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Philly arts alert: Your 8 p.m. curtain time is not a sure thing anymore

Curtain times are getting earlier for many shows at Opera Philadelphia, PCMS, and Wilma Theater, to name three Philadelphia institutions.

Opening-night gala for the last year's 017 opera festival. Opera Philadelphia is among local arts groups now fiddling with curtain times.
Opening-night gala for the last year's 017 opera festival. Opera Philadelphia is among local arts groups now fiddling with curtain times.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK

In The Age of Innocence, Newland Archer takes his own sweet time. He dines at 7 and lingers over a cigar before Edith Wharton has our hero strolling into his opera box just after the curtain goes up on the garden scene.

More than a few Philadelphia concertgoers this fall may inadvertently walk in well after the curtain has gone up if they don't take care to look at their tickets. The starting time of some concerts is changing. Most notably on the classical scene, the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society is moving the start time for 38 of its 50 concerts a half-hour earlier, to 7:30 p.m.

Other groups are also tweaking times. Today, we live less in an age of innocence than an antsy state of continual multiple choice. Everyone wants everything on demand, challenging so-called time-based art forms to keep up. The Wilma Theater was leading the way on diversified start times a dozen years ago. Want to dine before the theater? Take in a play at 8. If you prefer your dinner later, catch the 6:30 p.m. on Tuesdays instead.

"We have a group of people who love to go out for dinner after the show to have conversation about the show, which is what we love to hear," says James Haskins, the Wilma's managing director. "We are all looking for ways to address audience behavior in current times. It's good to experiment."

Figuring out when to best ponder the magical realism of Lorca in Blood Wedding or listen for the braying donkey in Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream overture has never more closely resembled the act of reading the SEPTA timetable. The running of the trains in fact figured into PCMS's decision to break its three-decade-plus tradition of bringing Schubert and Beethoven to life at 8 p.m.

"The initial reason for even considering a time change was for those taking Regional Rail home after concerts," said PCMS artistic director Miles Cohen. Listeners often couldn't make the 10 or 10:10 train (damn those encores). "This group of patrons has been inquiring for years about a start-time shift because they were arriving home so late on weekdays."

And so PCMS polled its listeners. Of the more than 1,000 patrons surveyed, 70 percent said they preferred a 7:30 start time.

Of course, it may cause headaches for some — like those who depend on shuttles from apartment houses and other residences running on set schedules that might not align with PCMS's new performance slot. But, "while we initially heard some comments and questions, it is my belief that most issues have been resolved at this point," said Cohen.

This conversation over the best time for concerts has been going on for decades and never seems to rest.

"At a Philharmonic board meeting in 1976, I introduced the idea of starting the weekday performances at 6 or 6:30," said Charles Croce, then the New York Philharmonic's public relations chief and now CEO and executive director of the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent. "My reasoning was that concertgoers could go directly from work to the concert hall, avoid trying to get into area restaurants, and be out by 8 or 8:30, thereby enjoying a meal when the restaurants were begging for business at that time. Of course, being all of 29 years old at the time, I was politely thanked for my idea and immediately sat down, realizing that there was absolutely no interest in challenging the tried and true, as it were."

But by 1992, there was interest, and the Philharmonic started its widely hailed one-hour-long 6:45 rush-hour concerts. They continued for more than two decades — not a bad run.

Opera Philadelphia, among the most customer-focused arts groups locally, recently conducted an audience survey on start times. What it heard were a lot of different constituents with a lot of different preferences. Some city dwellers want more time between the workday and evening performances at the opera company's annual festival for dinner and the preshow lecture. Suburbanites prefer earlier curtain times because of transportation schedules. Some older patrons like earlier matinees to avoid driving home in the dark. Opera lovers coming in from other cities want to pack in as many performances as they can over a weekend.

"You can't please everyone," says Ryan Lewis, Opera Philadelphia's vice president of marketing. But you can make adjustments to offer as many options as possible, he says, and the opera will. For the coming season, Saturday matinees at this year's O18 festival will start at 1:30 instead of 2:30. In the spring, evening weekday performances will shift from 8 p.m. to 7:30, where they had been once before.

>> READ MORE: Opera Philadelphia's O18 festival tickets on sale now, and going fast

Opera Philadelphia might continue to experiment with start times, but what Lewis doesn't see happening is a return to more uniform curtain times of just 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Of course, the now-fading norm of 8 p.m. wasn't always the norm.

"As a kid, I remember running down the street so as not to miss the 8:30 start!" PCMS founding artistic director Anthony P. Checchia says  of Philadelphia Orchestra concerts he attended in the 1940s.

A look at Philadelphia Orchestra program booklets from the '60s shows that 8:30 evenings and 2 p.m. Fridays were still standard. By the 1976-77 season, there were those times, and a 7:30 Tuesday had slipped in.

‘The world has changed’

But won't listeners show up for concerts no matter when the downbeat comes?

"No," says Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras. "There is probably enough research out there that says there are a number of barriers of a practical nature, whether it is parking, long lines for drinks at intermission, no place to sit before the concert, when the concert starts, and all of these factors have a bearing on the audience experience. For a long time, orchestras didn't think about that so much. When there was a better balance of supply and demand and more robust participation, people made do. But, obviously, the world has changed."

The orchestra league doesn't collect data on concert start times, but Rosen says he thinks an earlier start time is where things are headed. "My sense is that this is a growing trend and has been for a number of years. People are trying out a lot of different things, and times of concerts is certainly one of them."

If it sounds like the audience's need to be accommodated with a spread of times is new to society today, consider what the New York Times heard when it solicited opinions from readers on the best curtain time for Broadway shows. The paper got nearly 1,500 responses.

"Virtually every quarter-hour between 6 and 9 p.m. had its band of advocates as the most desirable time at which to begin Broadway shows,"  Alexander H. Cohen wrote from the League of New York Theaters, noting the diversity of audience geography, routine, and lifestyle. "American society and American social habits have undergone convulsive changes since the Broadway theater settled into a fixed institution of popular culture in the first decades of this century."

The year was 1973.