Is Opera a Sustainable Art Form? Excerpts from a new keynote …

I’ve been on hiatus in order to concentrate my time on the weekends to learning Dutch (state exam coming up). My last post was before Mike Daisey unhinged Ira Glass and Ira Glass exposed Mike Daisey and the whole world wrote about it. I’m not going to write about Mike Daisey. Instead, because I’m still concerned about the state of the arts and culture sector in the US (despite its “turnaround” according to Americans for the Arts), and because I’m still studying Dutch and neck-deep in my research at the moment, I’m going to share an excerpt from a new talk that I gave in February at the Opera Europa Conference. The conference asked me to do a keynote on the topic, Is Opera a Sustainable Art Form?  This is just one section (from an hour-long keynote), in which I discuss the paradoxes of sustainability. I’ll be back next week.

Is Opera A Sustainable Art Form? (Excerpt)

I recently came across a paper, Paradoxes of Sustainability, by a scholar named Alexey A. Voinov from the Institute for Ecological Economics. Here are four key points from Voinov’s paper:

  1.  After examining the definitions of sustainability of many scholars, Voinov determined that all of the definitions had one thing in common: an assumption about “keeping something at a certain level” – that is, a resource, system, condition, or relationship. In other words, a goal of “avoiding decline.”
  2. Voinov says, however, (and here’s where the first paradox comes in), that this kind of behavior—the sustaining of something at a certain level or state—seems to belie the fact that living systems tend to go through life cycles: growth, followed by conservation (or inertia), followed by release (obscurity or death), followed by renewal and new growth. This life cycle is what contributes to evolution in response to a changing environment.
  3. Sustainability is, thus, an unnatural attempt to break this cycle and extend a certain stage of the life cycle and avoid decline. Whereas renewal is about development; sustainability is about preservation. The term sustainable development, thus, contains a paradox.
  4. Furthermore, there is a hierarchy of systems; and here’s where the second paradox comes in. Sustainability of a certain level of the hierarchy may impede sustainability of systems at a higher level that are potentially more important. For any ‘supersystem’ to evolve and renew its sub-systems or components must be set free to recombine.

So, what is Voinov talking about? Forest fires naturally occur and burn down portions of ecosystems so that the forest ecosystem as a whole can persist. If we begin to prevent forest fires we damage the forest ecosystem.

And so what, specifically, could this mean for the opera world and the question at hand? Well, if we agree with Voinov and think his ideas could apply to organizational systems and not just natural ones, it means that we should ask ourselves where we may be seeking the “unnatural perpetuation of what might otherwise die”? It means that we need to think very carefully about which level of our ecosystem we are seeking to sustain. So I want to return to the question at hand, which I find compelling, in large part because of the way it is phrased. Is opera a sustainable art form? It begs a question: What shall we permit to be a legitimate and sufficient form for the passing on of the opera genus?

  •  Does vinyl count? A CD? A digital download?
  • What about a diehard opera lover who has an extensive collection of recordings, listens to opera broadcasts on the radio throughout the day, and even sings it in the shower every morning?
  • What if this diehard opera fan never purchases a ticket to see a production at his local professional grand opera house?
  • What about an amateur opera company that performs in, say, churches, community centers, or senior centers?
  • How about a children’s chorus? Or 5th graders composing and performing puppet operas?
  • What about independent artist collectives creating avant-garde and experimental works?
  • Or smaller chamber companies?
  • What about the Philadelphia Opera Company’s Hallelujah Chorus Flash Mob performed at the department store Macy’s, which has been downloaded more than 7.75 million times on YouTube?

Are these what we mean by sustaining opera as an art form? Or when we talk about wanting to achieve sustainability, are we really, pretty much exclusively talking about … well, your opera house? Or even better, all of your opera houses?

So then how do we feel about San Francisco Opera’s broadcasts at the baseball park, one of which, evidently drew 32,000 people to see Aida (see picture above)? Or The Metropolitan Opera broadcasts in movie theaters which continue to expand in reach and numbers (and as I understand it, earning higher revenues and profits) year after year?

On the one hand, we need the San Francisco Opera and the Metropolitan Opera to create those broadcasts. But, over time, one could also imagine that some people would start to go to the movie theater exclusively, and not to their local opera house. Perhaps there have even been moments when we have wondered at two in the morning, sweating in our pajamas, whether the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts in a movie theater might, in fact, eventually displace some opera companies somewhere?

Is opera a sustainable art form? It’s a different question from ‘Is opera a sustainable industry?’ Or ‘Are nonprofit opera houses sustainable?’ Or even ‘Is my opera company sustainable’?

When we say we need to try to find a way to make things “more sustainable,” what are we talking about? Sustaining the reputations, salaries, and vacation packages for directors and other professional arts administrators that have them? Sustaining all historically leading institutions? Sustaining our buildings? Sustaining a canon of great works through the recording or ongoing performance of certain works? Sustaining very specific productions, or performance practices? Sustaining the capacity for artistic risk-taking? Sustaining a pool of talented artists who, perhaps, even have the resources to self-produce their works, independent of major institutions? Sustaining broad and deep community engagement with the opera? The “what” is really important.

One of the things that is most interesting to me about the conversations in the arts sector about sustainability is that the implicit goal seems to be preservation of the oldest and largest companies, and often their venues. While we seem to recognize that some deaths are inevitable, history and good sense tell us that the renewal in the sector should happen in the ongoing churn of small organizations.

That’s natural.

As opposed to the collapse or 180-degree transformation of established, historically leading institutions, which we would find not only unnatural but probably truly alarming. Hence, one concludes, the strategy of the Dutch government and others. Sustain the large institutions and let the rest of the sector churn, which we presume leads to innovation, and not to the loss of innovation from the sector.

There is an assumption that the ‘supersystem’ we are trying to sustain and grow is the infrastructure of existing large, leading professional opera houses. But what if the ‘supersystem’ is the relevance of opera as an art form as demonstrated by its ongoing practice and enjoyment? That could mean that everything else (large, historically leading companies, smaller amateur companies, training programs, the recording industry, and on and on) is part of a sub-system and may need to evolve in order for opera as an art form to be sustained.

Voinov, A. (1998). “Paradoxes of Sustainability” in Journal of General Biology, 59:1, pp. 209-218.

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  1. John Federico says

    I guess one of many other ways to put this question is “Are we driving our individual organizations (and by extension our collective discipline) like we own them, like we rent them, or like we stole them?”

  2. says

    The essential argument here is market Darwinism. Fit genre’s live and the unfit die (along with their infrastructures.) The bigger creatures take a little longer to die. It’s much better that a rare tree frog go extinct than a tiger. This approach to renewal and sustainability presumably strengthens the arts.

    This argument is problematic because the avoidance of market Darwinism is one of the central rationales of non-profit organizations. Opera houses don’t live in the wilds. They are more like pets that have little to do with natural ecologies. When we don’t want a pet anymore, and no one else wants it, it is either “put to sleep,” or abandoned and slowly starves to death. Sometimes people take the unwanted pet out to the forest where they imagine it will live like a wild animal. Those pets starve to death, of course. A stray cat or two might continue on a couple years in mangy, flea-bitten, half starved misery. This scenario of abandonment and euthanasia, or slow, mangy death is what opera houses face in the natural economy of supply and demand. In short, opera will not be sustained with vaguely Darwinistic philosophies.

    There is yet another approach. You can let the pet live out its life, and meanwhile get some new creature that brings you more pleasure. And indeed, the countries that spend the most on traditional opera also spend the most exploring new types of music theater. Every larger opera house in Europe has a studio theater where smaller, more experimental productions are regularly presented.

    America, by contrast, only has about 6 regular opera houses, and most have ridiculously short seasons. As a result, Americans only have 3 cities in the top 100 for opera performances per year. And worse, of those 6 or so regular opera houses, not a single one has a studio theater where artists can work to re-invent and modernize the art form. In America, the new pets are treated even worse than the older ones.

    The end goal of the American funding philosophy is, of course, obvious. We should not own pets. We should only experience the wild animals of the market place – the Brittany Spears, the Josh Grobens, the Cirque du Soleils. McArt in Disneyland USA is what survives in the market, and that is the natural law that will shape our rebirth as a nation.

    And for that reason we do not even need arts education. The lowest common denominator of the market should determine our tastes and our cultural identity, not “elitist indoctrination.” That’s why the Philadelphia Orchestra is bankrupt, that’s why the New York City Opera has essential folded, and that’s why a city like Miami with a metro population of 5.5 million doesn’t even have a professional symphony orchestra.

    So Diane, you can be Jane, and I’ll be Tarzan, and we’ll swing from the trees like good, 21st century artists and arts administrators…at least according to American, neo-liberal economics. If we see someone’s abandoned canary flitting through the trees, will kill it and eat it for lunch. After all, its just a small thing.

    As always, thank you for the interesting and thought-provoking ideas. I have to confess someone slipped me a PDF copy of your whole talk about a week ago, which I really enjoyed reading.

    • says

      Issues of Darwinism aside, I think the point Diane is trying to make here, as she has elsewhere, is that we sometimes are blinded to the need to sustain the art by the need to sustain the arts organization. Neo-liberal economics has not worked to support or develop artistic innovation, but actually has helped sustain those large organizations that benefit from the byproduct of neoliberal economics: the concentration of wealth.

      • says

        The idea that the arts and the organizations that support them can be separated is very problematic, especially in the performing arts. It is very difficult (essentially impossible) for symphony orchestras and opera houses to maintain high professional standards without substantial forms of cultural infrastructure involving funding, administration, venues, marketing, and education. In fact, that’s why it’s called high culture. Attempts to separate the arts from their support structures, are mostly just another attempt to rationalize our failed, private funding system.

        We should be wary of the hidden, neo-liberal agendas the MBA-ization of arts management has created. The idea is that if art can exist in the marketplace, it shouldn’t exist at all. We should expose these agendas every time they appear. When it comes to the arts, neo-liberalism is more about extinction that evolution.

        • says

          Diane raises provocative ideas, and I agree with her that the focus of the “field” seems to be fixated on the large institutions, much to the detriment of the field as a whole I would argue.

          I become particularly restive when I see a phrase used by Mr Osborne, “maintain high professional standards.” Usually, what is meant by “high professional standards” is “high professional expenditures.” Like so much of capitalist society, we have come to equate “quality” with “spending lots of money,” an equating of two totally disparate elements.

          The question isn’t about the MBA-ization of arts management, or neo-liberal economics, but rather a non-profit system that regularly privileges the large over the small, the old over the new, the global over the local, and the past over the future.

          • says

            America doesn’t favor large arts institutions over the small, or the old over the new. We only have three cities in the top 100 for opera performances per year. The actual fact is that America doesn’t favor any arts institutions at all, large or small.

          • says

            Well, according to a recent study, 55% of the arts money goes to the 2% of arts institutions with annual budgets over $5 million. Most of those institutions are in urban areas and have wealthy, white patrons. I think that’s pretty persuasive evidence that a bias exists.

          • says

            True. Our funding system by the wealthy inevitably concentrates funding in the financial centers where the wealthy live. And it focuses funding on insitutions that will bring wealthy donors the most prestige and status. Public arts funding systems, like those in Europe, distribute funds more democratically, and so smaller regional instituions are better supported. But even regional governments give most of their funds to established genres, so that part of the problem remains.

    • John Webber in Santa Fe says

      William Osborne says: “And for that reason we do not even need arts education. The lowest common denominator of the market should determine our tastes and our cultural identity, not “elitist indoctrination.” That’s why the Philadelphia Orchestra is bankrupt, that’s why the New York City Opera has essential folded”

      I know a little about the Phila. Orchestra, but the NYCO is a case of Diane’s life and death cycle. Indeed, it did appear to have almost folded a few months ago, but take a look at its website now with the announcement of the 2012-13 season.

      It appears to me to have reinventd itself completely. As George Steel stated, the company is going to present operas which are rarely seen and for which he claims that there is a demand. One is Rossini’s MOSES IN EGYPT in April 2013.

      I hope that they succeed with this formula. Concert opera presentations by the Opera Orchestra of NY is one thing (and it has presented some wonderful concert versions of rare operas over the years), but there is nothing like seeing a staged production.

  3. says

    I love the Systems Theory metaphor, Diane, but I’m not convinced that Voinov’s ideas apply to purpose-driven social systems like arts organizations.

    Systems are benign, blind, essentially mechanical entities while arts organizations are deliberate, purposeful, human entities fueled by passion, intelligence, ambition, aspiration and the ability to manipulate the systems within which they function. Arts organizations (indeed all human organizations) may function within a broader systemic context, but we’re able to navigate those systems and exploit them to achieve desired outcomes.

    I think I’d prefer a sustaining metaphor that says we can choose growth over entropy and that we can harness the inherent energy of the systems around us and use it to our advantage.

  4. says

    Thank you for the excellent post, Diane. I appreciated your allusion to Voinov. At Chicago Opera Vanguard, an opera company outside of the mainstream grand opera tradition, we have been working through what the future of opera could be. Recently we have started to look into arenas that are completely uncharted and have nothing to do with preservation of the canon as a live event.

    Your point about “What does sustain mean exactly?” is an important one. I agree that most people assume it means sustaining large professional houses, and I think in the future the opera form will flower in new and exciting ways, undreamed of as of now.

  5. says

    Norman Lebrecht just published some stats from a study in the UK very relevant to this discussion. When asked what sort of cultural activity they would like to visit, 7.3 million people said they would like to go to the opera. That’s 15% of the population. 62% said they put off going to opera or other cultural events because it’s too expensive. 36% said it was because opera and other events weren’t close enough. See Norman’s blog here:

    This is interesting in light of the situation in the USA where opera tickets are generally 2 to 3 times more expensive than in the UK and the rest of Europe. And houses are generally far more distant than in Europe. For example, we only have about 6 real opera houses while Germany has 83 for one quarter the population.

    When 32,000 people attend an opera event in a stadium in San Francisco it shows interest is there. The main problem is that we don’t have the public funding infrastructure to make opera available and affordable for the population. This is, of course, something that American arts administrators are reluctant to address because it contradicts the interests and perspectives of the private funding system within which they must work.

  6. Andy Buelow says

    Thank you, William Osbourne: “The idea that the arts and the organizations that support them can be separated is very problematic, especially in the performing arts.” I am an arts administrator, and I don’t have an expensive vacation package, retirement package, fancy company car, or any of the other perks that Diane apparently thinks we all have. It would be nice to imagine a world where a marvelous Opera production, or symphony concert, would just, well, happen, magically appear onstage without all those dratted administrators who insist on eating (and hence having to be paid). It doesn’t work that way.

  7. says

    Thank you, Diane, and also the rest of participants. I am Spanish, and I hope my English will be good enough to give my point of view. Otherwise I apologise…
    “The relevance of opera as an art form as demonstrated by its ongoing practice and enjoyment” is quite an accurate defition of what made me start my educational programs to accompany children in opera discovery about 15 years ago. For me Opera is a legacy and even companies devoted to contemporary productions must admit most of their members discovered and enjoyed this legacy before. Actually if Opera hasn’t died yet is mostly thank to Mozart, Rossini, Verdi,Puccini.. (just to mention the most popular, the most “commercial”, the best ticketsellers) and thank to vinile, Cds, DVDs, Youtube… Up till now the market and its economical criteria have decided, but ¿what if suddenly the consummer got free from strictly comercial criteria? ¿What if the consummer started deciding more freely? The Internet is making possible a more individual education which will certainly lead to wiser consummers.
    When a tell my “operas as tales” to children, I certainly not practice “elitist indoctrination”, but I feel very happy to offer art education as when these chilldren will grow up, they will be able to enjoy a legacy that is theirs and they have the right to know about. After telling different operas to a group of children at school I ask them if they liked them, which one was the best… very few confess they didn’t like the experience, but for the rest I know they will find their way to enjoy or even practice Opera, relying not just on my books, but, also on DVDs, CDs and maybe on performances at great opera houses… Opera has to find his place in the cultural market, but in addition I believe there are important educational values in all Arts, and especially in Opera that make it worth as a business, even more than other kind of industries.


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