Saturday, 7 March 2020

What if one likes broccoli?

A few weeks ago, I came across an advertising campaign of Folkoperan (Stockholm, Sweden) called “Broccoli vs. Opera”. The idea behind it is that the only think children dislike more than opera is broccoli. Thus, when having to choose between the two… they´ll go for the lesser of two evils.

The campaign irritated me. The prejudiced assumptions behind it irritated me. The way many in the classical music world avoid addressing the real barriers, the ones raised by them, upsets me. Do you remember the “Classical Cannabis: the high note series” promoted by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra back in 2014? That sort of thing… Anything but trying to understand better what is keeping people, of all ages, away. Perhaps because a better understanding would require action; and change.

I´ve written before on this blog about the attitudes that help reinforce the idea many people have of the negative elitism of the classical music world. The one that strives to maintain an exclusive space for exclusive audiences, where one is not truly welcome unless they succumb to the “etiquette”. I am thinking of the La Scala (Milan, Italy) refusing to admit people wearing T-shirts on warm days or the Gulbenkian Foundation preaching respect for the silence (AKA “don’t cough”) – one reads on the Foundation’s website that this is how the audience should help to make a concert “memorable” and to create an environment of demand and devotion. More recently, a colleague drew my attention to the Musikverein’s (Vienna, Austria) dress code: “…many of our visitors sense that a certain elegance is suited to the ambience of the Musikverein. For this reason we welcome and request that visitors dress accordingly”. Look how “many visitors” define how the clothes one wears define the enjoyment of a concert…

Due to its own special kind of “love of self”, the classical music world remains highly excluding. Avoiding broccoli and smoking marijuana will not solve the situation. There are orchestras, ensembles, concert halls and theatres around the world that feel a bit more restless, that truly wish to share the enjoyment of their art. They try to understand who the people they wish to engage with are, what keeps them away and what kind of bridges they can build.

Dave M. Benett Getty Images
Back in 2012, the English National Opera realised, through audience research, that “What should I wear?” was a major issue for many people. The campaign “ENO say Undress” aimed at informing people that they could come dressed as they liked. This was part of a larger initiative, still happening today, called “Opera Undressed”, that aims at giving people who never went to the opera house a taste of what that is. At a significantly lower price, people get a good seat, a pre-performance talk together with an outline of the opera’s story and 50% discount for future performances. It was also audience research that orientated their decision making regarding their rebranding in 2017, their objectives being to become more accessible, related to new audiences and… let people know that operas were sung in English.

When Aubrey Bergauer took over the California Symphony, she also started by asking questions. Her survey “Orchestra X” revealed things such as “The problem is not the repertoire, it’s the experience”; “the symphony’s website felt like insider baseball”; “you need a PhD to understand the technical descriptions of the music”. Bergauer has now moved on to a different organisation, but, through her work, she managed to create a totally different relationship between some people and classical music. She has also left the "Newcomer’s guide", which may be extremely helpful for many other venues around the world.

There’s more, of course. The Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment, Classical Revolution (Chamber Music for the People), The Multi-Story Orchestra have helped redefine the experience of listening to classical music, be it at a pub or a car park. The Multi-Story Orchestra has just announced a new drama, “The Endz”, in collaboration with pupils from Harris Academy Peckham (south London), that will bring gang culture to the stage. But also in Portugal, we have been following the initiatives of maestro Martim Sousa Tavares (this year he takes classical music to Lux-Frágil in Lisbon, in addition to his work with the Orchestra without Borders); the projects of the Orquestra de Câmara Portuguesa; the work of Catarina Molder, which includes the programme Super Diva - Ópera for All.

These organisations, these artists, don’t wish to keep their art to themselves and a few more people, they want to share it widely. The barriers are many and change has to come from within. The motto could change to “Simply enjoy the music”.

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