Culture | Trump (or Asia) will make the Metropolitan Opera great again

Trump (or Asia) will make the Metropolitan Opera great again

Reuven Brenner December 11, 2016 2:05 PM (UTC+8)
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Though Broadway musicals (including Andrew Lloyd Webber and even the late Pavarotti’s occasional Atlantic City solo) do not compare in many minds to opera, Las Vegas has been discovering the long-forgotten relationship between gambling and culture.

The city has been moving from cabaret acts to Cirque du Soleil, Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals and even display Steve Wynn’s impressionist collection: Perhaps not quite opera and the Chicago Museum of Art, but better than the tired, sleazy lounge acts and the kitschy displays of the 1970s. Though President-elect Donald Trump may be first accused of self serving legislation, the next prudent step may be legalizing casinos and other betting too, relying on the now-forgotten relationship between gambling and high culture – operas and ballets in particular.

At one time all opera houses in Italy had a casino attached (the San Carlo in Naples and Milano’s La Scala being the most prominent), a reminder of the once-traditional arrangement that survives to these days in Monte Carlo (though in the picturesque small towns of southern France and the Atlantic, and on smaller scales, the casino-concert halls continued to be major attractions, with occasional temporary interruptions). Stendhal’s biography of Rossini summarizes his contract with Naples’ San Carlo, and finds that a large chunk of his compensation came from the profits from the gambling tables. He got a meager 200 ducats a month as musical director of San Carlo, but earned another 1,000 ducats – five times as much – as his share from the house’s gambling tables.

Domenico Barbaja was the most famous impresario at the time, managing the major Italian opera houses, San Carlo among them. Profits from the table where roulette (“rouge et noir” as were then called) was the most popular, subsidized the cultural R&D, the outcomes of which we enjoy to these days. Barbaja commissioned new operas and ballets from Donizetti, Bellini, Rossini, Carl Maria von Weber and Schubert was vying for his sponsorship too. By the way, Barbaja, in his first two incarnations, was a serial entrepreneur, making his first fortune inventing the “cappuccino,” then becoming, yes, an arms dealer – a source of financing his cultural ventures that many gentle souls addicted to opera these days prefer to forget.

Perhaps opera houses should now lobby Mr. Trump to reinvent this once-profitable financial arrangement, rather than just having states commit to transfer a fraction of lottery revenues to cultural institutions and depending on the tax-deductible kindness of the 0.01%. Mr. Trump may not even insist, as David Geffen did with his US$100 million donation, on having his name replace Avery Fisher’s in the famous hall. Becoming President, Mr. Trump got his claim to e-mortality, and he does not need halls, streets or airports to bear his name (anyway, he
has sufficient real estate that already does).

There are good reasons that some businesses in entertainment are not stand-alone financial entities. Consider cinema complexes: If the selling of soft-drinks and popcorn were prohibited, which account for about 40% of cinema complexes’ revenues, most cinema complexes would either close or would have to get subsidies. Indeed, Italian opera houses came to depend on the government when monarchs outlawed the casinos for political reasons, since – strange as this may sound to modern ears, they feared that revolutions would start in opera houses (as these were at the time the only places where young people could congregate legally).

Elsewhere in Europe, opera houses were private and part of aristocrats’ and monarch’s estates, be it in Versailles or at the Esterhazy. While today’s 0.01% display their wealth with trophy wives, private jets and Picassos or Rothkos in the hallways, aristocracies in the past competed with mistresses too, but also court composers, orchestras and in-house operas and theater (while in 17th century Amsterdam, the new merchant class competed by displaying rare tulips in their foyers). Traces of such financing and bets have survived too – witness the contributions, competition for board membership and season openings at the Metropolitan.

Cultural experiments have been inadvertently hindered not only because of prohibitions of casinos, but also because of high capital gains taxes. After all, every new movie, ballet, musical, opera is and R&D project, even if not called so. There may be ten thousand scripts written a year, 1,000 read, 100 translated to film, and 20 profitable. Unless taxes are low enough to allow investors to expect high enough returns from the 20 – so as to cover both for the losses on the 80 failures and for keeping in business those who filter down the selection to 100 – cultural experiments will not be privately financed. In countries where capital gains taxes are high, the voters observe the decline in cultural enterprises, do not make the link with capital gains taxes, and vote for their governments to subsidize “culture.” Once, as noted above, not-taxed princes competed for prestige and status and offered financial leverage for cultural experiments, among others, for Haydn at the Esterhazy estate, for Mozart in Salzburg.

Briefly: If it did not hurt Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti to have gambling compete for attention to their music in the foyer, why would modern composers suffer if opera buffs could bet in the casinos attached to the Met on whether Juan Florez could still hit nine high C in Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment, whether Cecilia Bartoli or Rolando Villazon show up, whether Netrebko will lose weight or sing Turandot – or just play roulette during one of Wagner’s boring patches.

Maybe this competition for attention will itself bring modern composers – thriving mainly in subsidized academia (where else?) – to creative heights, and discourage their dreadful, atonal music that audiences now escape in droves. And who knows, the success may also bring an end to one of the silliest stuff circulating on academic real estates, namely “cultural appropriation.” After all, Italian, German, Austrian and French composers wrote the music of most operas performed around the world these days.

Perhaps Mr. Trump may even benefit politically by abolishing laws that prevent the financing of the casino-high culture combination. I do not know if this is true, but according to a recent article by Eleonore Büning, chief critic of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, gays happen to be almost cult-like opera addicts.

What I do know is that Rudy Giuliani is. If he does not get to be the next Secretary of State, perhaps he can be put in charge – as a consolation prize – of bringing this new cultural/business combination to life, and even appear – in drag – as the Duchess of Krakenthorp, a non-singing role in Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment – a role that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Ginsburg just appeared in at Washington Opera House.

If  Mr. Trump does not manage to persuade Congress to change the US’ ill-thought anti-gambling laws, China or other Asian countries, not hindered by such laws, can rediscover this cultural-business opportunity and become the future of classical music and variations on it. China already appears far more obsessed with classical music than either Europe or the US and can bring this forgotten combination to spectacular life.

And if not China, then perhaps Japan, which is both classical music-crazy and just moved closer to legalizing casinos few days ago.

Reuven Brenner
Dr. Reuven Brenner was appointed to the McGill Faculty of Management REPAP Chair in Economics in 1991. Brenner was the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, was awarded the Canada Council's prestigious Killam Fellowship Award in 1991, and is member of the Royal Society. In February 2013, he was awarded a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for his contributions to his peers, his community, and to Canada.
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