The city’s increased wealth equals more ticket holders, but the higher cost of living puts the squeeze on musicians.

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Baritone Michael Heitmann sings with the Seattle Opera chorus and teaches in the opera’s education department. On the side, he presents casual recitals. And during lulls in his performance schedule, he sometimes drives for Uber.

His is the life of a classical musician in today’s world: social media draws people to his performances and helps him fill the gaps when he’s not singing for a living. Seattle’s tech-stoked economy ensures money for concert tickets, but it also raises the cost of living.

Heitmann is one example of how changes in Seattle are affecting the city’s classical-music world, for (mostly) better and for (some) worse.

Wider audiences, better funding

Seattle’s overall classical-music ecosystem is healthy, partly because groups have found ways to interest new patrons as the city has grown.

Orchestras and operas nationwide struggled through the 2000s, as audiences and revenues declined. Survivors learned valuable lessons, said Simon Woods, president and CEO of the Seattle Symphony. Playing the old standards to the same crowds was no longer enough; they had to get creative. “Seattle is a city that values innovation. Part of our strategy has been to do things that are a little bit different and take risks,” Woods said.

Now, Seattle audiences are growing, as are donor numbers: The number of households donating to the Seattle Symphony increased by about 50 percent over the past four years, although it’s hard to tell how much of that is coming from new residents.

The Seattle Opera, which has often run at a deficit, expects to balance expenses and revenues this season, partly due to careful budgeting, said Aidan Lang, Seattle Opera general director. Ticket sales and donor numbers have both grown.

But while patrons in other cities tend to be closely connected with one or two arts organizations, Seattle’s patrons spread their loyalties among many entities in the arts and elsewhere, Lang said. “A lot of wealth has been created in the city, but it’d be wrong to assume there’s an easy and immediate gain.”

Tapping into a younger, newer, less-devoted population means expecting less commitment. The symphony and the opera have seen marked increases in flexible “choose-your-own” subscriptions. Donations to the symphony jumped in 2015, when it made donating during online ticket purchase an easy option.

Smaller organizations are feeling similarly optimistic. “We have always finished in the black, and we’re projecting to do that again,” said Seneca Garber, director of marketing for the Seattle Chamber Music Society, which presents smaller-scale works, often featuring musicians from outside Seattle. Audiences for the group’s recent summer concert series were larger than ever.

However, as the gap between wealthy and non-wealthy residents grows and a lack of ethnic diversity persists in orchestras and audiences, organizations are also thinking about how to welcome underrepresented people.

Seattle Symphony is adding six new members to its board this year, four of whom are people of color, Woods said. “We are making a very intentional commitment to broaden the representation of our community on our board.”

Music groups are also offering wider price ranges to appeal to more budgets. Sometimes, that means charging nothing. While the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s usual venue, Benaroya Hall’s recital hall, seats about 500, this year one of its free concerts in the park drew an audience of 3,500, Garber said.

 

Yasko Sato as Cio-Cio-San in Seattle Opera’s “Madame Butterfly.” (Jacob F. Lucas)
Yasko Sato as Cio-Cio-San in Seattle Opera’s “Madame Butterfly.” (Jacob F. Lucas)

Surviving and thriving

The Seattle Symphony has a full-time professional staff. Some groups, such as the Seattle Opera, have small staffs and part-time performers but bring in big-name talent for headline productions.

Most music organizations can’t pay their performers a full-time wage. According to 2016 Bureau of Labor Statistics data, pay for professional musicians in King County averages about $32 an hour, often for part-time work.

Faced with rising rents and other costs of living, musicians supplement flexible music-based careers with side gigs ranging from teaching to bartending.

“The cost of living is a huge problem, of course, and it doesn’t just affect artists,” Heitmann said. On the other hand, “There’s a lot of entrepreneurial spirit within the arts community. They’re hungry to perform.”

Heitmann organizes house concerts through Groupmuse, an online platform that connects musicians and audiences and takes care of ticketing. Attendees pay a $3 fee to reserve a spot, then $10 or more to hear about an hour of professional music in an intimate venue. For Heitmann’s first Groupmuse concert, 50 people crowded into a Phinney Ridge house. “The vast majority of them had never been to an opera before,” he said.

Gus Denhard, director of Early Music Seattle, said the high cost of housing can affect how involved artists are with their communities. “If everything involves a commute, it makes the working together part a little more difficult, more expensive and more challenging,” he said.

Younger musicians, he said, “don’t have the expectation of stability.” But more established musicians “are really feeling the squeeze. I haven’t heard about anyone getting out of the business, but it’s a squeeze.”

 

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Seattle musicians say the future of classical music depends on making it accessible and fresh, both for longtime fans and a growing population of younger newcomers.

Under the direction of Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony concerts have celebrated rock music, video games and movies. The symphony commissions new work (John Luther Adams’ “Become Desert,” a companion to the Pulitzer- and Grammy-winning “Become Ocean,” recently premiered) and plays contemporary pieces alongside traditional favorites.

The opera is co-commissioning a new piece about Steve Jobs, which “was an obvious thing to do in this city,” Lang said.

Risks have largely paid off, both in ticket sales and in a more diverse audience. The share of millennials buying tickets to Seattle Opera has grown from 6 percent to 17 percent over the past two years, while the Seattle Symphony has seen the percentage of first-time ticket buyers increase from 17 percent in 2015 to 22 percent in 2017. Five years ago, less than 25 percent of the opera’s single-ticket-buying audience was younger than 50, but that number is now 50 percent.

Smaller, more grassroots organizations are also innovating to attract new audiences, often in nontraditional settings.

“Seattle has a very engaged network of local composers, musicians and audience members,” said Maggie Molloy, host and programmer at Second Inversion, a digital- music channel streaming new, unusual and experimental classical music.

Molloy points to Emerald City Music, which presents old and new classical music in a casual, in-the-round setting with an open bar.

Within Groupmuse, Heitmann created Operamuse, in which small casts perform shortened versions of opera standards in English. One such performance, a version of “La Boheme” set in Seattle — with the role of painter Marcello reimagined as an app developer — will be performed in a private home in November.

Heitmann has also performed with Opera on Tap, which brings singers into bars.

“My whole goal is making people realize just how amazing this music is,” he said. That requires getting around the usual barriers: “too long, too expensive, too hard to understand.”

Musicians and programmers say the arts have long needed this shift to more dynamic performances reflecting new demographics. “We have a tremendous challenge but also an opportunity to reassess what we’re doing,” said Michelle Witt, executive director of the Meany Center, which presents classical music as part of a larger arts repertoire.

“If we as an arts community are really open to the new — to the traditional but also to influences from new sources — there’s nowhere to go but up.”