Bankruptcies, deficits, cancellations. The headlines say it all: classical music is in trouble.
The problem is easy to identify: costs are rising faster than receipts. Following an economic squeeze going back to the 1990s and beyond, classical music now finds itself facing a perfect storm of challenges: a sour economy, aging audiences, declining attendance, dwindling endowments and sagging philanthropy.
“It’s not the same thing as it was ten years ago when the money was flowing,” said Guillermina Gonzalez, executive of the Delaware Arts Alliance. “Now funders are asking for a demonstration of mission statements, in other words, whether the outcomes are related to the mission.”
Classical music is probably the one art form least able to weather an economic downturn. Fixed costs are high and economies of scale are hard to come by. “The arts live so close to the edge that when something does go wrong, it can make a big mess very quickly,” said David Amado, music director of the Delaware Symphony Orchestra which had to cancel its 2012-13 season due to financial constraints.
(UPDATE: The Delaware Symphony Orchestra announced August 6 that it plans to have a limited 2012-2013 season starting with a Chamber Series in October 2012 and continue in 2013 with a yet-to-be determined Classical Series.)
Aggravating the situation is the increased competition for ears and attention. Classical music is losing its unrivaled position at the top of the musical spectrum to popular world artists who are introducing Western audiences to classical music from a myriad of cultures. In addition, indie acts like Bjork and Sigur Ros have co-opted opera’s dramatic thunder, making a claim on that audience.
Robert Grenfell of the Frist State Ballet Theatre and Guillermina Gonzalez of the Delaware Arts Alliance discuss issues facing arts organizations in a struggling economy.
Technology is also whittling away at audiences, making it possible for them to experience high-caliber performances without having to leave their homes. The demand is still high but consumption patterns have changed. A 2010 report by the National Endowment for the Arts found that over half of all U.S. adults participate in the arts through electronic and digital media. “Even hockey teams are having trouble getting people to fill the arena, because they can sit at home with a bottle of beer and a bowl of potato chips and a big-screen TV and have a better seat than they can get in the arena,” said Robert Grenfell, executive director of First State Ballet.
No one expects classical music to disappear but experts agree that the field must undergo an extensive transformation to bring audiences back to the concert halls. Indeed, a crisis can sometimes act as an incubator for innovation and experimentation.
“There is a sense of being willing to not know and not to be sure you know and to explore different ways of meeting (the audience’s and the community’s) needs,” said John Thomas Dodson, music director of the Adrian Symphony located in southern Michigan. Dodson has led the small orchestra to success and solvency by attracting audiences with unique programs, collaborations and a more welcoming atmosphere at the concert hall.
“People want a social experience they can’t get from listening to an iPod,” he said.
Performing-arts organizations in Delaware are exploring these options as well. ClassicAlive! events at World Café Live allow patrons to enjoy classical music in the informal setting of The Queen in Wilmington. The series is presented under the auspices of LiveConnections, a nonprofit organization that partners with artists, schools and community organizations. The programs provide a comfortable entry point for the novice into what can be a daunting experience.
“If (someone) likes what we do at World Café Live and the environment there, he’s much more likely to be open to try classical music than if he went to The Grand and the guy next to him fell asleep on his shoulder because his wife made him go,” said World Café Live president Hal Real who also co-founded LiveConnections. “Liszt and Haydn often presented their works at beer halls.”
OperaDelaware takes the same approach with its popular Studio Series which presents cabaret-style opera at its rehearsal studios on the Riverfront. “The great thing I stepped into in Wilmington is that they’ve already realized the need for multiple entry points,” said Brendan Cooke, newly installed executive director of OperaDelaware. “This kind of performance is very easy to see because whereas you might not be able to convince someone to go to the opera house, you might be able to get someone to hear the music in its undiluted form but in an informal setting.”
First State Ballet has introduced its art to audiences at the Wilmington Fringe Festival. “I worried about not being ‘fringe-y’ enough but people said we were the ‘fringiest’ thing in the festival,” said Grenfell.
Organizations are also pursuing partnerships and collaborations, often at the behest of benefactors. “Some of that is almost forced through necessity,’ said Stephen Bailey, executive director of The Grand Opera House. “I don’t think—I absolutely know—that the funders’ mantra now is the need to get more mileage out of their contributions and the way you do that is you don’t repeat or duplicate programs.”
That principle led Bailey to drop most touring orchestras from The Grand’s schedule. “My thinking was with David Amado coming to town and with the talent of that orchestra—especially under David—they were really presenting a product on that stage that in my mind meant we didn’t have to satisfy a void,” he said.
The Grand is also partnering with OperaDelaware to bring Gilbert & Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore” to Wilmington in February. “The Grand will keep the money but allow us to include the opera in our subscription,” said Lee Kimball, who recently retired as OperaDelaware’s executive director. “That collaboration will allow us to expand our season but without the risk.”
Last season the company joined forces with Philadelphia’s prestigious Academy of Vocal Arts to stage a concert version of Verdi’s opera “Omberto.” “That was another way we could do a production and offer it to our audiences without the cost of building an entire opera from scratch,” said Kimball.
Bud Martin, the newly installed executive director of the Delaware Theatre Company, is exploring the possibility of working with the Delaware Symphony Orchestra when he stages the musical “My Fair Lady” next spring. “When I said I wanted to put on a big musical, people said ‘How can we afford to do that?” he said. “I said ‘How can we afford not to?’”
Martin is also partnering with the Delaware Valley chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association for the company’s fall production of “The Outgoing Tide,” a play about one family’s experience with the degenerative disease. “We can benefit from their reference base,” he said. “And our show will be a fundraiser for them.”