Most arts institutions across the UK have realised that getting more young people through their doors is key to their survival. A visit to Scottish Opera’s recent production of The Magic Flute, where gaggles of young people fill the auditorium, suggest that this is an organisation which is managing to do just that.
Speaking to the company’s Director of Marketing and Communications, Helen Ireland, it’s clear she regards the company’s £10 ticket offer as one of its biggest successes. Since 2006, Scottish Opera has offered young people a no-nonsense deal: £10 tickets, which can be booked in advance, for any seat in the house. She explains: “It’s quite different from some of the offers that other arts organisations have. It’s not a standby ticket, it’s a ticket that you can book at any time during the sales period…we will sell you the best available seat at that time. £10. Any seat. Any time.” 16,000 young people have already attended the opera through this scheme, and Ireland is keen to point out that the proportion of their audience aged under 26 has risen to nine percent.
Scottish Opera has identified that there are two main barriers preventing younger members of their potential audience from attending the opera: price, and the perception that it is elitist. Ireland states: “We thought, if we can do something about price, and if we can do something about this perception that it’s not for them, then hopefully we can increase the number of young people attending the opera…we see that as the future of our audience. If you don’t bring in people while they’re young and give them an introduction to opera, then as they get older, they don’t have any connection to it.” This idea of connecting with people who haven’t previously experienced opera lies at the heart of Scottish Opera’s outreach approach.
Ireland speaks enthusiastically about another innovative scheme they’ve been pursuing, Opera unwrapped. “This is an hour-long taster session focused on reducing barriers; if people feel anxious about the outlay of a ticket price for something that they don’t know anything about, they have the opportunity to see if they like it, and see if they want to buy a ticket…we give them a behind the scenes version for an hour, and we try very hard to find ways of connecting people to the story, or to the music, by not using jargon”. She points out that this isn’t just for young people, but presents an unthreatening way into the art form for those older people who may not have tried it yet.
There are clearly a great many other factors that determine the number of young people in the audience of an opera. As with any performance, the programme will have a big effect on the audience that the show attracts. A Mozart opera with hummable tunes tends to sell more seats than an atonal Berg opera with lots of death and suicide. So is there a chance that the desire to reach out to a younger audience might influence artistic values, that a company might choose to put on less challenging repertoire that may be more accessible for newcomers? Ireland is adamant: “What we’re not doing is putting on specific productions for young people. We’re saying “Here’s what we do. We really want you young people to engage with it, so come and see it…and we’re trying to put it at a price which means that price isn’t the barrier to you coming to see it.’” This notion that appealing to the audience doesn’t need to equate to a shift in artistic priorities is echoed by the tenor Nicky Spence (Tamino in the recent production of The Magic Flute): “We don’t have to dumb it down or anything…all of the passion and the drugs, the sex and everything else is already in the story… it’s just great that young people get to see it and decide whether they fancy it or not.”
But the production values of Scottish Opera’s run of The Magic Flute have certainly helped it sell. It strikes a tone that’s far from stuffy, with a quirky steampunk set, and an English libretto adapted by comedian Kit Hesketh-Harvey that contains plenty of innuendo. The audience are drawn into Pappageno’s agonising as he makes quips about finding a Pappagena in the Edinburgh audience. Their willingness to laugh and identify with the characters onstage is one of the reasons the dialogue flies. Perhaps this has something to do with the large number of young people in the audience? Judging from laughter at the quips about the Queen of the Night, it seems plausible that a change in audience demographic can have an effect on the operatic experience. As Spence puts it, “They laugh more at the dirty jokes”.
So have Scottish Opera found the solution to the perennial problem of the ageing audience? Well, they seem to be ahead of the game as far as their particular market is concerned. What they have is a ferocious understanding of their target audience, underpinned by a genuine love – and respect – for the art form. Ireland comes up with a particularly fitting analogy when talking about changing people’s perception of opera. “You don’t come out of a film and go “I hate film”, you go “I didn’t like that film”. Sometimes with opera, people come out saying “Opera isn’t for me’”, when what they really mean is “That opera isn’t for me”.” It seems then, that breaking down barriers is the key to getting more people into the opera house.
Scottish Opera is currently performing Little Ulla at Eastwood Park Theatre before launching its Opera Highlights season and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in January 2013. For more information visit www.scottishopera.org.uk.
Image credit: Richard Campbell