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The ageless audience

Times Staff Writer

The AUDIENCE for live classical music, theater and dance is, like, dying -- OMG! They’re sitting in the dark in the concert hall or theater, aging so fast that their gray hair will be white by intermission. And someday soon, the last of the bunch -- a doddering sourpuss who writes letters to his local newspaper with a fountain pen -- will keel over in his velvet seat, done in by the effort of yelling “Brava!” at a plus-sized soprano.

Although performing arts professionals don’t envision the problem in quite such drastic terms, it’s generally accepted that the audience for live performing arts is aging at an alarming rate -- and, to paraphrase the prehistoric rock band Led Zeppelin, soon to buy a stairway to heaven.

But like any other panic-inducing assumption, the “graying audience” theory bears examining, much as did the widely quoted -- and since disproved -- “fact” from a 1986 Newsweek article that a single woman over 35 is less likely to get married than to be attacked by terrorists. (Well, at least the poor thing has tickets to the symphony.)

Is it true? Is the audience for live performance really aging, dying and disappearing, never to be replaced? And who is that audience, exactly?

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As with the statistic about single women and terrorists, it would be nice to be able to say that the aging of the performing arts audience is a false assumption. The numbers, however, say it’s not.

But most performing arts professionals say there’s a lot of gray area -- no pun intended -- in this conversation. And most can offer compelling reasons why texting an obituary for live performing arts may be highly premature.

Deborah Borda, president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn., has been hearing the alarms for decades. “When I first started in the business, they said, ‘The audience is going to be all old people,’ ” says Borda, who was formerly executive director of the New York Philharmonic and before that held leadership positions with orchestras in San Francisco, Detroit and St. Paul, Minn. “But if you look at the statistics kept by the American Symphony Orchestra League, you’ll see that concert attendance is up throughout the United States. And if you look at the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall, we’re averaging 92% attendance.”

Borda has more reason to be thinking about youth than most: The Philharmonic recently hired Venezuelan wunderkind Gustavo Dudamel to take over as music director in 2009, replacing 50-year-old Esa-Pekka Salonen. Dudamel is 12. Oops, sorry, he’s 27; must be the progressive lenses.

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Gray springs eternal

Nice TO hear from Borda that more people are showing up at American orchestra halls. But who’s in that growing audience, exactly?

Well, quite a few gray-haired folks, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. Sunil Iyengar, the endowment’s director of research, reports that in 1982, the average age of those attending a classical music performance was 40; in 2002, it was 49. He says a similar increase has occurred in the audience for plays and musicals, ballet and jazz concerts.

True, Iyengar adds, the median age of the general population is creeping up as well: It was 40 in 1982 and had reached 45 by 2002. Still, that average is not increasing as fast as the age of the performing arts audience. “You are not seeing a 1-to-1 ratio,” Iyengar says. “Even in jazz, that typically has the lowest median audience age of all the art forms -- in 1982, the median age was 29, and in 2002 it was 43.”

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Even so, representatives of such organizations also offer compelling reasons why seeing gray hair -- or, at least, gray roots -- in the audience is (a) nothing new and (b) not necessarily a cause for panic, because, at least so far, there has always been “new gray” waiting in the wings to replace the old.

“A colleague of mine says the audience isn’t graying -- it’s always been gray,” says Teresa Eyring, executive director of Theatre Communications Group, a national service organization for American nonprofit theaters.

Marc Scorca, president and chief executive of Opera America, a nonprofit service organization, grumbles that journalists who pontificate about the graying audience see more gray hair because they’ve been comped into the most expensive seats, the ones young adults can’t afford. “I always encourage photographers and writers to go upstairs and see who’s there,” Scorca observes.

That said, Scorca is among many who cite two logical reasons for a noticeable lack of young adults in all seats. Quite simply, ticket prices can be steep -- and even if they have the money, young people often don’t have the time. People in their 20s, he says, are late-night clubbing or off on ski weekends. The question for them is seldom, “Dude, where’s my ‘Carmen’?” And people in their 30s may be consumed with toddlers and careers.

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More highbrow entertainment doesn’t generally get on the agenda “until someone on this trajectory gets to be in their mid-40s, when the kids are old enough to leave on their own and the knees won’t take the skiing and they want to be home by 11 o’clock at night,” Scorca says.

And, despite all the hand-wringing over youth, performing arts organizations need patrons who have the time and wherewithal to commit to subscription packages instead of the last-minute single-ticket purchases favored by younger audiences. “It’s more expensive to sell single tickets,” says John Tavenner, director of marketing for Los Angeles Opera, because finding single-ticket buyers often involves display ads or radio or TV promotion instead of mailing or telemarketing to the usual subscription base.

Susan Medak, managing director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, notes that 20 years ago, busy parents were 20 to 40 years old. Now that group is aged 30 to 50 -- suggesting that those who are “too young” to have time for live performance are no spring chickens themselves.

Medak’s theater can boast success in attracting the youth audience. She says that for the last several years, 20% of Berkeley Rep’s single-ticket buyers have been under 30. Still, she points out that being older can deepen the theater experience. “While pop music and TV is really geared toward a specific generational moment, in theater, the older you get, the more points of entry you have to the material,” she says. “You have more life experience, and, frankly, more history of seeing other work that gives you a larger context.”

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Medak’s comment raises a notion that is less easily quantifiable than the age of the performing arts audience: Could part of the reason for the graying audience be that tastes actually change with age?

Jesse Rosen, executive vice president of the League of American Orchestras, recalls a conversation he had with the L.A. Philharmonic’s Salonen about the “life cycle phenomenon” that tends to affect attendance at live performances. “He used a wine analogy, that when you’re in college you drink Thunderbird at $2 a bottle, then you move up to Gallo, and when you are 40 or 50 you’re ready for a nice Bordeaux,” Rosen says.

There could be some scientific basis to such thinking, speculates USC music professor Bryan R. Simms. Although he disagrees with the notion that taste in the arts changes or “improves” with age, he says listening to classical music calls for a higher level of concentration than listening to pop. “Maybe a readiness to concentrate on music, or on anything else, increases with age, hence a susceptibility to the classics,” Simms says.

Keep the public interested

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Whether there is truth to such speculation, L.A. Opera’s Tavenner insists that it’s “overly optimistic” to expect that people will develop an interest in the performing arts simply as a function of age -- early exposure is still required. “I think the bulk of the audience is not going to appear magically like that, which is why performing arts organizations spend so much of their resources and time on education and community outreach,” he says.

That suggests that the real challenge of aging audiences may be not that they’ll die out but that they require specific marketing strategies. Audience development, Tavenner says, is not limited to the young. “We’re thrilled to be hip to 50-year-olds,” he says.

Rosen of the orchestra league says that as the world continues to present more entertainment options, performing arts organizations must struggle to keep up if they are to appeal to audiences of any age. “With so many more avenues and opportunities for people to spend their leisure time that are a lot easier than getting up and going to a concert, we can’t simply keep doing what we’ve been doing in the past,” he says.

“There’s an apocryphal story about the Boston Symphony: that up until the 1960s, they would send out a letter listing their repertoire, and, based on that, they sold out their series -- that was all that was necessary,” Rosen continues. “But we did some research five or six years ago about audience motivation that showed that today people come to a concert to be moved in some spiritual sense.”

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Not that symphony halls are encouraging baby boomers to wave cigarette lighters to Beethoven’s Ninth -- but for both the young and the “new gray,” Rosen says, the concert experience now has to be about something besides the music.

“They are also looking for something that is very human and personal that connects with them,” Rosen says. “Being moved emotionally and spiritually, the experience of being touched by live performance -- those are the messages.”

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diane.haithman@latimes.com

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