Monday, March 4, 2013

The "Relevance" of Opera: Let's Define Relevance

Reports about new Universal Music CEO Max Hole's views on classical music's future launched another round of debate about classical music's relevance. Many raised excellent points; many others recycled inaccurate and unhelpful clich├ęs as justification for either modernization or preservation, such as tales of old-fashioned and stuffy symphonic halls, intimidating clapping etiquette, and the superiority of live video in engaging fans. Though supposedly all steering toward a future of greater relevance, commenters displayed wildly different assumptions about what that even means. With so many paddling in opposite directions, it's no wonder classical arts are as stuck as ever in unsustainable models.

Discussion of the arts' future, whether by Mr. Hole or others, often make a dubious link between 'relevance' and ticket sales, scrutinizing top-selling musical acts for strategies orchestras might employ. Rarely is it asked whether the tactics which generate high ticket-sales for Lady Gaga should, or even could, generate ticket sales for orchestras and opera companies. Mr. Hole describes, among other things, how he'd like to "jump on [his] feet and shout and yell" for Beethoven, but alas, protocol forbids this. So let's say we take his advice and loosen up: does following his implications to a future of commemorative-t-shirt-clad teens tweeting and texting about Christian Tetzlaff seem like a plausible trajectory for classical music? Importing the trappings and protocol of arena concerts won't change the fact that the triggers for excessive spending on Bieber memorabilia simply may not exist in the classical world.

When music execs complain of a lack of emotion shown by orchestras or a lack of Jumbotrons magnifying a conductor's minutest exertions, they show the same lack of imagination that Stephen Fry criticized in his eloquent defense of classical music. They can't imagine people enjoying 200-year-old music with no visual aspect, so instead they catalogue the differences between the symphony and the Celine Dion Spectacular, and call that a path to classical music's salvation. And this is hardly a surprise, given their usual lack of exposure. Former Australian prime minister Paul Keating recently sounded off that most politicians have not had a meaningful moment with the arts, emphasizing that the way to appreciate music is to spend time with it, one-on-one, as a listener or a performer. Background music doesn't cut it: real art requires real concentration. Mr. Hole himself claims to have liked the "bits" of classical music he's heard. Are "bits" enough to convey the grandeur of any art form?

To discuss the arts' relevance to today's audiences, we first need to understand entertainment commodities and artistic experiences as wholly distinct entities.

The use of the word "audience" is already a clue. Audience can simply mean the group of people watching something, but it can also be used to indicate a brewing mob mentality, as in, "The audience demands blood." Many of Mr. Hole's suggestions assume this second sense, where the audience is hostile, doesn't want to be there, and needs to be convinced that what they are about to see and hear might have value. But art shouldn't be about convincing the hostile that they haven't wasted their time; it should be about great work, and that's it. I know nothing about jazz, but if I go see the greatest jazz guitarist in the world, I'm not going to berate him for failing to teach me the basics instead of transporting the people who actually know a thing or two about the art form.

But an entertaining TV show is supposed to do exactly that, which is one major difference between art and entertainment media. Whatever you know and feel at the beginning of a TV episode, by the end, you should feel better and have a general sense of the characters and plot lines. Performing this service better and faster gets people to choose a show over its competitors, and it survives in the marketplace. The audience gets its itch scratched and the show's producers cash in: win-win. In other words, an entertainment commodity's 'relevance' to an audience absolutely involves ticket sales (or the equivalent), as the audience is paying for a fairly well-defined service.

Art does no such thing. It needn't make you feel better (though it often does), it needn't inform you of anything (though it often does)--it need only be good art. Rather than debate what art should or should not be, suffice it to say that the collective definitions, from the broadest to the most personal, greatly exceed the dual tasks of captivating minds and improving moods. Great art forms possess infinite depth: the more you learn and appreciate, the more you realize you have yet to explore. I love Homeland as much as anyone, but admit it doesn't quite make me feel that way.

Art's relevance, then, comes from this place of infinite depth, of its ability to be so many things to so many people. Great art opens itself to anyone, absolutely anyone, who seeks it. Whether its seekers number too few to make art a valuable addition to Mr. Hole's portfolio says nothing about relevance, just marketability. Though funding the arts is indeed a major obstacle, I remain unconvinced that wannabe copycatting of the wealthy entertainment world will build the audiences classical arts need to survive intact.


  1. Hi, I am from Australia. I came across your site via Morris Berman's blog.
    Please find three references which I suspect that you may appreciate.

  2. Frederick-

    Thanks for reading and for the links. Interesting stuff!