Four tickets. 😀 I love that joke.
A discussion of the current state of music theatre in general and the opera Detroit
I just got my complimentary ticket for the annual ‘Wagner Competition’. I still receive stuff like this for some tangential reason because the Seattle Opera was one of the places I got a bit of money to write Detroit The Opera. And that reminded me. Now that some time has elapsed, I’ve been meaning to mention a few things regarding ‘Detroit’ as well as the state of music drama in general. I’ve been reluctant to talk about this stuff until now for fear of burning bridges. Well, that boat has sailed. If burning bridges can sail (on a sea of chocolatey metaphors.)
Like all arts organisations, the Seattle Opera faces an existential crisis. It has been led by Speight Jenkins for so long no one can remember ‘life before Speight’. But now he is 80 and leaving and everyone is nervous. You can see this in their schedule for the new year. All the hits: Puccini, Mozart, etc. They have no plans to do anything more adventurous for the next couple of years. That is certainly one way to handle uncertainty: circle the wagons.
Other companies, such as the once great New York Public Opera went in the other direction, trying to do shows with such lofty themes as ‘The Tragedy Of Anna Nicole Smith’ and died trying.
Regardless of the different therapies, all companies are sick with the same disease. It’s the same illness that killed jazz and rock and all kinds of music that you might have thought were eternal: irrelevancy.
All The Good Notes Are Taken
The fact is we are going through a revolutionary time in music history. There really hasn’t been any new music in a very long time. And I mean in any genre let alone opera. The closest we get these days are varying types of ‘Performance Art’, but that is something very different. In fact, from opera down to rap, as they used to say, “All the good notes are taken.” As I’ve written, the world has mostly gone video.
If you take an x-ray of hipsters of every stripe, they’ve all gone retro in one way or another. Witness the rise of all things ‘Americana’. You can’t be hipper than to walk on stage with an AutoHarp. Go into any club? They’re playing beats that could’ve been done in 1982 (back when porn movies had soundtracks.) And in classical music, nothing is cooler than saying you’re going back to the Renaissance. People have given up on now.
The problem is that the people who run the opera companies or the rock ‘n roll companies or the whatever companies have no idea how to react to these changes. So they are willing to try most everything except what music really needs: something new. Going forward is dangerous. Collage and retro are, in contrast, much safer… and certainly more pleasant.
Let’s face it: young or old, familiar sells. From old-timey ukuleles to Mozart, it’s much easier to sell tickets by re-branding something that is ‘easy on the ear’ than to risk doing music that is truly challenging. And you can’t blame the masses more and more for wanting music that ‘gets the job done’. We all have shorter attention spans.
What I Learned Writing An Opera
Now look, I am in no way saying that Detroit is some masterpiece of the future. From a craft standpoint I think it’s a pretty good first effort and my small regret with the actual piece is that I don’t think I yet have the ‘muscles’ to match the potential of the story. But because I have been somewhat dogged, I’ve learned that you can get paid (at least a little) to write an opera or basically any other cockamamie type of art so long as you are: a) willing to be obsessed, b) take what you’re doing extremely seriously and c) self-promote until you’re blue in the face. And that’s my much larger regret: that I have not been even more serious and pretentious about the whole thing.
As I’ve written before, if you look at successful people in the visual arts, a big part of the reason that they get huge prices for whatever is that ask for huge prices for whatever. They are deadly earnest about their junk. They never break character from a constant self-promotion of their ‘vision’. They do indeed suffer for their art, but that’s just what it takes to establish credibility. Suffering as marketing. In other words, to re-word Thomas Edison:
Artistic Success In The 21st Century Is 1% Inspiration And 99% Obsesspiration. 😀
Your Tax Dollars At Work
It’s also an amazing learning experience if you’ve ever wondered how various bits of government work. For example, all the machinations of setting up a non-profit corporation–a necessity to get yer foot on the gravy train. (Some people like puns, I prefer metaphors mixed like a tossed salad.) Where was I? Oh yes, you need to learn to write any number of grants. The number of people who are employed just to service this bureaucracy is astounding. And of course, those folks also take what they do very seriously. I’m not putting these people down. Like most efforts of government, theirs is a noble goal. But like a lot of government: they don’t get paid to do quality control. They get paid to keep the paper moving. GIGO.
So it is about as difficult eaking out a living in this way as it is, say, delivering newspapers. It just takes a lot of work. But the point is that you can do it if you like getting up at 3AM. But what you cannot do? What you cannot do is get performed. In other words this is kind of like how they used to have those magazine contests where the prize was ‘get your album recorded!’ Some guy would win that contest and then have a garage-full of albums. There has to be a mechanism for actually selling the darned things.
No Minor Leagues
And today that cannot happen. There is no way to get from writing the thing to getting it performed. There is nothing like ‘artist development’ because the people who run arts organisations have never had to deal with that.
So it’s not like the crazy person who thinks that writing a screenplay is their ticket to millions in Hollywood. In fact it is an order of magnitude crazier. Because people do write unsolicited screenplays that by some miracle do get into the right hands and then do get made into movies. But there isn’t any mechanism like that, far-fetched or otherwise, for opera.
Now until recently there was a minor-league in jazz. You could be young and talented and there were mentors and there was a way to ‘break in’. But again there is nothing like this in opera; there is nothing ‘small’ in opera (no jokes, please.) The same tectonic changes are happening in all kinds of me music. It’s just that opera, by virtue of its insular nature is uniquely challenged in this regard.
A Warning For Listeners Who May Find This Topic Disturbing
In addition to the above, there are a couple of other big deals with the content of opera (and all music drama so I’m going to lump ‘Broadway’ in here too) that make it irrelevant for most people. But since these elements are as toxic as discussing ‘Shia’ vs. ‘Sunni’ with Muslims, similarly all involved parties will pretend problems don’t exist because they’re just too painful consider. So I’m going to do the currently fashionable thing by stating right now that the following comments will be difficult. So Let’s Get offensive!
The fact is that music drama, from opera to Broadway, does not appeal to a younger and specifically male audience. You go to any music drama be at Broadway or Opera and the appeal is more and more to elderly people or women. The perception is one of very low masculine appeal. The fact of the matter is that more and more these arts have almost no appeal to people under a certain age and specifically to heterosexual males (which by the way still make up half of the population.) Why? Two obvious things:
Fat Singers Who Can’t Act
I could put it in nicer terms, but that’s really all there is to it. Audiences will no longer tolerate a 300 lb, 35 year old woman playing Cinderella. And audiences no longer give singers a pass for crappy acting. In short: audiences expect to see performers who look the part, just as in movies. In the past, all that mattered to devotees was ‘the singing!’ But those days are gone. One of the more awkward discussions I’ve ever had was when I suggested to Mr. Jenkins that having a 200 lb woman playing Fidelio (a supposedly beautiful girl attempting to pass as a man to free her love from prison) was hard for audiences to swallow in the 2012. His facial expression reminded me of someone witnessing an Ebola outbreak. He wasn’t ‘angry’ per sé. It was more like sheer revulsion.
Loss Of Masculinity
There is a perception in all music drama (and dance as well, of course) as being ‘totally gay, dude’. It’s not just a cliché to associate gay men with ‘show tunes’. It is frustrating to try to point this out without sounding like Archie Bunker. The fact of the matter is that most people tend to make art that reflects who they are and many in music drama are gay so they bring that sensibility to the aesthetic. And you can try, as nicely as possible, to point out that this has reached a point where something is getting lost for people outside of a certain demographic and it instantly gets ugly. The retort is some variation on: “Homophobes? Fuck ’em.”
But it’s not about homophobia. It’s about being true to the characters. The truth is that a lot of the theatre (music drama and ballet) is based on a certain masculinity. And that has, to a certain extent, been lost. In opera and ballet, lead characters such as Baryshnikov and Godunov used to be icons of rakish masculinity. There just aren’t those people anymore. Very few music theatre or dance companies have members who project that kind of masculine power. And very few new productions do so either. So it’s a recursion: fewer artists doing fewer overtly masculine roles/pieces which reduces the appeal for a large segment of the public. And the wheels of the bus go round and round.
Again, the response from the offended is “Fuck ’em. Oh and by the way, Fuck you, too.” OK, fuck me. You’re only fucking yourselves. You’ll be playing ever smaller shows to an ever decreasing group of the faithful. I’ll put it in one sentence: unless you start appealing more to ‘manly men’ (and women who are glad of it), your opera/ballet/theatre/whatever is doomed.
The irony is that as far back as 1880, both Nietzche and Wagner (who by that time hated each others guts) agreed that these were existential problems. They both recognised that, sooner or later, a lack of realism was going to be the death of music drama. Nobody paid attention then because opera was to that time what hip hop is today (er… ‘was’ twenty years ago; note that you can spot the beginnings of rot in any ‘art’ when it’s most popular.) The fact that Wagner was an anti-Semite and Nietszche was nuts didn’t help. 😀
Go Big Or Go Home
The Metropolitan Opera has decided to address these issues by staging truly ‘cinematic’ productions, costing millions of dollars, and then selling tickets for HD screenings at movie theatres. I’ve seen a few of these and they are very good. They put far better actor/singers in the roles against far more realistic sets. Plus many of the shows have been updated (as happens with Shakespeare) into very modern productions. It’s a step in the right direction. But it’s an elitist direction. It’s like trying to make golf more popular not by appealing to common people but by building more courses in China… you know, where the billionaires live. I guess it makes sense from a certain point of view. But as of this writing, there is talk of an employee lockout. The Met is running a massive deficit and employees question why they are asked to take wage cuts whilst manager Peter Gelb makes 1.4 million dollars a year.
My Modest Viennese Proposal
As self-serving as it sounds, I disagree with this approach. In smaller cities, Seattle for example, it would be far better to take a risk and put on twenty small shows per year as opposed to four or five old warhorses. They take this approach in many European cities; intermingling ‘the hits’ with new shows and offering bargain seats every night of the week. And they do this year round, creating a constant training league for up and coming singers. There is no ‘season’. The opera is simply ‘there’ year round like the movies. Yes, the productions are more modest, but I would suggest that you’d still maintain the hardcore audience and you’d make it possible to build an audience of the curious which simply cannot afford the average ticket price of $100. A Benjamin is simply too much of an experiment for most people who aren’t yet sure if opera is for them.
Whither Goest Me?
OK, forget all that. What am I doing? I’m still plugging away at getting the show performed. I get rehearsal time with local orchestras when I have the energy to beg. And I continue to polish. It comforts me a teeny, tiny bit to know that many of the most famous operas were re-done over and over and over before finding anything like ‘success’. So I read industry papers and blog; try to find out which organisations are open to new ideas. I cold call. Network. Smile.
But the reality is that, I will have to be in the right place at the right time. And that point in the space time continuum will likely have nothing directly to do with my use of shoe leather. I’ll be having dinner at The Herb Farm. And since they have communal dining, I’ll be seated across from some lady who’s husband is a division leader at Microsoft and she’s on the King County Arts blah, blah, blah and between courses five and six the husband will mention growing up in Inkster, Michigan and I’ll mention ‘Detroit’ and write down my number on one of their fancy menu lists and so on. (By the way, with a few substitutions, this is exactly what has happened to me and countless others on different projects.)
That’s how these things tend to happen. It doesn’t mean that I don’t have to do all the cold calling and constant ‘marketing’ (which feels about as productive as trying to beat the stock market by buying Lotto tickets every day.) But in some strange way I sense that if I don’t do the ‘useful’ stuff, these serendipitous moments can’t happen. That bugs me from a ‘cosmic fairness’ standpoint because I’d like to think that there was sort of a ‘civil service’ aspect to this, ie. I go through all the right channels and then earn the prize in a nice, direct manner. I dislike how much these opportunities are based on chance meetings and patronage. But that’s how it’s always been. So to paraphrase something I wrote fourteen years ago when I started this whole sideshow: “Just don’t be looking at yer shoes when it’s your turn to arrive.”