Opera troubles

I want to thank my blog-brother Terry Teachout for finding something I squirreled away in my “Resources” section on the right, and recommending it so fervently. It’s an Opera News piece about why PBS won’t broadcast opera.

But I don’t read the piece quite the way he does. What registers for him is PBS rejecting art, refusing to show challenging operas because they won’t attract a massive audience. For me what might be going on is different. I wonder if the problem isn’t that PBS demands a massive audience (though perhaps it might), but that opera draws a very tiny one — so tiny, for works that aren’t widely known, that no responsible large-scale broadcaster could afford to show them.

To put it differently, think of the Food Network, or IFC, the Independent Film Channel. These can find a niche on cable. But the Asparagus Network wouldn’t fly, and neither would a channel that only showed Jean-Luc Godard. Some niches are too small to support themselves, and opera may have reached that point. Terry quoted quite a long statement from John Goberman, executive producer of Live from Lincoln Center, but for me the killer quote from him was this: “There have been some broadcasts over the years where we’d have been better served to have made videocassettes and just sent them to the people who actually wound up watching.”

Three factors might be operating here:

1. Many educated, smart, and cultured people just don’t care about classical music. That’s a new phenomenon, but it’s unmistakable. Younger classical musicians find they can’t talk to their friends about their work. I’ve been at dinner parties where nobody knows what to say to me about what I do — and the “nobodies” have included a rather famous writer on art and culture, and a MacArthur prize-winning historian. So if PBS deemphasizes classical music, that might not mean it’s dumbing down its programming. The programs might be as thoughtful as they ever were, but the smart people they’re aimed at don’t care about classical music. (True fact: WNYC, New York’s public radio station, used to start its day with Morning Edition, and follow that with classical music. When the classical music started, fully 80% of listeners turned the dial to something else.)

2. Opera isn’t all that popular. The opera audience might be getting larger, as everybody says, and marginally younger, too. But still it isn’t very large. The PARC study of the performing arts audience that I link to in my “Resources” section has the numbers. In five surveyed areas (Alaska, Denver, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Seattle), from 7% to 11% of people interviewed had gone to an opera performance, as compared to 16% to 20% for orchestra concerts, 43% to 51% for theater, and 23% to 36% for dance. It’s true that opera companies don’t perform as much as orchestras, but maybe that’s because the audience is smaller. And opera has a lot of what I might call negative appeal — a lot of people really hate it, including a lot of people who listen to other kinds of classical music. An old classical radio maxim says that opera should be broadcast on Saturday night, when nobody’s around; the few people who like it will stay home to listen. Opera, in other words, was always a minority taste. And now that fewer people take an active interest in classical music, it’s even more a minority taste than it used to be.

3. Classical music doesn’t work well on TV. Or at least it’s deadly for noninitiates who run across it flipping channels. Orchestra concerts can be stultifying. When the horns play, you watch the horns. Duh. If the music doesn’t grab you, the visuals surely won’t. Opera looks silly, because the production values mostly aren’t adequate, by the standards that apply to everything else on TV. The singers don’t really act, don’t look their parts, aren’t graceful on stage, don’t relate to one another (or at least don’t relate as actors would) — these are all the standard failings opera always had, now magnified in closeups. Opera lovers can forgive that, but most people can be forgiven if they ask, “What is this silliness?” And change the channel.

Footnote: I’d love to see an orchestra televised a different way. Instead of showing us the horns when they play, show us the horn players emptying spit out of their instruments, as they’ll do several times during a concert. Show us the strings frantically turning pages in their music, when there aren’t any pauses that can give them time to do it. Show us the second trumpet sitting motionless on camera — for quite a while — then play two notes, and then sit motionless again. Show us, in other words, what really goes on, including the musicians taking their lead from the concertmaster, if the conductor isn’t any good. None of this might do much for the music, but it might make absorbing (and informative) TV.

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