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June 15, 2007

Phone Salesman's "Nessun dorma" Leaves Them Crying In the Aisles

by Molly Sheridan

Earlier this week, Alex drew my attention to this clip from Britain's Got Talent. The singer was a phone salesman by day. His performance was clearly not Corelli, but the powerful combination of the piece and the situation stunned the audience, the members of which seemed to have forgotten that opera existed. They were clearly engaged. Why are professional opera productions not attracting them? Do they only want 4 minutes of opera before they move on to the next thing? Are they afraid of the art form because otherwise their only association is a badly produced PBS (or in this case BBC) concert special?

I consistently wonder if (and unscientifically find to be true that) it's simply a question of the presentation, not the art and performers themselves. It's so simple it's scary, but the Wordless Music Series in New York this season finally made a success of that idea we've been tossing around at conferences for the past few years but haven't truly implemented. The shows mixed up great performers from both the new music and the indie rock/experimental sides. They were held in rented churches and played to consistently sold out houses. There was wine and the tickets were hand stamps, but there were also programs and pin-drop quiet because everyone seemed to sincerely want to hear what the musicians had to say (not because that was some kind of rule).

If the audience isn't engaged (and engagement doesn't require the audience to necessarily like/agree with what you're doing--ever been to a play at the Fringe Festival that pushed you too far in a direction you did not what to go, but still left you feeling engaged with the experience?), doesn't that signal a serious flaw in the art or in how it's being performed? I mean, it's a performing art. What is it without the audience? Isn't a major piece of the performance missing for both sides?

What has set apart the most affecting performances you've experienced in the last couple of years? Can any of those elements be implemented by other institutions where such audience enthusiasm is lacking without harming to the artistic purpose of the creators?

Posted by msheridan at June 15, 2007 1:04 PM


I hate to speak in such blunt terms, but the naivety of this discussion is appalling, even if based on very common American delusions. You refuse to admit that our problems with the performing arts are systemic, due to our lack of public arts funding. It really is a form of willful denial with the result that your views are not only blinkered, they reflect a chauvinistic ethnocentricity.

Molly, for example, notes how an audience loved a performance of an aria on British TV and asks why American opera houses can't create a similar positive response to opera. What opera houses, Molly?!? The United States only has about five or six real opera houses, and not one of them even has a year round season. (Even the Met only runs for seven months a year.) Those opera houses serve metropolitan areas that might total as much as 30 million people, but what about the other 250 million Americans? Where are they going to hear an opera?

The USA is the ONLY industrial country in the world that does not have extensive public funding for the arts. You all accept this extremism as if it were normal and confine your thinking to this absurd paradigm. As arts journalists you should be the first to protest our lack of public funding for the arts. You should be the first to open discuss how the lack of public funding contextualizes all of the problems and challenges you are discussing. So why all the silence?

And yes, Douglas, video and live performance are two different things, and each has its value, but are we to simply give up on the idea of live performance? Are we to not even question our country's extremist stance regarding public support for the arts? How can you as a highly trained musician possibly suggest that a video simulcast is anything like a live performance at the opera in good seats?

And belive me, I know what I am talking about. I have spent the last seven years working on forms of video music theater.

(Go to www.osborne-conant.org/cybeline-info.htm to see some clips.)

But in spite of my involvement with and love of the genre, I would never think that video of the Met in movie theaters should or could replace real opera. It is exactly the live, visceral qualities of the operatic voice that make it so special. Video, regardless of how fine the camera work or sound system, is not a real substitute. It is like people in some third world country saying, well, the car is broken down, so we'll just hitch a donkey up to pull it. I read these blog entries and don't whether to laugh, roll my eyes, or snort in plain disgust.

Every European city with over five or six hundred thousand residents has a full time, year round opera house. So why doesn't the USA? Are you all going to feed us the usual nonsense that classical music isn't American? That we are too young a country to have a rich representation of classical music? Or are you going to try the common deceit of telling us we have about 350 symphony orchestras without telling us that over 300 of them are part time and semi-professional?

Let's look at a mid-range example. The New Mexico Symphony is a fairly good orchestra. Even though it is based in Albuquerque, which has a metropolitan population of 500,000, and serves the whole state with a population of 1.8 million, the base pay for first chair winds is around 15 thousand a year. The base pay for tutti strings is about $6000 a year, which means that the sections, to put if frankly, are often actually filled with amateurs. The orchestra can't even have daytime rehearsals because most of the musicians have to have day jobs to support themselves. And touring is a problem, because it means many of the musicians have to leave their "real" jobs for a few days. The orchestra has had recurrent financial problems, and the musicians have had to go through long periods without being paid at all. The New Mexico Symphony is hardly an exception. In fact, this abysmal situation defines the norm for many, if not most regional US orchestras. Naturally, the artistic standards are deeply affected, even though these orchestras serve the vast majority of our population.

Nevermind, we'll just get some websites and electronic gizmos and that will solve the problems.....

And as for opera, Santa Fe performs in the summer for only six weeks. Even such a paltry season as that makes it one of America's major houses. The other opera houses nearest Albuquerque are in Houston and Los Angeles which are 1010 and 788 miles away respectively. So just where are those folks going to go to hear opera, Molly? Or maybe I need to remind you that the Hudson river isn't the west coast of the United States? (Perhaps you can ask "Alex" about that - no last name needed.)

Because of public funding, Germany has about 28 times more full-time, year round opera houses than the USA. Even a small city like Freiburg, with a population of 80 thousand, has have a full-time opera house with a ballet and chorus, a fulltime radio symphony orchestra, and a year round spoken theater. Public funding.

You all sit and come up with rather superficial, postmodern ideas that are supposedly revitalizing the arts while remaining absolutely silent about the lack of public funding which is what actually separates us from the entire industrial world, and which represents context that overwhelmingly shapes all of the problems you are discussing. (And again, I speak as someone using all of the new media technologies in the creation an presentation of his art.)

Let's look at another example, the grotesquely low pay scales that so many of our major orchestras have. Her are some examples:

Buffalo $36,280
Charlotte $30,000
Colorado $36,246
Florida $26,454
Honolulu $26,400
Jacksonville $31,664
Kansas City $33,675
Louisville $32,268
Nashville $30,768
New Jersey $38,772
Phoenix $33,680
Rochester $36,490
San Antonio $33,150
San Diego $25,750
Virginia $22,802

(These numbers are two years old, but nothing much has changed.) How are musicians in San Diego, one of the world's richest cities, supposed live on $25,000 a year with California's real estate prices? Why do all of these musicians worry for their job security because the bankruptcy of the orchestra is always a real possibility? Why do we take our most gifted artists, who are graduates of our most elite music schools such as Curtis, Juilliard, New England and Eastman, and pay them salaries that not even a car mechanic or truck driver would accept? All of these orchestras serve very wealthy metropolitan areas of millions of people and have tax bases that could easily pay decent salaries.

This situation is ridiculous and shameful, and yet even here among the people who are supposed to be representing the arts and its interests, there is nothing but silence about our lack of public funding. And you confuse the issue by thinking the usual, rather worn out Postmodern, technological cant is going to solve the problems. Are you telling us that the San Diego, Florida and Kansas City Symphonies went bankrupt because they didn't have fancy enough websites or because they failed to employ enough electronic gizmos during their performances? Ah, I see, iPods will solve the entire problem.......

Even cities like Philadelphia with a population of 4 million, or Los Angeles with a metro population close to 15 million, have operas with only about 6 week seasons. And in other large metropolitan areas like Phoenix, Toledo, or Nashville, the best we can hope for is an occasional slap-dash production with pick-up musicians in a rental facility. Compared to Europe, it is so hokey it boggles the mind.

This lack of work and respect is why American classical musicians, as a matter of course, look abroad as a possibility for employment. American orchestra musicians even turn to countries like Mexico, Singapore, South Africa, and Venezuela to find work. There is not another industrial country in the world that treats its classical musicians this way - not even Canada, the UK, South Africa, Spain or Greece.

Maybe it's time we realize how low our overall standards really are, and how badly we treat our artists. I guess that will take some time, when even the members of this panel seem not to understand.

I think the really interesting question is why you remain so silent about our lack of public funding when it actually contextualizes all of the problems you are presumably addressing. I think this willful silence says something about what it means, and what it takes, to be a American musical "luminary." Don't rock the boat with any pinko ideas. But that is another topic, and a very difficult though important one.

Again, I am sorry to speak so harshly, but there simply comes a point when people should begin expressing contempt for our country's blinkered, ethnocentric delusions.

William Osborne

Posted by: William Osborne at June 15, 2007 4:36 PM

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