JC: And it is not the fault of the institutions. But it is up to us to fix the problem, because nobody else is going to fix it for us.
CA: I agree. And one thing I can say is that I was a product of the next generation that didn’t have music education in the schools. I was involved with music because my mother took me. She took me to see James conduct. She took me to the Philharmonic, took me every time Pollini was at Carnegie Hall. But I received none of this while I was in school. Funding went to the football pads and the sports program. And I went to a public high school in Strasburg, Pennsylvania. So I am a product of this system that has failed us.
BK: What about the technological revolution? It seems to me that one of the big issues is that many people are resistant to the live experience because they want to stay home and play with their toys.
I was talking to a colleague of mine about this the other day. Broadway is surviving this audience crisis, and I think I know why. Because they haven’t given their product away via technology. There’s no “free content” on Broadway. And the HD broadcasts, whatever the advantages of them are, have been ruinous to the New York audience. Do you agree?
CA: The whole HD thing seems to be a very good thing for certain audiences. But there’s a problem. If you live in Queens, you can’t go and watch the Mets on your TV right there. You need to go to the game. I don’t know if the Metropolitan Opera worked this out. In New York, you can go to see an HD broadcast [simultaneous with the live performance].
JC: I don’t know enough about the HD and how it was organized, so I’m out of my depths here. I think the idea of it is great, but the jury is out as to whether or not in the long run it will be a good thing or a bad thing for opera in this country. Sure, it’s good that people go and watch opera on a Saturday or a Sunday. But if it’s starting to replace opera in the theaters and if it is making people think, “I can watch an HD, so why should I support a local opera company?”—then I think it’s a bad thing.
Backing up to your thoughts on technology: I half-agree and I half-disagree. Strangely enough, I believe that people who still do love concerts and opera do like live performances. And Brian, you will remember this: they said there were going to be so many recordings that no one would go out of their houses once their CD collections were complete. But lo and behold, what happened? The recording business basically tanked. What didn’t tank was that people who loved music still went to live performances. I still think that going to live performances is part of what thrills people. People like to experience something spiritual, something aesthetic, together. I don’t think that the passion for live music has died away.
CA: Correct. But with the millennial generation, because of education, this is something so many are not familiar with. In Cincinnati, I spent a lot of time with people of my generation, and they think they can go on Facebook and [he snaps his fingers] it’s instant knowledge, instant knowledge. We think that they don’t have the attention span to sit through an opera, but what I’m finding is that most of them haven’t gone. Once they go, they come to me and say, “That was really amazing. It was great to be there for a live experience.” My generation is starting to see that there’s no substitute for a live performance—once you subject them to it.
JC [laughs] “Subject” is a bad word.
CA: Yes. “Expose” is better.
JC: I think part of the reason now that we have a problem is that things are too expensive for a lot of people. I have seen this first-hand in Los Angeles. As all companies do, we sit around saying, “What do we do to get our message out?” We have an annual project, which started with Noye’s Fludde, in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in L.A. As you know, I’m a Britten addict, so I instituted this the first year I came to L.A. We had this famous cathedral right across the street. It goes up on the Internet “Tickets Available.” Tickets cost one dollar. You just have to register. It sells out, and that means something like 7,000—8,000 people—for two performances. It sells out within hours. Tell me how all of those people have gotten the message and it goes like that? Because it’s one dollar! It’s a no brainer. People want to do this. They just can’t afford to do it.
Then you get to the question of: do you lower the prices? Tried-and-true business practice tells you no, because you would lower the value and not make as much money. Then there are people like me who say that we are not running an orchestra or an opera house in order to sell tickets. We want to sell tickets. We are doing it to preserve a tradition that needs to be omnipresent in our society, and I don’t care how little those people pay. I want a full house. That’s the only way there is going to be a future for opera and concerts. It is short-sighted to say we’re not going to invite students and have cheap tickets because then people will know they don’t have to pay full price. You have a tiered house. Then fill it.
CA: To me, the most incredible reaction for Before Night Falls was when we invited an entire house mostly of high school students. That was the most incredible night. They loved it.
BK: Tell me an example of either a new work or a rare older work that you think very successfully met its audience.
CA: Gregory Spears’s Fellow Travelers at Cincinnati Opera. It’s about the lavender scare in the 1950s. [The opera, based on Thomas Mallon’s novel, chronicles an ill-fated gay romance in McCarthy-era Washington, D.C.] I thought that was a relevant story. The development team in Cincinnati took that and in the first month raised all the money they needed to support the production. The marketing people were able to really sell it. We had a sold-out crowd every single night. We produced it in a smaller venue. It was artistically fulfilling and it told a story that needed to be told, and it was relevant to the community at hand.
BK: What about the theory that so many U.S. companies are in trouble because they have choked on their own stagnant, repetitive repertoire?
How much of a factor do you feel that has been in the flattening out of the opera audience? Do you think audiences were not properly brought along with not enough variety of works?
JC: Good question, and a tricky question. Theoretically, if you get people used to listening to things they’ve never heard, they get in the habit of saying, “O.K.—surprise me.” And if you only give them the same thing over and over again, they will be less open to hearing other things. Why is this a paradox? Because one of the characteristics of classical music is that it grows on every hearing as opposed to things consumed on a single hearing. Do I love the Mahler Sixth more or less than I did the first time I heard it? Well, of course, I love it more! I can say that about nearly every piece I know. It’s a good thing if you say, “They’re doing Traviata, and I love Traviata. I’m going to go hear it.” It’s only a bad thing if you say, “I’m going to Traviata, and I’m going to skip Ernani or The Merry Wives of WIndsor.”
When I did “Recovered Voices”—the music of composers who were suppressed by the Nazis—the problem isn’t to get audiences to like it. I had so many people who were moved by it and loved it. The problem is to get them to come to the performances.
BK: But in that case—with Krenek and Korngold and Zemlinsky—was your job made much easier because you had this shattering world event called the Holocaust to hang it on? Was that a big part of people’s response to “Recovered Voices”—as much as the music itself?
JC: Hard to answer that question. Certainly the backstory makes an impression on people. Suppose I find a composer where there’s no story. Spohr. Or Hummel. Great pieces by Hummel that you never heard. When is the last time you heard the great Classical Symphony of Arriaga. There’s no story behind them. So I suppose in a certain respect, that causes fodder for publications to talk about. Who’s going to write about Beethoven if you’re doing Beethoven? But I’m doing a Shostakovich Symphony with the New World Symphony that hardly anyone ever does. The Twelfth is almost never done. Let’s see if people come. Let’s see if people react to it. But the basic problem isn’t just selling something with a story attached to it. The basic problem is that if we had an educated music-going public, we wouldn’t have to sell it from scratch.
BK: Tell me about doing Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas at the North Carolina School of the Arts. Was the audience receptive?
CA: The audience loved it. Daniel Catán was a brilliant composer. I don’t mean to demean it to say that it is user-friendly.
JC: The Marriage of Figaro is user-friendly.
CA: That’s true. But most of the people who went to Florencia were hearing Catán’s music for the first time. Nicholas Muni did a very interesting production. That community had a lot of younger people in it, and there was a lot of excitement because people were unfamiliar with the work. For a younger crowd, it is sometimes easier to sell this. For example, we are doing The Grapes of Wrath in St. Louis right after this, and it has sold very quickly. But I think many of the younger generation are looking to see stories of our time.
BK: Do you think the reason that there is more new work being produced right now is because producers and composers and librettists are finally embracing contemporary subject matter, rather than adapting some tried-and-true classic play or novel?
CA: Sure. A lot of companies have these new work forums where they have separate funding and people are wanting to give money specifically for new pieces. At Cincinnati Opera, we have this program Opera Fusion, with donors and what was the National Endowment for the Arts—
JC: It’s not dead yet. Don’t give up.
CA: Well, we should continue to fight the good fight. But it’s looking grim at the moment.
People have given money for the sake of new work. The head of development at Cincinnati Opera says, “Give me something I can really raise money for.” We workshopped three, even four pieces a year, and in that process, we find things that do and don’t work. Opera Philadelphia does this. Even the Met does this at some level. They just did Ricky Ian Gordon’s Intimate Apparel. There is a climate now that makes it easier to test out new music, and the millennial generation is eating it up.
BK: What about something you both worked on: The Ghosts of Versailles at Los Angeles Opera. Was that a hard sell to the audience?
JC: There was no issue. Big success. It was given in the context of a Beaumarchais year. We did Figaro and The Barber of Seville. I even did the Paisiello Barber of Seville, with the young artists, on the side. The performance was so good—we just won two Grammys—but to me, it is a tragedy that we didn’t make a DVD. I see no aspect of that performance that was unsuccessful, including the audience reaction.
BK: You mentioned Britten earlier. I often hear sophisticated people express real disdain for his music. And his operas are tough sells—even in New York.
JC: They’re tough sells everywhere. And you know the other composer who is perhaps an even tougher sell than Britten? Janácek.
JC: Search me for an answer.
CA: The Britten Foundation helps a little bit, don’t they, with funding?
JC: Yes. But Britten doesn’t have universal appeal in terms of the darker, reflective character of his music. It’s music—you have to go to it. It is not music that throws itself out at the audience. And that is enough to keep a lot of people away. You have to be willing to submit yourself to it and to discover it and allow it to be revealed. That eliminates a lot of people who are not committed to listening that way. It is dark, and very often dense. It makes you think. The more I know his music, the more I am in awe of it.
BK: Can you each give me one seldom-performed work that you have never conducted, but would like to do?r
JC: I’d love to do a Shakespeare trilogy—or a sextet. And that would be Verdi’s Macbeth with Bloch’s Macbeth. Verdi’s Falstaff with Nicolai’s Merry Wives of Windsor, which I love, and the Verdi and Rossini Otello. Figure out a unit set. Don’t go giving that idea to anyone else now, like Christopher Allen—who would probably want to do it himself!
CA: I would love to do Death in Venice. I love Britten, and I love Britten primarily because of James. We did so much of it in L.A.
JC: I’d like to conduct Pelléas, too. And lock the doors so people can’t leave!