Monday, May 30, 2011

Get comfortable

Oh lord. Well, clearly the brave new world of balance sheet repair in our classical music institutions is going to involve more B'way and pops, if the recent reports from Philadelphia and the WNO are any indication.
I think most people would agree that schmaltzy arrangements and, as Downey puts it, "half-ass Broadway" are two pernicious trends which our civilization could do with less of (not that whole-ass Broadway indicates a professional show with all the trimmings mind you, just that ulterior motives like hoodwinking people into the opera house tends to make for bad theatre). Without too much tiresome wringing of hands, though, I'm interested in what these strategies really accomplish.
In WNO's case, they haven't done anything yet of course, and even then it's not the end of the world--more prestigious companies have gone down that road and a forgettable musical production here and there will be easy to ignore or muddle through (FZ, I will go if you do Sondheim but I'm not sitting through a poorly staged Showboat). But nonetheless there's something to quibble with in bringing up musicals and "accessibility" in a conversation about new directions for a financially challenged opera company. As far as I can tell, lots of people are accessing the WNO despite its persistent stinginess with tickets under $50--the problem isn't poor attendance, but rather the murkier problems of an inadequate donor base, poor financial planning and excessive operating costs. Yet readers will see "WNO considering musicals to dig itself out of its financial hole" and come away with the tired old narrative that classical music needs to increase its appeal by...not offering classical music. So go and do it if you like, but let's be clear that 1) it isn't a response to some massive unsatisfied demand, and 2) it doesn't really belong on a list of exciting "new directions" for an opera company.
Whatever the merits of its bankruptcy, the Philadelphia Orchestra sales situation is clearly more dire, and so my question here is non-snarky--I can see where pops shows do well on dedicated occasions and as special alternative programs, but what has the experience been with expanding these seasons? Is there a large untapped audience for listening to Star Wars in the concert hall that will keep showing up if you keep feeding them new shows? How often does a new pops concertgoer show up at a regular symphony program? Again, honest questions, though I will say that making the Philadelphia Orch do medleys or whatever seems a lot crueler than using the KC opera house to put on a show (perhaps owing to some unexamined opinions about the relative scrappiness of singers vs. elite instrumentalists).


stray said...

If the conventional wisdom is that musicals require so much more rehearsal time than operas, how is that likely to affect an opera company's balance sheet for the better?

About the time the Philadelphia's summer program switched to pops n' warhorses programming was about the time I started opting for Tanglewood.

Henry Holland said...

Among the many negatives of having Placido Domingo being in charge of Los Angeles Opera is the harebrained idea that people ever gave a damn about zarzuela. Fine, it's how he got his start but for years he tried to get people interested and failed. Even the cynical "Hey, the Latino crowd will love it" gambit didn't work. The zenith of his dumb ideas was The Merry Widow in Spanish. Jeebus.

The cynicism/desperation isn't confined to the opera. The Philharmonic went nuts promoting a "Gamers Night at the Symphony" a few years ago. They played music from video games and I guess it did well, but the idea that a 20-something who likes video game music is going to subscribe to a season of stuff like a Haydn-Brahms-Beethoven concert is literally insane. Memo to arts orgs: teens and 20-somethings know when they're being pandered to.

I will give the Philharmonic credit, they have the whole Hollywood Bowl season to do show tunes and *shudder* All John Williams concerts *shudder*.

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Kitchen Benchtops said...

A perfect balance between elegant austerity and a swiftly-rendered, passionate tale of hearts, pure and not so pure, the Washington National Opera's Tosca is everything a traditional production should be.