On a recent Saturday afternoon in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic a group of people from all walks of life assembled in a movie theater.
Some of them knew each other – I watched as people who are obviously friends and see one another on a regular basis hugged, chatted before the performance, or introduced new acquaintances to old ones. Others seemed to be either alone or in pairs … just there for the day to enjoy the performance and leave afterwards. All came to hear The Pearl Fishers, Bizet’s neglected opera recently presented by the Metropolitan Opera and now broadcast across the world through The Met: Live in HD. This was an opera performance benefitting from digital streaming: One of many technology-driven arts delivery-systems taking the sights and sounds of the opera house into a much wider space and speaking to a much more diverse audience.
This is hardly the first time this kind of thing has taken place. The Met has been broadcasting opera for decades upon decades. Many a Saturday afternoon was spent by a generation of listeners huddled around a radio in the days of the old Texaco-sponsored broadcasts of the 20th Century, and certainly opera has been seen on television, and the internet as well. The particular platform, while interesting as an innovation, is less important than the fact that what has heretofore been a local experience has now become available to a larger audience. It is art taken from the stage and suddenly made regional, national or international in scope.
Elsewhere, I’ve blogged about the Met’s summer outdoor opera presentations at Lincoln Center, but this particular performance struck me because it represents something relatively new in the Building-an-Arts-Community movement. As all of us know, we are experiencing the very redefinition of “community” in our lifetimes. What has always been understood as primarily local has moved beyond the limitations of geographic space into a digital space. A map no longer matters. Community is driven and defined by shared interests rather than proximity.
Now, what does that do to us? How does it impact relationships? What about access to quality artistry? Does this digital opportunity replace the live experience or does it enhance it? How do other new technologies affect relevance, intimacy, and impact? What does a Twitter feed do to develop communication and community between performers and listeners? What about Facebook, or Instagram?
I’m here in the Dominican Republic for a couple of months working on a music festival taking place in the Colonial City. While here, I visit with friends, and enjoy the vibrancy of relationships forged through the creation of the festival. One of those friendships is with someone who has taken on the role of “opera lady”. She has become that person in Santo Domingo who organizes, informs, and draws together many people who might or might not have experienced this art form in the past. She has developed relationships with individual artists through those social media platforms, and she uses those relationships to deepen her own experience of the art. Every day, even though she is in a country with no national opera company, she follows developments across the world. She reads blogs, listens on youtube, scans new sources for tidbits and tidal waves in the world of opera. And, of course, when the Met broadcasts are announced, she makes plans, schedules events and, yes, builds community around the broadcast. When she can, she flies to New York and hears opera in person, but that is now only one of the many ways she is able to experience this art form.
Last weekend, after the final notes of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, had sounded, I found myself in a restaurant with four couples, discussing the opera, reveling in its beauties and being grateful that we had been able to experience it together. A work that none of us had heard before was humming back to our inner ears, and we were basking in its melodies. And an innovative opening scene watched during the overture was now visually etched in our memories, presented in a way that none of us will forget. We were able to learn how it was accomplished in an intermission interview.
Beyond experiencing the opera itself though, it was that local component in an international delivery platform that truly struck me. We all understand that social media is changing our relationships; we know that streaming concerts now make the entire world available to listeners across the globe. Some feel threatened by this development. They ask, “How can this local organization compete with an internationally recognized company whose level of artistic achievement dwarfs all but a few organizations in the world.” Others see this development as the great democratizing moment in the arts – when technology breaks down the walls of non-access and replaces exclusivity with inclusivity.
What hit me, though, was that we might not have noticed that these international broadcasts have local implications – that friendships are developed not only online but in the movie lobby; not only on the screen, but in the restaurant. When community is redefined in this digital age, we can either become more estranged from each other – more isolated and separate – or we can reach out and enrich our non-digital lives. At least in Santo Domingo, over the past decade Peter Gelb has made something that is bringing people together, not only online, but in person. In that regard, there is no difference between “going to the opera” in the Dominican Republic, and doing the same thing at Lincoln Center: A chat in the lobby, some Bizet, and then a glass of wine with friends afterwards.
Even in a virtual-reality world, we still remain real. Yes, a streaming opera is different than one presented in person. But the differences have nothing to do with community; they do not enforce isolation any more than they encourage assembling. To the issue of coming together or of being alone we must look to ourselves. Our sense of community is a reflection of what we truly want – and at what we are willing to do to have it.