A new, young audience finds inspiration in the multifaceted world of classical music.
By the time of the final act of "Dog Days," a post-apocalyptic new opera composed by former rock drummer David T. Little, there is minimal food and no water left in the American heartland. So the star soprano uses her urine to wash the naked body of a recently deceased woman, a protracted ritual made even more unnerving by the surgically bright stage lights and an angry, industrial hum, slowly mounting in volume. As other members of her family stumble back onstage, covered in blood from what is understood to be their first act of animalistic survival, the hideous drone hits full blast, causing many in the audience to cover their ears along with their eyes.
Opera has always had its mad scenes, suicides and she-made-me-do-it murders, but "Dog Days" uses a dystopian vision to prompt some gloves-off social commentary, more akin to Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" or Nine Inch Nails' "Year Zero" than anything in the operatic canon.
If the sold-out audience at Montclair (N.J.) State University, where the piece made its world premiere on Sept. 29, looked as if it had been bused in from cooler environs, it's because it was: Producer Peak Performances arranged for a charter bus from a Brooklyn bar, bringing 50 locals to the hilly New Jersey outpost. Hipsters with tattoos and goths in bondage gear sat alongside cool grandmas and bookish music students. Together, they gave "Dog Days" a standing ovation.
The classical music world -- from local orchestras to artists to music labels -- has long been obsessed with youth, looking for new fans young enough to keep the genre alive as its core supporters hit their twilight years. Social media outreaches and young-patron programs are parts of any entity's marketing plan.
"There's a ton of attention paid in classical to getting a young audience," says Melissa Smey, executive director of Columbia University Arts, including the campus' Miller Theater. "It's almost a fetishization, like that's the thing we should aspire to above everything else."
But figures like Little, and 31-year-old Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel -- classically trained, but with other genres from rock to Latin in their blood -- are bridging a gap not only between the classical world and young fans, but potential converts of all ages whose interests might not include chamber music or Italian arias.
"There's a whole world of people we'd like to get to come to the opera," says Elena Park, assistant manager of creative content for New York's Metropolitan Opera. "It's not in the mainstream; neither is classical music. So there's a tremendous potential audience of people who consider themselves culturally aware but don't necessarily go to the opera."
To better reach that target group, the Met recently announced a collaboration with Le Poisson Rouge, a New York music club in the heart of Greenwich Village. The intimate, independent space hosts well-curated live acts from Purity Ring to Tori Amos, and has established itself as an alternative venue for classical performances: Decca Records has hosted many album release showcases there, for artists like soprano Danielle de Niese and guitarist Milos.
"The impetus was twofold," Park says of the LPR program, which she spearheaded. "Artistic, of course, and to support a goal [Met GM] Peter Gelb has of reaching new audiences and not just sitting passively at the Met to get them to come here: Doing things out in their own spaces to entice them back to the Met, and to have a greater appreciation for classical music."
Gelb's boldest initiative of this type is the Met's "Live in HD" program, which brings high-definition broadcasts of its lavish stage productions to 1,900 movie theaters worldwide through Fathom Events. Just 5 years old, it's already a resounding success: In the 2011 fiscal year, the program racked $11 million in profits, and helped bolster the Met's biggest fund-raising year in its history, which had a record $182 million in donations.
"It's brilliant," Smey says of the program. "Everyone goes to the movies, but not everyone goes to the opera. Putting it into a format where people are comfortable and can sit and have their popcorn makes the entire experience more accessible. Then maybe you buy a ticket and go to the 3,800-seat palace of [the Metropolitan Opera House] -- hopefully you've made a connection that helps you make that jump."
The Met's two evenings at LPR (more could be in the pipeline, according to Park) might be the geo-targeted version of the movie theater program, crafted specifically for taste-making downtown New Yorkers. Stand-alone events in their own right, they'll effectively serve as teasers for new operas by young composers at the Met itself.
On Oct. 26, "An Evening With Thomas Ades & the Tempest" will feature excerpts from the new Shakespearean opera -- currently being performed at the Met -- and other works that inspired it, selected by 41-year-old composer Ades and performed by Met singers, accompanied by Ades at the piano. In May 2013, the similarly structured "An Evening With Nico Muhly" will feature the 31-year-old composer-who happens to live near the venue -- also on piano, and will time with the Met's fall premiere of his new opera, "Two Boys."
Out west, the L.A. Philharmonic is "in a very healthy position," VP of artistic planning Chad Smith says, behind inventive events at its two eye-popping venues, the Hollywood Bowl and the Walt Disney Theater, and music director Dudamel, a magnetic and popular figure who's even sat on the couch at "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."
"You always hear that question: 'What's on your iPod?'" Smith says. "On his is everything, and the programming is reflective of that."
The Phil's strategy is to "aim at different niches," Smith says. "We're not for this one audience. If we're doing our jobs right, we're for dozens of audiences."
That's taken the form of joint concerts with bands like Grizzly Bear, the National and Dirty Projectors, and festivals that celebrate everything from minimalism (the Orb opened the proceedings), to music from the Americas (curated by Dudamel and featuring a performance by Colombian superstar Juanes), to the burgeoning artistic hotbed of Brooklyn.
Behind all the newness, Smith says, is a dedication to what is still the classical canon. "A large part of what we do is the core repertoire -- not out of obligation but because it's amazing music," he says. "The Mahler cycle, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Bach. [The other events] are not a right turn from that, but to fill out our season with other programmatic offerings that might appeal to new people."
Old cohabitating with new-"an art form so bound by tradition," according to Park, becoming more open and nimble and record fund-raising? If classical music is dying, it looks remarkably healthy.
"It's an amazing time to be in classical," Smey says. "Things are good."