Summer's lure: sunshine, balmy breezes, and Bach
Boston — During the waning days of summer, the June bugs and federal arts subsidies are on their way out. But still on ther in -- and in record numbers -- are thw audiences listening to Mozart or La Boheme while lolling in the grass at their favorite summer arts festival.
Outdoor performing arts festivals are enjoying their best year to date. Everything from Shakespeare-in-the-park to dance festivals to outdoor opera is reportng record breaking attendance figures this summer.
"Our sales are double and triple what they were last years," says Richard Bader, executive director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Strathford, Conn,
Jacobs Pillows, the oldest dance festival in North America, nesteld in MAssachusetts' Sleepy Berkshire hills, reports ticket sales way ahead of last season," and last year was a peak year," says artistic director Liz Thompson.
Nearby at the Williamstown theater, general manager Gary Levine points to sold-out houses for every performance, while New York's Metropolitan Opera boasts a recent attendance figure of 200,000 for an open-air performance of Tosch in Central Park.
Why the sudden surge of art-in-the-park type of amusements? Answers include anything and everything from "no gas shortage", to "the baseball strike," to "people are feeling sorry for the arts under Reagan."
But most festival directors around the country seriously attribute the summer box- office surge to an increasingly entertainment-minded public, the informality and accessibility of outdoor festivals, and, of course, media exposure.
"Television is definitely a factor," says Carmen Covens, company manager of the Spoleto festival in Charleston, S. C. "[Luciano] Pavarotti is known by people who don't know anything about the arts."
Radio coverage of regional arts festivals, such as the spoleto Festival and the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival also has boosted the popularity of those particular events. "The NPR [National Public Radio] broadcasts have brought us national attention," says Sante Fe Festival director Sheldon Rich.
The increased media coverage coupled with the less-than-formal settings of most outdoor musical events lends an air of inviting informality. "People are realizing they don't have to be afraid of the arts," continues Mr. Covens. Many families now plan weekend or week-long vacations according to favorite festival schedules.
Another drawing card is the obvious lower per-ticket cost for summer outdoor festivals. While the cost of admission to a Broadway show can run up to $35, the best seat in the Williamstown Theater can be had for a more affordable $11. Even more reasonable rates -- $4 to $6 -- are available for the traditional "lawn" seats at such outdoor symphony concerts as Chicago's Ravinia, the Blossom Music Center outside Cleveland, and the Boston Symphony's summer quarters at Tanglewood. Many events, such as the Metropolitan Opera's performances in Central PArk, are free.
Such factors tend to draw large crowds of hard-core arts aficionados as well as the dilettantes. But over the years, say festival directors, the audiences begin to repeat and become more discerning about what they see performed.
"People are more interested in specific performances," says Ravinia spokeswoman Charlotte McMillan. "They're more sophisticated than they were several years ago," she adds, pointing to a 14 percent increase in symphony attendance this summer over last. "The ovations for Mozart of [Itzhak] Perlman are as enthusiastic as those for a rock concert."
Gary Levine says that much of the Williamstown Theater audience will travel up from New York "to see the works they can't get in the city," such as the theater's recent American premiere of "The Greeks."
But other summer festivals -- such as Wolf Trap Farm outside of Washington D.C., and the Chautauqua Institute -- are well-known for their wide variety of arts events. Events at Wolf Trap, the nation's only performing arts auditorium in a national park, range from opera to jazz to bluegrass.
But such striving for popularity has its price. While Wolf Trap helped produce the revival of Brigadoon last year, it cost the foundation some money, and is not being repeated this year.
Officials at Chautauqua also admit to the strong lure of the popular. They have augmented their traditionally classical repertoire with more mass-appeal artists such as Glenn Miller and Chuck Mangione.
But despite the fluctuations of current crazes in the arts, the taste for summer music and outdoor theater goes on. "People love to hear music under the stars," says one mus ic critic. "Its always been a romantic thing to do."