It is an undeniably exciting time to be part of the opera/classical music/live theatre community. Technology has enhanced what can be put onstage, further knowledge of how the human mind works as well as changing social norms has enabled new perspectives on old pieces and tempered new pieces, and social media has made the arts more visible than they have ever been. In a way, it’s become easier than ever to take part in a global community of people who share similar interests, passions, and ideas. Art has connected us as never before.
With the New York opera season running on the shorter side, I use the summer to reacquaint myself with musical theatre and try to take in as much of it as possible. In July, I went to see Les Miserables, my first time seeing the musical in a, frankly, poorly directed Broadway revival that opened last year. While I appreciate that Les Miz is a big-name show, perfect for someone visiting New York for the first time who wants to see a show, some of the behavior in the audience once the curtain went up was, in my mind, pretty disturbing.
People were carrying on full conversations long past the start of the music, going in and out of the theater frequently and at random, and opening lozenges and eating chips. Children seemed unwatched, playing games and chatting, and nobody paid much heed to overtures or entr’actes, which struck me as strange coming from my background of operagoing. It was disruptive and frustrating to see an audience so disconnected from what was happening onstage. While this could have been one of the numerous faults of the production, I believe that this points to a larger question that Broadway, with the rash of incidents of patrons on phones or electronics during performances, may be feeling all too acutely right now: Can theatre be too accessible?
I spent a good ¾ of the show pondering that. Those rowdy audience members seemed expendable. It’s certainly not necessary to sit unmoving with your back straight as theatergoers may have had decades ago, but what was missing was an appreciation or even basic respect for what was happening onstage.
Evolution is key at the crossroads where theatre in America is standing right now. It’s no secret that classical music and opera, just like the audiences that take them in, have to evolve, too. Just like any art form, they must move with the times and adapt to changing demographics. This is important, but if you’re reading this, I probably don’t have to convince you of that.
Now more than ever opera and instrumental music in particular have to find a new audience that will not only carry it through to the next generations, but help it grow and change in a way that unites the best parts of an art form grounded in the present as much as it is in the past.
The budget for the National Endowment for the Arts, the U.S. government’s organization that gives money to artists and arts institutions, is laughably small when you realize how little they have versus how many deserving organizations exist in the U.S. It’s so important for arts organizations to be accessible and in constant search of new audiences, but can they go too far? Could it be the case that theatre is, in fact, not for everybody? Moreover, should it be the goal of an arts organization to appeal to everybody, or to the portion that can truly “sustain” them. And that’s not necessarily the fraction with the deepest pockets- It’s the fraction that might have a vested interest in an aspect of the genre, an enthusiasm for what’s happening onstage or who’s making it happen, or ideas to move the genre forward.
The goal of theatre is to transport us to another world for three(well, six, if you’re talking Wagner) hours. The audience should be filled with people ready and willing to make that journey. Otherwise, why go? To market theatre as anything less than magical in its ability to transport us or elicit a genuine emotional response is to undersell it and misconstrue its value. Should theatre cater to anybody who is uninterested or apathetic to that journey? We must cast a wide net if we want to catch as many fish as possible, but a net with pictures of Nathan Gunn without a shirt or one that apologizes for our medium is a net that badly needs mending.
Seeing a show, be it an opera, a musical, or a concert, is an experience. It is not merely something to do to kill time. Good theatre demands that we take it seriously at its most basic core. It can often provoke thoughts and feelings, and the effective synthesis of these thoughts and feelings are ultimately what is so fulfilling about the theatregoing experience. It’s been said that the Ancient Greeks even preferred tragedies to comedies because they found the pathos associated with the depiction of the human experience refreshing. We remember the shows that made us laugh, cry, and think. And if we’re not in the mood to do either of the three, then why bother?
Let’s be honest about what theatre is and reassess why we go. Let’s go to the theater to feel things, not simply because it’s a box to check on an itinerary of New York. Being a member of an audience, an audience that is all taking part in the same emotional experience, suspending disbelief, filtering it through different viewpoints, tempering what they see onstage with what they have experienced in real life. So don’t cheat yourself out of your valuable money and time. Theatre can be for everybody who takes part in the human experience. But that doesn’t mean it always is.
Special thanks to JJ of Parterre Box for helping me edit this piece.