Live performances picked up some last year after the doldrums brought about by the pandemic. But across the country, attendance of arts events remains well below the levels attained before Covid arrived with a deadly vengeance, creating persistent headaches among arts leaders.
Fewer than half as many people as before the pandemic saw a Broadway show during the 2021-2022 season. Last season the Met Opera’s attendance plummeted to close to 60% of its 3850-seating capacity. The leadership of most regional theaters moans about ticket sales hitting rock bottom. People got used to not going to arts events places during the pandemic, and the virus made things worse, with many members of the arts audience settling for alternative arts streaming services available at home for a fraction of the cost of a theatre or concert or opera ticket.
Survivors are busy re-inventing the wheel, even if it means cutting the number of concerts or plays, as The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has by trimming 10 concerts, when its attendance dipped to 40% of capacity last season, down from 62 percent before Covid.
Many theories have been advanced, many reasons given for this sad situation, such as the fear among potential attendees of catching the coronavirus when seated in the company of hundreds of others in an enclosed space, a concern prevalent especially among the aging audiences that have become the backbone of the performing arts in our time.
Some arts leaders blame the departure of office workers from city centers to work remotely at home the entire workweek or a portion of it. Some blame the economy. The harsh reality that new virus variants lead to performer and performance cancellations has also affected the decision making of audience members who now buy tickets at the last minute, instead of subscribing in advance to a season for fear of what the future might bring.
Whatever the reasons, most performing arts organizations are facing a downturn in single ticket and subscription sales. Carnegie Hall’s season dropped to 88% attendance from the 93% it had before Covid struck. The New York Philharmonic cut back to 80 the number of concerts it gave last season, compared to 120 before.
Some arts organizations have begun to rethink their choice of repertory in an effort to attract a new audience, as has the MET Opera, which recently announced in a NY Times piece that in the hope to replicate the success of its recent Fire Shut Up in My Bones, plans to bring to its stage 17 new works over the next five seasons, including seven commissions. The 2023-2024 lineup includes one third of the repertory made up of new works, but only one Mozart and no Strauss. Peter Gelb, the MET’s general manager says that it will take five years to see how the experiment works.
The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra plans two dozen concert programs that will include close to 50 works by 42 composers, of which more than half are 20th and 21st century ones, some whose names are recognizable by most concertgoers – among them Bernstein, Copland, Shostakovich, Stravinsky – some whose names are new to most audience members, other than connoisseurs of contemporary music. Does this new way of programming herald a new trend, and, if it does, can anybody predict how the aging concertgoing, operagoing, theatergoing audiences will respond?
Time will tell.
Rafael de Acha ©2023
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