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Opinion | Is younger, more eclectic Met Opera here to stay?

Kelli O'Hara, Joyce DiDonato and Renee Fleming starred in "The Hours" by Kevin Puts at the Metropolitan Opera
Kelli O'Hara, Joyce DiDonato and Renee Fleming starred in "The Hours" by Kevin Puts at the Metropolitan Opera

The Metropolitan Opera's audiences are getting younger and attending more operas by living composers. What does that mean for classical music as an institution?

Note: a version of this piece originally appeared in the Traverse City Record-Eagle as part of the "Tuning In" series.

Last month, the Metropolitan Opera announced several changes to its upcoming 2023-24 season.

Some of the decisions, like making a major withdrawal from the organization’s endowment and shortening the season, were made with regard to the organization’s financial security.

Several things struck me about the data they’ve collected, including the fact that their audiences are getting younger, fewer people are buying season tickets, and operas by living composers are increasingly popular.

Any one of these things is surprising, and in combination, they’re a startling and, dare I say optimistic, view of the future of the Met and perhaps of classical music in general.

First, the audiences are getting younger. The average age of a Met Opera attendee is currently 52, down from age 57 in 2020.

As a point of comparison, public radio audiences are getting older. According to Jacobs Media’s Public Radio Techsurvey 2022, the average respondent in 2019 was 52.1 years old, and in 2022, the average listener was 55.8 years old.

Second, fewer people are buying season tickets. Twenty years ago, nearly half of the Met Opera’s audience members held season tickets. Now, it’s less than 20 percent of attendees.

Although this fact probably makes the Met nervous from a financial standpoint (season ticket sales mean guaranteed income), it also means that the productions are actually reaching even more people.

In my unscientific survey of friends and colleagues (public radio folk, classical musicians, and academics - yes, nerds), not a single person has Met season tickets. But dozens of people in my world have attended productions there this season.

Finally, more and more people are attending operas by living composers. Recent productions of new operas by Terence Blanchard (b. 1962) and Kevin Puts (b. 1972) drew sellout crowds to the opera house.

In contrast, repertoire staples like Giuseppe Verdi’s “Don Carlo,” Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” and Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes” have sold poorly, with “Don Carlo” filling just 40 percent of the opera house.

There are oft-repeated refrains in the world of classical music that audiences are aging out and dying off and that contemporary classical music will never be able to compete with older music.

“The classics are the classics for a reason!” people say.

And yet, the Metropolitan Opera, the most steadfast of traditional classical music institutions, is finding that not to be the case.

What are the parallels for Classical IPR? Do our audiences want to hear more music by living composers? Are more people listening just 30-60 minutes a day instead of four or more hours? And, how do we reach younger and/or more eclectic audiences?

We’ll see how it goes for the Met in their next couple of seasons, but if this data is any indication, it looks like the operatic tides may be changing.

Some information in this article was initially reported by Javier Hernandez for the New York Times.

Amanda Sewell can be reached at amanda.sewell@interlochen.org

Dr. Amanda Sewell is IPR's music director.