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     Aug 15, '14

Asia and a happy future for opera
By Reuven Brenner

With classical music's popularity thriving in Asia (as millions of youngsters in China in particular are studying piano and violin from early age), and with the financial difficulties facing classical music in the West, opera houses in particular (as the New York City Opera bankruptcy, the present negotiations at the Metropolitan Opera, the last minute rescue of this year's season at the Rome opera house, and the constant strikes at classical music venues in France suggest), the question is: can classical music be financed without significant government subsidies?

Although the unusual financing of opera houses in opera's glory

days is now forgotten, and in most countries impossible to achieve (since it is illegal) - Asia just may prove that history could rhyme, with Asia's gambling Mecca - Macau - playing a critical role.

Until about 200 years ago, the great opera houses in Italy - Naples' San Carlo and Milan's La Scala among them - were privately run and profitable, Domenico Barbaja, a serial entrepreneur, who invented mixing coffee, chocolate and whipped cream (an early version of cappuccino), then becoming an arms dealer, managed both houses. The money from the casinos adjoining the theaters financed them: these were the entertainment complexes of the times, Monte Carlo staying the sole reminder of this once customary arrangement.

Rossini's contract with Naples' San Carlo gave him 200 ducats a month as musical director and 1,000 ducats as his share from the house's gambling tables. The profits from the tables also paid for R&D - the commissioning of new ballets and operas from the top names in the business: Donizetti, Bellini, Rossini, Carl Maria von Weber, and Schubert too were vying for his sponsorship. Politics put an end to this business combination when casinos were outlawed.

From then on, opera houses depended on subsidies, as governments stepped in to prevent opera houses from closing. Some enterprises are not commercially viable if denied the option to be offered jointly with other goods or services. Movie theaters today would close if health authorities banned the sale of popcorn and soft drinks, which account for 40% of their profits. If the prohibition of soft drinks and popcorn was not repealed, movie theaters would either close or become state-financed. Indeed, following the prohibition of cigarette ads in Quebec, the government stepped in to finance car racing events and the Jazz Festival.

Back to opera houses: though casinos have been legalized in the United States and other countries, they have not yet succeeded in restoring their once "higher class" image - Steven Wynn's Impressionist mini-gallery in Las Vegas, the late Pavarotti singing in Atlantic City, and musicals and Cirque de Soleil appearing in gambling meccas notwithstanding. And casinos remain illegal in Manhattan and Paris.

Government subsidies and private donors have become the massive backers of opera houses around the world. Yet counting on them does not appear to work, as the closing of the New York City Opera, the dire state of Italian opera houses and the constant strikes at these cultural establishments in France all suggest.

In some European countries, the aristocracy competed in showing of their wealth by both building opera houses on their estates and having their own orchestras, and competing for the best court composers (as were both Haydn and Mozart). These days though, the 0.01%'s options to display their wealth have expanded: yachts, planes, paintings, trophy wives and private islands have replaced the private opera houses, orchestras and court-composers that once played that role. Some of these may be calmer ways of showing off these days, and not having to deal with unionized orchestra and chorus members helps - Van Gogh or Monet paintings are quiet.

There is also the question of just how many opera houses does the world need now, with travel time shrinking, incomes increased significantly and the better-endowed opera houses getting the best artists and broadcasting either directly in cinemas, online or selling DVDs around the world. While two centuries ago it took five days to get from Paris to Rome, now cultural tourism is a matter of few hours, needing less-local productions.

Last but not least: taxes. Every new movie, ballet, musical, opera is an R&D project, even if not called so. Just as in the movie business, where tens of thousands scripts are written a year, 1,000 are read, 100 translated to film, and 20 may be profitable, with two or three becoming big hits, the same proportions apply to operas, or most entrepreneurial ventures.

Unless taxes are low enough to allow investors to expect high enough returns from the very few hits - so as to cover both for the losses on the 80 failures and for keeping artists and much personnel in business who do the selection - cultural experiments will not be privately financed.

Also, to do these experiments, one needs smaller opera houses - similar to the smaller art-house cinemas. People complain about the lack of successful operas since the 20th century - originated in the US in particular. But if you do not have venues to display them, and the tax structure does not encourage such cultural R&D, they won't be done.

A July 17 Wall Street Journal article, titled "The Future of Opera" concludes that "At its best, no art form is more thrilling than grand opera, yet none is at greater risk of following the dinosaurs down the cold road to extinction. That could happen to the Met, too, unless Mr [Peter] Gelb [general manager of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City] - or his successor - takes a searching look at the company's artistic policy."

As a big opera fan, I have to disagree: "artistic policy" alone - as suggested above - may not save the Met or other opera houses around the world. Allowing various ways of combining this specific entertainment option with others, would open the door to a variety of ways to putting on solid financial foundations.

Mr Gelb was quoted in the WSJ article as saying: "Grand opera is in itself a dinosaur of an art form" facing "cultural and social rejection," and he noted that even the audience at the Met's successful movie-house simulcasts consists of 75% of the audience members being over 65, and 30% between 75 and death. Mr Gelb is mistaken with this pessimistic outlook: There are ways to rejuvenate this art-form and the future of the MET, and more than the above financing solution is required.

First, consider Mr Gelb's observation that not just the in-house audience at the Met is older because of the high prices, but that even the one attending the HD transmissions are older. This may not have much to do with not enough youth not liking opera: since the transmissions take place on Saturday afternoons during the school year, starting at 13.00 and lasting roughly four hours - how can parents with kids attend?

So you get the older or childless population on the North American continent (though in Europe, where it is at least six hours later the audience appears much younger - my own personal observation, there are no stats). So Mr Gelb's inference on this point appears to be inaccurate, and experimenting more with streaming and pricing offers solutions.

His observation that grand opera is a dinosaur, and one that necessarily needs much new blood to attract a younger audience - appears inaccurate, and it is surprising to come from the Met manager: if a CEO or equivalent does not believe in the items he is supposed to produce and market, why is he the CEO?

The grand operas deal with heroism, obedience, honor (Verdi's operas); choosing between secular versus religious life (Wagner's, Massenet's), overlapping loyalties - and resulting conflicts between love, family, tribe, nation (Bellini, Gounod, Verdi etc); fighting dictators (Beethoven's Fidelio, Rossini's Wilhelm Tell - though, as Rossini admitted, not necessarily presented without cutting good chunks of it). These are all themes as relevant today as they have ever been. Then there is the recently produced Dvorak's Rusalka at the Met, presented as a simple fairy tale - which it isn't.

Rusalka - the half-fish, half woman - negotiates to join the human tribe. Though she gets legs, the price she pays is that she becomes mute. And not only does she become mute, the deal is that if she fails to integrate with the humans - that is, keep her prince - she must die. Well, yes, if you do not assimilate and leave imprint on the other tribe, your voice gets lost and forgotten. (The tribe may survive in operas, as do Druids - in Norma; the Lombards, in Verdi's Lombardi, but otherwise leaving no identifiable trace). Modern variations on this fairy tale are now playing out around the world.

Then there is the eternal Mozart, whose three great operas - Don Giovanni, Marriage of Figaro, Cosi Fan Tutte - all suggest, musically, that happiness is sustained or regained when people stick to the status quo and fulfill traditional obligations. Figaro ends with everyone getting - or staying - married, and within their ranks. Cosi ends with couples promising never to succumb to temptations (of "what would happen if"-type nightmare).

Don Giovanni - the aristocrat - gets punished because, while he sings for "freedom", he fails to understand that the nobility's ability to be "free" comes with obligations. Those who violate what their status in life requires either die, retire to a monastery, or postpone their wedding.

Musically, Mozart was not a great believer in social mobility or revolutions. In his concertos too, though the solo violin and piano deviate from the orchestra, they always return to the "collective's" harmony - in contrast to Beethoven's concertos, where the soloists "fight" the orchestra.

And Mozart's operas contrast with the fun-filled but less profound Rossini, who did feel the inequalities causing tremors coming, but - at least in his music - believed in a Pretty Woman type easy, stabilizing solution for social mobility, with the poor, imprisoned, good-hearted young women marrying the rich prince, be it in his version of Cinderella or in the Barber of Seville. There is nothing old or outdated about any of these operas' themes.

The problem with the 18th-19th century operas is not that they cannot be updated and become eternally relevant, but that almost all the attempts to update do little more than put singers in modern dresses, or impose interpretations totally inconsistent with the music and the text.

Here are two examples: at the Bastille, the director decided that Wagner's Tannhauser was not about the struggle between religious and non-religious life but about a painter wanting to exhibit his output in a gallery. And the Met, besides the fairy tale treatment of Rusalka, in Donizetti's enjoyable fluff, Elisir D'Amore, the director decided that the piece had deep patriotic undertones because the crook in the piece has a line about "la patria" when selling his fraudulent elixirs. Apparently this director never heard of Samuel Johnson' "patriotism being at times the last refuge of scoundrels" - a statement Donizetti's funny music and libretto suggest.

Most such "innovative" interpretations would have never been financed if government bureaucracies and easy subsidies did not back them to show their ability to produce "statistical" culture. This brings me back to governments' impact on culture, besides the regulatory and fiscal impact noted above.

The problem with opera and opera houses, and classical music today, is not artistic, but that it has been mainly government-financed world-wide, resulting in far too many opera houses and concert halls; far too many people specializing in cultural related professions (in France, for example, these professionals get high compensation even if unemployed much of the year, having the right to "stay in their profession"). It also results in far too much academic writing that the public escapes in droves.

The Met's Two Boys disaster this season is a good example: Perhaps in a 100 size auditorium producers could have experimented with it and improved it over time. But this is impossible to do in the Met's 3,800-seat house (the biggest in the world, La Scala has 2,800, Vienna, Berlin about 1,600). And it is not surprising that orchestras squeeze "modern" music between two classical favorites, so the audience cannot escape at ease.

The lasting solution to this art form - and the Met in particular - will be found when governments around the world will first adopt the right way of taxing R&D in art (significantly lowering capital gain taxes); getting back to the Barbaja financial arrangement of letting casinos - or perhaps other entertainment options - be merged with opera/musicals/orchestras under one corporate umbrella; having more non-staged operas; and also significantly cutting subsidies to dozens of opera houses that became redundant with the new technologies and easy traveling.

Reuven Brenner holds the Repap Chair at McGill University's Desautels Faculty of Management. The article draws on his book, World of Chance (2008).

(Copyright 2014 Reuven Brenner)




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