An Unlikely Youth Revolution at the Paris Opera

A scene from Romeo Castellucci’s production of Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aron” at the Paris Opera in 2015. The company’s 2018-19 season is part of a long-term focus on theatricality.

PARIS — The Paris Opera usually invites only journalists to the news conferences where it unveils its coming plans. But last month, as it announced a boldly ambitious 2018-19 season, the company brought in 200 people under the age of 28 to the event at the Palais Garnier here.

This was not just for show. It was a dramatic way of highlighting the Paris Opera’s extraordinary success in attracting younger audiences. According to the company, it had 95,000 audience members younger than 28 last season — more than 10 percent of tickets sold and 30,000 more than just two years before.

The company, which celebrates its 350th birthday next year, is an unlikely contradiction to the worldwide trend of an aging audience at operas. The average age of an audience member in Paris is 45 — 48 for the opera, 43 for the ballet — compared with 58 at the Metropolitan Opera and 54 at the Staatsoper in Berlin. The largest segment of the Houston Grand Opera’s audience is between 65 and 72.

When Stéphane Lissner was appointed as the Paris Opera’s general director in 2014, he set about implementing measures focused on fostering younger attendance.

“The absolute enemy of any opera is routine,” said Mr. Lissner — who, for the record, is 65. “You have to find your public by taking risks.”

Building on two existing programs that gave discounts to young ticket buyers and bringing in new sources of individual donations, foundation funds and corporate sponsorship, Mr. Lissner established preview performances for people younger than 28. The tickets to these cost 10 euros and now account for 30,000 seats each season.

Mr. Lissner said that 56 percent of people attending these previews, financed by the BNP Paribas Foundation, were first-time operagoers. On top of this, four performances each year, with inexpensive tickets, are designed for families new to the opera.

Last year Thibaud Freund, 27, and his wife, Léa Sowinski, 26, went to the opera and ballet — Paris unites the two in a single organization — five times, two of which were under-28 preview performances. They said that the company’s discount programs allowed them to attend more than they otherwise could.

“You have to be very reactive to get hold of a limited number of places,” Mr. Freund said. “What’s interesting, though, is that the seats are not in a single section. You might find yourself in the Orchestra or the Dress Circle, which would generally be out of our price range.”

Ms. Sowinski pointed to the increasing innovation of the productions, particularly for the ballet. “The sets are more modern,” she said, “and also the dances, which now often use electronic music.”

In 2015, the company, with funding from Swarovski and individual donors, began producing edgy short films and marketing them online as the “3e Scène”; the name refers to the digital space as a “third stage” in addition to Paris’s other two, the 19th-century Palais Garnier and the newer Opéra Bastille. About 50 films have been produced so far, and they have been viewed nearly 3 million times.

Among the most popular has been “Nephtali,” directed by the American animator Glen Keane, who came to Paris to make a study of a young ballet dancer. “Figaro,” a short black-and-white film by Bret Easton Ellis and inspired by “The Barber of Seville,” is about a hunky opera singer who loses his voice and recovers it after a night of freewheeling debauchery. The young filmmaker Clément Cogitore combined music from Rameau’s Baroque opera “Les Indes Galantes” with footage of krump, a style of hip-hop dance. (Mr. Cogitore will direct “Les Indes Galantes” onstage next year.)

He joins Ivo van Hove, Romeo Castellucci and Krzysztof Warlikowski, to name just a few of a vibrant slate of directors. The company’s 2018-19 season is part of a long-term focus on theatricality.

“What I think was a mistake at the opera was for many years to persist with a number of productions which were locked into purely vocal performance,” Mr. Lissner said. “Today’s spectators are looking for more than that. They want to experience something theatrical as well. That’s what brings young people to the opera.”

As part of the celebrations of its 350th anniversary and the efforts to expand its audience, the Paris Opera has formed its first partnerships with other major French cultural institutions, including the Musée d’Orsay, the Pompidou Center and the National Library of France. The exhibition “Degas à l’Opéra” will open at the Musée d’Orsay in September 2019 and travel to the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

“For the Degas exhibition alone, I hope there’ll be about 700,000 to 800,000 visitors,” Mr. Lissner said. “We believe that it and other exhibitions will help the Paris Opera to be considered by people who are more accustomed to visiting museums.”

Paris is not the only success story: 39 percent of those booking tickets at the Royal Opera in London are now 40 or younger. But the challenge worldwide grows ever starker as companies attempt to secure audiences who are approaching opera — if they approach it at all — with ever less familiarity.

Matthias Schulz, 40, the incoming general director of the Staatsoper Berlin, acknowledged that one of the biggest obstacles needing to be overcome to attract more young people to the opera is “to work on reducing this fear there is of entering an ivory tower.”

“Prejudices,” he added in an email, “arise, as many young people are simply not familiar with opera and classical music and have nobody who can introduce them to this art form.”

That is why Mr. Schulz, who begins his tenure in April, plans to introduce an Opernkinderorchester (Opera Children’s Orchestra) in cooperation with music schools across Berlin. The first concert will take place on the company’s main stage next year. He also plans to create a so-called opera reporter program for teenagers, who will be taken behind the scenes of rehearsals and performances and be allowed to report on them.

“Of course we are hoping to spark their passion for opera and for them to become advocates within their peer group,” Mr. Schulz said.

Mr. Lissner said he was happy that in Emmanuel Macron, France now has a young president who is a confirmed classical music lover — not always the case with his recent predecessors. Mr. Macron, who received a diploma in piano studies, has spoken in interviews of his admiration for Rossini, Bach and Schumann (though he has yet to attend the Paris Opera during his presidency).

“It creates a certain élan,” Mr. Lissner said, and referred to the terrorist attacks in Paris a few years ago. “We lived through some tragic events in 2015, but I think the country is beginning to get back on its feet again. We have a president who has made it very clear that he wants the country’s institutions to reform themselves, the opera included. I think that can only be a good thing.”

“We have to progress,” he added. “It’s our obligation.”

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