Doesn’t anyone here know how to play this game?

A legendary quote from Casey Stengel, when he managed first season of the then-hapless New York Mets.

A publicist for the Boston Symphony asked me to mention the latest edition of their online “Concert Companion,” which is mostly about Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, an opera they’re performing in a concert version starting right now. So I’ll oblige. What they’ve done is very lame.

And it’s lame in instructive ways. Mostly they offer videos — a Verdi biography, something about the historical context of Verdi’s work, an interview with James Levine, and a synopsis of the opera. Maybe they think they’re marvelously up to date, offering multimedia. But they apparently don’t understand how the Web works these days. The Web now is interactive, offering chances for participation, or at least for play. The BSO’s Simon Boccanegra stuff, by contrast, forces me to be passive. They want me to sit there for minutes on end, watching videos.

There’s nothing wrong with that, as a supplement to other things. If something else on the website can get me interested, I might watch the videos. But there isn’t anything else on the page (except a truly lame quiz about opera in general). I can’t go to the page, and quickly read the story of the opera. I can’t quickly learn intriguing facts about it. I can’t hear any of the music. If I could do any of these things, I might want to watch the videos. But I’m caught in a Catch-22. I can’t find out whether I want to watch the videos unless I watch them.

But that’s only a symptom of the real problem, which is that the BSO isn’t using the interactive Web techniques that really do get people interested. Go, for instance, to the terrific interactive page about Super Bowl commercials on the New York Times website. See how just by looking at it you absorb some information, and how easily you can get more, just by moving your mouse around. You can also watch Super Bowl commercials from the past, and in fact you want to do that, because they’re put in a context that makes you interested.

Or (still from Times‘s business pages) look at the interactive timeline of the economic crisis, where videos are offered, but again in a context that might make you want to watch them. Notice how, on this page and the one about the Super Bowl commercials, there isn’t anything didactic. Nobody is teaching you. The ways to find the information are laid out in an irresistibly attractive way, and you happily go looking for it.

Or (last example) look at the absolutely marvelous interactive graphic about housing prices in selected cities for the past six years. It’s as addictive as popcorn, and wonderfully informative. You move from city to city, see how prices fared, and compare them, at every point, to the average change in prices in all the cities put together.

The Times is famous for doing things like these on its website. There was even an article about this in New York magazine, focusing on the people responsible, how they came to the Times, what their status is there, and how the paper’s culture might be changing to accomodate them. (While you’re on the New York site, take a look at how attractive the navigation is, when you’re browsing past issues.)

I wish the BSO could change its culture, learn how Web 2.0 works, and create some interactive features that might really draw people to their concerts. I wish that the entire classical music world could do this. We’re seriously behind the times (and, website-wise, the Times). And it’s hurting us.

(Footnote: Yes, I know it costs a lot of money to do what the Times does. But classical music institutions have no choice. They’re competing with everything else in our culture, and if they’re going to use the web, they have to use it as well as everybody else does.

(ADDED LATER: And it doesn’t have to cost all that much. Graphics don’t have to be as elaborate — or presumably expensive — as my examples from the New York Times. I’m sure orchestras and other classical music institutions could find young web designers who could do an expert job. I’d be happy to work as a consultant with any group that wants to try this. The hard part, I think, would be the concept — which information to present, and how to present it. The key would be to rid our minds of anything that smacks of “outreach,” and simply make the things we care about as compelling as all the other good stuff in peoples’ lives.)

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. says

    One thing I’ve tried in my opera talks is to have audiences either come up with an alternate ending to the story or suggest a sequel that revisits the characters at some later point in their lives. Some people are always going to be a bit sheepish about participating in something like this, but I’d rather just go for it and see where we end up. The great thing–from my perspective–is that because there’s no single “right” way of approaching these questions, I’m working without a net. I have no idea what’s going to happen–and I love it!

    It’s a shame, given the interactive nature of the 19th-century opera going experience–that the BSO couldn’t have come up with something more, well, interactive.