Why your opera house is half-empty, by Peter Sellars

Why your opera house is half-empty, by Peter Sellars


norman lebrecht

February 26, 2015

From an interview today in London wth Jessica Duchen:

Sellars: ‘You can’t sell out a season any more, in the concert hall, opera house or theatre, because the discretionary money that the middle class used to have has been eliminated and middle-class people are struggling.

‘I think it’s a very specific situation that only has to make us bolder – because, guess what, our survival is at stake. So the arts need to stand for something, at a time when we all need to stand for something; and the arts should be in the lead, not in the back.’

peter sellars


  • GEll says:

    “So the arts need to stand for something, like my hair, at a time when we all need to stand for something…” Sorry, couldn’t resist (-:

  • shenyeh says:

    Don’t quite agree with his statement. More people attend live concerts today than ever, just not for the performing arts. Ticket prices are far more expensive for pops performances than orchestra concerts. People are not poorer nor dumber. They just don’t want to spend money and time on things (even if fantastic things) that they don’t understand.

    • Maria Brewin says:

      “They just don’t want to spend money and time on things (even if fantastic things) that they don’t understand.”

      That’s assuming that there is something to understand in the first place. Maybe, just maybe, there isn’t anything there to understand, and they just see something which is pretentious and self indulgent, adding nothing whatsoever to the music.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Classical music has never been meant for the masses. With the increase of mass entertainment forms, on the surface it looks as if ‘the market’ is dominated by them, but classical music is an entirely different ‘market’. When general education is excluding the existence of artistic things, people who would have loved to go to concerts will have to find-out for themselves and that is a longer and more difficult trajectory, requiring more marketing efforts from orchestras, opera houses etc.

        And PS is a silly man with oldfashioned sixties ideas that are puerile, so he could not be expected to contribute very much to the survival of the art form.

      • shenyeh says:

        Well, seemly opposite of you, I believe in the intellectual beauty of all these high art forms, and I think if one indeed “gets it” for anyone of these art, one can become appreciative of it passionately like a sports fan. There is “something to understand”, and , unlike many powerful conductors, I believe it needs explanation for novices to understand and love, a very very hard thing to achieve in a market-wide scale, and we are doing a terribly at the moment.

  • David Rowe says:

    I have often wondered if at least part of the issue is there may be too much “inventory” in performing arts for market demand? Is it possible that there are actually more (or at least as many) people attending more classical music events than ever, but just spread out over a greater number of performances and thus many halls appear half-empty? Unfortunately there is not – to my knowledge – any strong data source to investigate this in depth. I think in the USA it is at least the case that orchestras tapped into NEA funding to expand greatly in the 1960s – 1980s, and quite possibly “overbuilt”? It was probably never necessary for every hamlet to have its own symphony orchestra, and this may have ultimately had the unintended consequence of diluting the audience across the board? Just asking…..

    • geoff radnor says:

      Finland has more symphony orchestras than many much more populace countries but I wouldn’t say that it has diluted the interest in and attendance at concerts. Any Fins wish to comment?

    • John Borstlap says:

      I am certain that this is indeed the case. In the sixties and seventies, when left-wing politics and lots of money was around, it was thought that classical music should be pushed down the throat of every working class brute. Look at the new concert halls which were built at the time… overblown, much too big for the repertoire, and now it is becoming hard to fill these immense halls.

    • JAMA11 says:

      Honolulu only had one symphony orchestra, and it went bankrupt. The same is true in other cities. The fact that there is also a symphony orchestra in Los Angeles doesn’t mean much to people in Honolulu. I would not say the market is saturated, other than in a few cities like New York, Boston, and San Francisco, although the arts organizations there are rarely in danger of running out of audiences.

  • Rob van der Hilst says:

    What about this: salarymodifications of a) overpaid jetlag-conductors, b) overpaid non-jetlag-conductors, c) overpaid jetlag-divas & d) overpaid non-jetlag-diva, e) overpaid jetleg-divos, f) overpaid non-jetlag-divos & last but not least g) overpaid general and nón-general managers.

    It can be done und must be done. 🙂

    • John Borstlap says:

      If orchestras and conductors would stay at home and cultivate their local audience, and only went out once in 3 years or so, classical music would bloom effortlessly. In short: going back to prewar conditions.

  • Martin H says:

    I don’t go to live concerts or operas so much anymore for one big reason: you keep playing the same damned music over and over. How many times do you think I want to hear the Brahms’ 2nd symphony, Carmen, or the Tchaikovsky violin concerto? Do you realize that Elgar wrote something other than the Enigma Variations? That Korngold, Schmidt, Zemlinsky, Schreker, Atterberg, Bax, and some others wrote symphonies just as thrilling and worth hearing as Mahler? Looking at the programming line up for American orchestras for the 2015/16 season is depressing – there’s little that I haven’t heard repeatedly. Play something different! I’ll go to my grave before a major orchestra has the guts to program the Balakirev 1st.

    • DLowe says:

      I think that’s a fair point, and certainly when going through the London orchestras’ season next year, my father ruled out virtually everything, because he had seen it so often. Exceptions – a Schnittke concerto, and a Korngold Concerto. Finances don’t allow him to go to things he knows well and has seen in the last few years.

      At the same time, Brahms, Tchaikovsky etc. are staples of Classical music and their works do deserve to be heard in concert…every five years. However, to be fair these are very different to the area which Sellars is talking about – good seats are the Barbican/Festival Hall cost about a quarter of their equivalents at the Royal Opera House/Colliseum.

      As a Londoner, I feel very privileged. The capital city allows us to hear rarities that we couldn’t hear elsewhere – the BBC SO is in a position where it can put on the slightly more obscure pieces, we have the Chelsea Opera Group and Opera Rara for rare operas. The conservatoires do a good mix of common and rare. The same for New Yorkers and others, I’d have thought.

      As for Peter Sellars, he’s exactly the kind of director that puts me off. When people have little money to spend, it’s a very bad idea as a director to do just whatever the hell you want. Appeal to the audience’s taste, for heaven’s sake. People have tired of pretentious stagings. To a certain extent, an element of “the customer is always right” needs to be in opera house administration.

  • Peter Freeman says:

    His assessment of politics seems to me to be accurate, but has it occurred to him that a large part of the many reasons why seats remain unsold might be the very reconstructionist and pretentious stagings such as he and others like him create?

  • Milka says:

    Mr.Sellars is fun ,to take him seriously is a mistake .Whatever he does or says he is not about anything except Peter Sellars , one can substitute “novelty “.He does prattle on
    and on saying nothing except that which may bolster whatever nonsense engages
    him at the moment . His work like all novelty for novelties sake is down the
    road of oblivion the moment of conception,but does for brief moment attract the unsuspecting .

  • Hudson Valley says:

    I hear this comment often, recently, that the middle class no longer has money to spend on the arts. Funny, many American families think nothing of shelling out, what? $350-400 for tickets to a football game for a family of four. Average ticket prices seem to be about $80 per person. A lot of middle-class folks are eating out at restaurants more than one night a week (and restaurants have gotten very expensive). And of course there always seems to be money for the endless upgrades of new electronic gadgets for everyone in the family. No, I don’t think that Sellars’s analysis is correct.

    During the 1930s in America, during the Great Depression, both popular culture AND the arts flourished. The reasons for opera house and concert halls’ struggles today are something else.

    • Milka says:

      The something else is “evolution ” There are many more interests “past times ” that require
      little or no effort and yield enough emotional returns to satisfy most needs . Past generations for the most part
      believed that to aspire to something better was part of the human condition ,to-day just
      getting through the day seems enough pressure for most , playing the piano, violin , etc.
      is no longer a necessity – records , cds etc. takes care of that, pianos ,grands of all types are
      daily carted off to the city dump ,violins have become collectors items, instead
      of playing musical instruments for personal pleasure youngsters play video games . Those that on odd occasions go to concerts are for the most part ignorant of the
      art .Every performing musician to-day gets a standing ovation- and as Martin H notes
      they play the same damned stuff over and over which downgrades the art even more .