Culture | Electric aria

Examining the age divide in opera

Among young people today, there is popular consensus that the opera is a staid tradition compared with more current forms of entertainment, such as dubstep concerts and drunken hookups. However, the Committee of Young Associates of Opéra de Montréal (YAC) is challenging this view with their new, yet somewhat incomplete agenda to reach out to a more diverse audience. Formed in 2009, their mission is to both maintain and widen opera audiences, and in particular to enhance the appeal of opera to the younger generation. However, it seems that their definition of “young people” is narrower than one might think. The YAC is looking to engage mostly “young professionals,” with the accent on professional, like lawyers, accountants, bankers, entrepreneurs, and doctors in Montreal. The YAC’s main activities include frequent “Opera Cocktails” and an annual ball, seeking to raise much-needed funds for the opera.

Aside from these cocktail nights, according to Jean-François Séguin, founder and president of the YAC, the committee hopes to promote the enticing nature of opera through other events such as their annual ball, to be held March 15 at Place des Arts. The theme for March is based on the movie Dead Man Walking, and includes an even bigger party with DJs and typical house music interrupted by bursts of opera singing. Séguin emphasizes that this is an attempt to “take young people by surprise” and convince them that opera is a truly fascinating, “eclectic” art. The combination of opera and house struck me as somewhat over the top, like a desperate attempt to attract the attention of young people by sneaking opera through the back door.

While he stressed how essential it is for “young people” to get involved with this art, the emphasis of the effort is directed mostly at accomplished professionals, rather than students, or the rest of the young population. This is because, unlike London, Paris, and New York, Montreal does not have a strong tradition of upper-middle-class support for the opera. Opéra de Montréal has relied on donations from wealthy individuals and corporations, like the Bronfman Foundation and Fasken Martineau (where Séguin is an associate lawyer), but they are looking to engage ‘Generation Y’ as patrons in order to preserve the institution in the city. In spite of this, while they may have succeeded in making the opera aesthetically pleasing to the younger generation, these “opera cocktails” and the YAC’s other promotional events do not reach out to all of Generation Y, largely due to their cost ($80 for the “Opera Cocktails” and up to $125 for the ball). Thus, the YAC is continuing to reach out primarily to the more affluent and prosperous “young people” of Montreal, perpetuating opera’s image as an elitist artistic tradition.

Nevertheless, starting this year, Séguin describes how the Young Associates have initiated a membership program for only $25 per year, inexpensive compared to some opera patron programs like a similar program at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Unfortunately, the Committee does not offer a direct discount on tickets for young people. In fact, the only institutions actually looking to reduce opera ticket fees for young people are the corporate sponsors, such as TD Bank, which supports a special program for 18- to 30-year-olds that reduces the price of a single ticket to $30 from $50 or more, if they subscribe to a minimum of two operas per season.

To be fair, the Young Associates Committee has fulfilled their goal of increasing attendance among young people. Since their founding in 2009, the YAC has made substantial progress, with 20 to 30 per cent of people returning to the opera every time, and a significant increase in youth subscriptions. In this short time the associates have raised over $100,000. While it is essential that we recognize that performing arts like the opera greatly rely on donations from affluent patrons, in order to further their agenda, the Young Associates must also look to capture the interest and engage the younger generation as a whole, instead of narrowing their focus to professionals alone. This is crucial if they hope to preserve enthusiasm for the Opéra de Montréal in the future.

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