Thursday, May 22, 2014

OPERA NEWS AND THE ARTS ARMAGEDDON






Reading about opera has been discouraging. It seems that many people who comment on the Opera 'Net don't understand reality. They don't know the difference between not-for-profit (as the Met is) and commercial funding (such as Broadway, movies and TV). There is a tight dislike of unions. There is the cheering for Peter Gelb who has no experience producing anything, was dumped by Sony after a bad showing there, knows very little about arts in general (I wrote for him at Sony and know his limits).

But there is a loathing for unions, even though they represent highly specialized, trained and experienced people who are essential for production of opera, and who in most cases have studied long and borrowed much to finance their educations. That these people have a right to decent earnings and protections in one of the world's most expensive areas in which to live leaves the wealthy or stupid list commentators cold. That Gelb was rebuked by the leader of the union that represents the chorus for trying to contact individual members enraged some fools.

A union is a collective, divide and conquer are maneuvers by management of long standing to destabilize unions. But union members vote on their representatives and will vote on any recommendations those representatives suggest. It is proper and fair for Gelb and henchpeople to meet with union representatives who understand from the point of view of their members what is essential and where compromising might be acceptable. Certainly art unions are in a more precarious situation than the movie and TV unions (I belong to three). There are problems in LA certainly, but there is also so much money, and so much potential for profit from many different platforms, that union members who work there can demand high pay, good benefits and tough protections. But the arts are terribly vulnerable in America; no institution can survive if two thirds of its cost are union costs (the claim of Met management and probably the truth). Union members may need to accept some reductions in pay and benefits, and redefinition of special services and overtime. Will they? Should they? Well, that is a long, speculative piece.

But I am more interested right now in Opera News. There is a new publisher, the second in a year. During some debate about the value of Opera News and the challenges that face it, one elderly lady notorious for her solipsistic gushing on various lists, cited the magazine's "frank" interview with Anna Netrebko earlier this season and cried out that as long as SHE loved Opera News it was safe and good.


Why is that stupid? Well, if one moronic reader were enough, Opera News would be golden. If ten were enough, if a thousand were enough, if ten thousand were enough and not all were idiots there wouldn't be a problem. Nor would there be the odd turnover of publishers. The new one follows another lady by only a few months. 

Presumably there are two connected issues that one dope given to fan drooling isn't going to fix.

1. ADVERTISERS
2. Circulation numbers (consistent as opposed to intermittent).

I wrote for the magazine a lot in the 1990's and liked the second publisher I dealt with very much (he was very Metropolitan Opera Guild, a white Anglo Saxon Protestant from money). But he was a smart, decent man.

At that time there was much hand wringing over advertising in Opera News. Although the magazine was subsidized directly by the Guild, the Guild was subsidized by members who joined for a lot of reasons. Although back then I don't think Guild memberships were falling off significantly, advertising in Opera News had stagnated by 2000 and I assume has fallen off considerably since then (Brian Kellow kicked me out as a contributor around 2001). Advertising revenue was necessary to supplement what the average Guild member paid (Opera News was a perk for joining at the lowest level).

Opera News had begun as a pamphlet focused solely on the Saturday afternoon broadcasts and based largely on the Met. It's important to be clear though, the Guild and the Met are two different entities with different missions. Opera News was an "official" document only at the beginning (1936) and perhaps for twenty years afterwards. Because the magazine was small, it had a small staff, paid little, offered limited photography in black and white, not typically of the highest quality. There was advertising from the first but not a great deal and since the pamphlet style was inexpensive, it wasn't crucial.

However, in the 50's Opera News began to expand. Though it kept its small size, there was a slow but inexorable increase in pages. The staff grew. While the staff wrote a lot of the articles, there was more of an effort to recruit free lance writers from America and Europe (so long as they could write in English) to provide "articles". These included interviews with stars who were not in New York at the time of the interview, or even Met artists. These were also think pieces, expanded pieces about the history and time period of a given opera, articles on composers, famous singers from the past and trends in the opera world.

These writers needed to be paid, and the Guild to its credit understood that you get the best by paying well. Photography became more a part of the magazine and it was of a higher quality (Erica Davidson was quite a gifted New York arts photographer but the magazine also bought photos made by others, some in England and Europe). Making sure those photos looked good in all the issues was itself an expense, and getting good photos by outside photographers meant paying competitive prices. This meant a need for more advertising.

Mary Ellis Peltz, the first editor, a smart, tough minded arts journalist was replaced in 1957 by Frank Merkling who was a highly sophisticated editor in this period of expansion. But the most important editor (and probably the best in the magazine's history) was Robert Jacobson who began in 1974. A visionary, and an intense worker, obsessed with opera but arts savvy in general, he expanded the magazine to its current size, added pages, added color, wrote long articles himself, and recruited others to do the same. He increased the amount of reviewing the magazine did not only of the Met and occasional New York offerings, but of opera around the country and in Europe. I believe he was the first to go to Europe and report first hand on happenings there (and I think he sent a few others to do the same). 

Jacobson changed the tea and crumpets aura of Opera News for a more flamboyant, newsy, sometimes gossipy and much tougher minded magazine. It had been stated before that Opera News was not a house organ for the Met, but Jacobson abandoned the euphemisms, high church tact, and omissions that had been in use from the beginning for franker and tougher assessments of the performances reviewed, and the policies of the house in general.

I don't think the magazine had ever pretended there wasn't opera elsewhere but Jacobson covered opera in America thoroughly, recruiting often tough minded local journalists (Stephanie von Buchau, among the best of these, was one of Jacobson's first hires. Her beat was the West Coast. She was sharp. funny, sophisticated. She was one of the first fired by Brian Kellow, the power though not the editor from 1999).

Jacobson dealt with the City Opera (now dead), smaller companies that did new, unfamiliar work often in challenging productions (most gone now or much reduced) and got "you are there" type articles about European endeavors, including one he wrote himself, a memorably frank analysis of that era's Bayreuth Festival. But all of this meant a greater outlay of money for fees, and for writer expenses, and to print the magazine. 

His confidence was based on the explosion of the classical record industry that followed the first years of long playing records and the need of those labels for advertising and endorsements. He also courted manufacturers and sellers of audio equipment who found willing buyers among those who wanted to realize spectacular sound in their homes. He glamorized a lot of the "divas" of his era (he was friendly with many personally) and used them to advertise clothes, jewelry, accessories and so on. It was very likely the last era when Opera meant glamour. social status and seemed important. 

He got the job by telling the Guild's Board that he was Norwegian when he was Jewish, which he did not admit on the job, One of his important writers changed his name from Zinzer to Wadsworth for similar reasons. 

Jacobson died a lingering horrible death, and I think that was the end of the great Opera News. He was replaced by a long time staffer, Gerald Fitzgerald, small minded, mean, who was taken off by the plague as well. The Guild refused to appoint another staffer, the invaluable Jane Poole, because she was female, and hired an Englishman who soon became famous for his drinking. It was Roberta Peters, the great coloratura, who asked at a meeting of the Guild Board "why do we need an English editor when we are an American arts organization?"

The Englishman staggered out to be replaced by Patrick J. Smith who hired me to write, which I did a lot. He was another WASP of wealth, good manners and discretion with a strong interest in American opera, new work and challenging productions of familiar operas. He followed Jacobson's example of allowing reviews of Met productions to be frank, and sometimes even allowing articles to be critical of Met favorites. I wrote two of those, so three enraged phone calls were received by the first publisher Patrick worked with, Patrick and me. I thought Joe Volpe was funny but I grew up like him and knew many people of the same sort. The WASPS shook. But Patrick stood his ground bravely.

Brian Kellow had been hired in Fitzgerald's time. A very ambitious not to say lean and hungry type, he became Patrick's right hand, and was a great help. For all Patrick's excellent intentions and right mindedness he was indecisive and disorganized. He had run a valuable small magazine about serious music with an emphasis on the new but Opera News had become quite a big proposition needing a tougher minded and more decisive editor. It is my memory that Kellow added pages, expanded photography and like Jacobson, allowed longer articles by a range of expensive writers. I also think he and Patrick expanded the staff. Advertising became more and more important to underwrite ambitious articles about opera everywhere, not just in New York. 

And that was when I was aware that there was anxiety that the magazine was becoming too expensive. Patrick left in 1998. During an interregnum, Kellow cleaned house but decided not to become editor, getting his long time friend, F. Paul Driscoll, an authority on Gilbert and Sullivan, to do that job, officially in 2003.

These two have run the magazine since. They tried various initiatives. Seeking to expand readership especially among a younger demographic, they put good looking, hunky baritones on the cover; they commissioned PEOPLE like tabloid interviews, such as the idiot I mentioned above, loved. They were dumbing the magazine down but not without reason. They were seeking advertisers and hoping that by presenting a hip, contemporary look and "vibe" they could attract people in the 18-39 year old demographic that advertisers want, and thereby attract more advertisers and perhaps increase the cost of advertising in the magazine. The gay angle became important. I believe the thinking was that gay men, supposedly and perhaps actually, the backbone of opera in America, have on average higher disposable incomes and even when older are more conversant with current trends.

However, they had to weather continuing crises in the economy, as well as a huge cultural shift, of which so many of the elderly and about to be ancient commentators on the 'Net (I am one myself) seem unaware. 

"High Culture" no longer means anything, there is no longer glamour and social status to be gotten at the Opera. Even Netrebko's impact is "soft" compared to the pop, movie and reality TV divas that get huge coverage in the most accessible markets of our culture, while opera and all other high art endeavors are entirely ignored. Surveys show not only a tiny number of people interested in various art forms (2.5% of Americans say they have an interest in opera and the spoken play for example) but younger people are farther and farther away from being exposed to any of the art forms inherited from the 19th century.

The death of newspapers and general interest magazines nearly all of which had substantial cultural pages thirty years ago, the total lack of mainstream TV production and discussion of any of the arts (in fact there's not even an on demand or pay cable channel showing the telecasts of opera, concerts and plays that are frequent in Europe) is devastating. PBS scheduling of Met HD telecasts and occasional concerts is often confusing, slotted in inconvenient time periods, and not carried at all in various parts of the country. Education in the arts is hap hazard when not lacking entirely. As he writes in Inside A Pearl, Edmund White was shocked that when he returned from twenty years writing in Europe that what he accepted as commonplace there, frequent discussions on main stream television and the radio of all the arts, with new novels, works of non fiction and their authors frequent guests not only to promote themselves but to debate and analyze what their colleagues were writing about struck Americans as bizarre. He and his many writer friends in France and England, in Germany and the Czech Republic were at least known by name to a large public; in America no one knew of any serious writers at all and there were absolutely no mainstream outlets for discussion of literary, historical, philosophical work. 

Moreover the cultural change I refer to means that people under 40 are far likelier to stay home and play video games, surf the net and multi-task in their rooms than they are to go out to anything. For example, overall attendance at movies has suffered as much as anything else. The wiping out of a serious, artistically oriented but commercial movie industry by remakes, endless reiterations of sci fi, superhero, cartoon character, "gangsta" style films of chases, shoot outs and mayhem, frat boy comedies and recently, movies that show that women can behave as disgustingly as men and achieve profitability is a tribute to the death of a varied but often seriously intended adult culture in this country. Movies now, many dependent on mechanics rather than scripts or acting and none in need of ideas, are an attempt to lure "tweens", teens and young adults in America. But they are also a concession to an unfortunate reality: a huge foreign market, which accounts for almost half and sometimes more of the money made by movies in general release. Extensive, sophisticated dialogue is hard to translate and means hiring expensive voice actors fluent in the many different languages, ideas can shock or enrage foreign cultures, better a fantasy about giant monsters and cars that become lethal people than anything that concerns real human beings. Old people can watch pay cable and the endless reruns in syndication of the sit comes of their youth and middle years.

Even if many of the popular movies of the studio era (its best years ended by 1955) were pulpy and manipulative, they included a huge range of actual human experiences, characters and dilemmas, enacted by recognizable human beings. Joan Crawford walks into the sea to kill herself after smoking a carton of cigarettes and knocking back a bottle of vodka. Her one time lover and protege, now a famous violinist, is playing the Liebestod in a concert being broadcast nationwide. That is the end of Humeresque, a hit of 1946, partially written by the great American playwright, Clifford Odets.

Although it has its amusing aspect, her sorrow and mourning for love lost, her understanding of what making serious music demands from those who would make careers doing it, the power of the music itself (played in a Franz Waxman arrangement by Isaac Stern) make an effect still for that waning population that understands what is happening. Showing this to a texting, sexting college class elicits yawns or guffaws and when questions are asked, much puzzlement about everything that has happened. Even bright young people who have educational backgrounds beyond the usual, no longer have the frame of reference such a movie demands; 90% of its original viewers had not gone to college and many had not finished high school. The brighter College students may be astute enough to disdain Godzilla or Transformers, they may agree that Neighbors is unfunny and improbable and oddly, titillatingly and pointlessly or dishonestly gay in subtext, but their brains and cultural awareness have been sabotaged anyway.

One statistic that has borne up through different kinds of polling is that the average person under 40 is watching three screens at once most of the time (some watch more screens simultaneously). For forms that require concentration, good short term memory, patience and intense focus, this is death.

So suddenly the light of day hits Opera News. Advertisers work from numbers. How many people read the magazine regularly and carefully. How many people get the magazine because they are Guild members but throw it out after at best a skim? The advertisers discount the skimmers. 

What is the age range of the average reader of Opera News? Advertisers want that younger demographic, but if they don't dominate the number of readers, it's not worth the money to advertise. What is the average amount of disposable income of those younger readers? For example if you have a circulation that is 250,000, people on limited incomes are only a part of the readership, you will have a significant number of well to do and rich readers.

Specialized industries, the producers and sellers of music that people actually buy, the makers and sellers of high end sound and picture reproducing equipment, "high priced opera tours", glamorous hotels -- the standbys of Opera News advertising, are either out of business or stressed by contemporary economic realities and ever changing trends in leisure time. Those who sell very high end fashion and accessories, trendy clothing, and gadgets have research that shows that customers are no longer mostly middle aged and older but a smaller number of younger people with large disposable incomes, But those people have no idea about opera, no interest in it and are better reached elsewhere than a magazine that no matter how broad and obvious its coverage has gotten does not attract them.

For young gay men The Opera, the Ballet, The Symphony, The Theater are no longer rights of passage into a cultured circle, but irrelevant, silly (visits to the gay discussion board Datalounge >get your fix of gay gossip, new and pointless bitchery< (http://www.datalounge.com) shows long threads where nothing but contempt is spewed at these arts forms beloved by elder scolds, as people younger than me who dare show an interest are called ("hisssssssssssss" is the way people my age are indicated.) But when I moved to New York in 1974, the hoards -- it seemed -- of younger gay men could be seen in standing room, as guests of better off older connoisseurs of those art forms and everybody had arts oriented talking points however superficial their interest was.

I assume this new Opera News publisher, from an odd background (the higher level skin magazines seem to have been her breeding ground), has demonstrated to the Board that she can turn some tricks to attract advertising -- maybe she has done it before. Presumably she has contacts in mass market advertisers and perhaps she can make a case to them. I have no idea if she will have an impact on what Opera News covers, how it looks, or how it is distributed and I don't know how dire the problem is (if she can do somewhat better than her predecessors it may be enough for now, particularly if the magazine cuts back on the number of pages and there is some thinning of the staff, Kellow is no kid and might be looking to retire, I assume he has the highest salary).

But Bob Kosovsky of Opera-L made a good point: Opera News itself is on line but other on line forums compete effectively with no or limited cost, especially among the somewhat younger people the magazine needs to BUY it and what it advertises. I wonder if the fate of Opera News is to become an exclusively on line enterprise? This can be done with a very small paid staff (three people?) and operate like Musical America and The Huffington Post. It can pick up articles published elsewhere (say in England and Europe, translators work cheap), it can find bloggers who will work for free, or if there are a few favorites they will blog for a pittance. Portal enterprises have not been a huge success except in porn (as witness the troubles of the New York Times on line and in general) but perhaps there can be a sort of subscription level to lure the obsessed to more detailed and "insider" style articles -- save those can be had in a lot of places for free on the 'Net.

Opera News was certainly a great institution for American opera lovers but one begins to have the feeling it is going to be yet another victim of the Koch Brothers culture: the creation of an uneducated, culturally ignorant, poorer but huge underclass, easily distracted, contemptuous of the higher things, who disdain unions and think it only just that they be exploited by a smaller ruling class.

12 comments:

  1. Once again, an important history lesson, and, even more so, current insight into a really puzzling world. Thanks, Mrs. JC.

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    1. Thanks, schmup53, good to see you again!!!

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  2. Welcome back! Boy have I missed you, especially these days when other opera forums are so busy preaching downward mobility and comparing Met artists to hamburger joint workers. I agree with schmup53. As always, a wonderful history lesson that I will read again and again. Your final paragraph hits it in the head. It is depressing to consider, but it seems the system has won. Don't let people be exposed to the best of the past and the present. God forbid they should aspire to a life that is more than the rat race, or even worse, they might realize the rat race is rigged anyway.

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  3. Thanks, Perfidia and it's good to see old pals back. Don't know how much I'll do here, though this one was fun. But there are relatively few readers and there's no winning against the morons who write about opera. I have rarely seen such ignorance as I have this last year. I am amazed that these people really don''t know what is going on in the decreasing world of opera and in the larger world of the new totalitarianism where people are in reality deprived of any chance to understand the world, to situate themselves at least in their minds in a better state of existence. Some of the opera creeps are part of the right wing coup that has occurred here in America, but the others are slightly more moneyed dupes. Of course as the arts die then those directly dependent on them, unionized and not, find their livelihoods destroyed. For those who've never struggled this is not a matter of concern. Having dealt with unions (though I am a member of several) from the management side twice, I understand that the goal of arts unions is to maximize pay for their members. In the arts there is so little money that trying to meet those pay demands and deal with rules that increase managements' outlay for union workers (definitions of over time and extra services for example) is onerous and sometimes impossible. Some union demands are unrealistic in terms of what failing institutions, or those that have to cut way back to survive, can manage. But the simple dismissal of unions and their workers that so many of these fools urge is just stupid. But any way glad you said hello!

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  4. Thanks, Albert, for you superb accounting of the history of our benighted Opera News, and related issues. Have been waiting for you latest, and so glad you have resurfaced. Huzzah! Jackie

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  5. Well my Opera News subscription is up for renewal and it's quite likely to lapse. I'm tired of the Page Two gals resplendent with fine gowns and jewelery (we get an occasional male thrown in every fourth month or so). The only think I find worthwhile are the infrequent interviews with singers of the past who have been forgotten by the greater public.

    The crux of your post is right on target as the media who cover the arts have shrunk to an imperceptible few. We have no more general interview shows (Charlie Rose does a good job over at Bloomberg but seldom has arts figures), magazines, and the newspaper world outside of the NY Times is worthless (some would argue that the Times is as well but at least there are some articles). I remember the days when Dick Cavett could devote two shows to a Renata Scotto interview (circa 1977 or so; my memory ain't what it used to be) but his like we will never see again.

    Gotta go get the Zoloft to perk me up after this reading!

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  6. Thank you, Alan (though sorry to drive someone to Zoloft!!). Looking at the statement of this new hire leads me to believe she expects to have much more say in content than has been typical of Opera News publishers in the past. I'm not sure that's a good sign given her background. Nothing wrong with the higher flesh zines but she doesn't even mention liking Opera! I doubt she knows anything about music (though as far as staff at Opera News now she could join the club, in the old days there were some conservatory graduates on staff). It makes me wonder about the survival of the Scylla and Charybdis of today's Opera News, F.Paul Driscoll and His Eminence Brian Kellow. Perhaps they recruited her, though I think their fleshly interests are quite other but perhaps they are going to be edged out? I don't know. Sad that Opera News is it.

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    1. Thank you for reading, Jasmine. This is my first time encountering your name.

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  8. It's good to see you posting again! Thank you for understanding and valuing what union musicians, singers, stagehands, et. al. contribute to opera. I find the anti-union sentiment from opera fans just plain revolting.

    The trip down memory lane with "Opera News" was fascinating. It must been during the Jacobson years when I spent a good five weeks worth of my allowance on a membership/subscription.

    Alas, the Koch inspired mantra from the rulers of the current culture appears to be, "if it's not profitable, it has no value." Short astronomically raising the tax rate on the wealthiest Americans and thereby making large, tax-deductible contributions to large, struggling arts organizations, I don't see much hope, at least not for the big players like the Metropolitan Opera.

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    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Joel. I agree with you. I suspect the Met will stumble on for a while, and a competent general manager might find some way for it to go on longer, but long range it's not a hopeful picture. Although one must be careful of "the grass is always greener" virus, it does appear that it is possible in Europe for arts to exist in our contemporary world. But while government subsidy is declining there, there is still enough collaboration between the governments, corporations and wealthy individuals for large institutions to continue and for artists to support themselves with the protections necessary for all workers.

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  9. Fascinating, detailed analysis of the history and the very sad future. Thanks, Mrs. J!

    I know several young'uns with a happy taste for what they haven't seen, read or heard -- you make me think they are even more extraordinary than I supposed.

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