Do you want to know why young people don’t love opera? Really? Why they don’t go no matter how prettily you stage Wagner? Lean in. We can whisper it sotto voce, all molto allegro: it’s because they’ve never liked the opera itself that much.
No, really. Young people were not fundamentally more tasteful or smarter or gifted with prodigious attention spans 200 years ago.
While it’s probably a mistake to think of human history as an elaborate costume party, as a general rule, in any age, young people like places where they can wear less clothing than usual and have a higher than average likelihood of having sex. This explains why Marquee keeps packing people in (and nightclubs still would even if they all decided to only play Puccini), and the Met, alas, does not.
Opera houses did pack young people in, once. But that’s just because opera houses were the hot club of the 19th century.
Of course, the way Struldbergs insist on disguising themselves means that we can’t ask many people from the 19th century their feelings on opera in its heyday. Fortunately, we have some little books to draw from, like War and Peace, the main thesis of which is “opera is so freaking lame, you guys.” Natasha—a young woman and, debatably, the heroine of the novel—attends her first opera and reflects:
It was so pretentiously false and unnatural that she first felt ashamed for the actors and then amused at them. She looked at the faces of the audience, seeking in them the same sense of ridicule and perplexity she herself experienced, but they all seemed attentive to what was happening on the stage, and expressed delight, which to Natasha seemed feigned. "I suppose it has to be like this!" she thought. She kept looking round in turn at the rows of pomaded heads in the stalls and then at the seminude women in the boxes, especially at Helene in the next box, who—apparently quite unclothed—sat with a quiet tranquil smile.
Dude. She’s quite unclothed. The important part of this isn’t that Natasha realizes her peers are just pretending to be delighted by the opera, it’s that La Belle Helene is quite unclothed. There seems like a possibility that the beautiful seminude opera-going ladies in Tolstoy’s time might have been a draw for some men. No. No, maybe young men were just there because “Dit-moi que je suis belle” is like a shot of heroin right to their hearts.
Spoiler: they weren’t. And Edith Wharton is on that like The New York Times! She describes men going to the opera, circa 1870 in The Age of Innocence by saying:
“When Newland Archer opened the door at the back of the opera the curtain had just gone up on the garden scene. There was no reason why the young man should have come earlier … New York was a metropolis, and perfectly aware that in metropolises it was “not the thing” to arrive early at the opera. … (the boxes always stopped talking during the daisy song)… all the carefully crushed, white-waistcoated, button-holed flowered gentlemen who succeeded one another in the club box, exchanged friendly greetings with him and turned their opera-glasses critically on the circle of ladies who were a product of the system.”
Well, any club promoter can tell you, first you get the models, and then you get the bankers.
And those waistcoated men fell uncharacteristically silent for one song. Try to imagine a 21st century person’s reaction to going to a movie where the audience was silent only for one scene. It’s unimaginable. Or it’s imaginable, but in the way the apocalypse is imaginable. Though when you take that people were talking throughout into account, it explains why operas’ librettos tend to repeat the same point an average of 20 times.
The chatter was aggravating to some people at the time, too, but only people who authors wanted you to know were awful. In Where Angels Fear To Tread, upon attending a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor one irritatingly moral character tries shushing everyone around her—and they “were quiet, not because it is wrong to talk during a chorus, but because it is natural to be civil to a visitor.”
When the Civic opera house—now The Lyric—opened in Chicago in 1929, it was considered shocking that the boxes faced towards the stage, rather than forming a horseshoe pattern. That meant that people in boxes would actually have to watch the opera, rather than waving to their friends and strolling around to talk to them.
So, it all really fell apart when wealthy young men stopped being able to walk around talking to eligible semi-nude women. Especially because that really diminished the likelihood of having super-hot affairs with them.
In Madame Bovary, Emma Bovary rebounds from her last failed relationship almost immediately after meeting her old acquaintance Leon at a local opera production of Lucia di Lammermoor (it was a hot ticket of the day). Leon thinks the opera is terrible, but praises it as soon as Madame Bovary reveals she likes it—because she loves romance novels (if it strikes you that “disliking opera” is a shorthand for a 19th author proving a young character’s intellect, it’s because that’s a thing that keeps happening.) Then they have sex. In a carriage. For an entire day.
The last good piece of media propaganda the opera had was suggesting that if you go, you might see Richard Gere hold Julia Roberts’s hand while she wears a red ballgown. That is nothing compared to suggesting that if you go to the opera, you will soon be having 12 hours of sex in moving vehicles.
Even Natasha, who thought the opera was absurd, is seduced by the dashing, married spendthrift Anatole while attending. She proceeds to have a tryst with him. Not in a carriage, though. Why? Because she’s a lady. And, of course, the opera is where Newland Archer first spies Ellen Olenska, who he then obsesses about for the rest of his life.
All this seems obviously superior to “watching Wagner in silence behind very elderly, very clothed people who are slowly falling asleep.” At least, superior in a passionate way, obviously not superior in a “longevity” way. Or a “well rested” way, if that’s your thing.
Of course, there is still a group of young people who do love and attend the opera, but they tend to be the kind of oddball young people who quote Tolstoy to prove their points. That is to say: they’re young people who have a sneaking suspicion that they might have an easier time getting laid in a prior era. And if you gave them the option of attending the opera now or attending it during its prime? Most would opt for the prime years.
It will be a similarly grim but determined group who will insist on hanging out in the joyless 22nd-century imitation of Marquee. They’ll drink vodka tonics reverently, and, like Richard Gere’s character in the Traviata scene of Pretty Women, turn to a 22nd-century woman and say, “People’s first reaction to Far East Movement is very dramatic. They either love it or they hate it. If they love it, they will always love it. If you don’t love ‘Like a G6’ immediately, you may learn to appreciate it, but it will never become part of your soul.”
And yes, maybe they will be sincere about that, or as sincere as they can be. But being there, and being reverent, won’t be anywhere as enjoyable as it would have been in the time when it was designed to be taken less seriously, and, in essence, just be more fun. And, to paraphrase that musical genius of our time, Cyndi Lauper, young people just want to have fun.