Elitism and the Marketplace in Opera

One of the ironies implicit in the Mac Donald essay, discussed in this forum yesterday, is that traditional and respectful performances of the standard repertory may soon be presented by, and enjoyed by, a sort of elite; an elite distinguished by sane cultural values as opposed to a common denominator of hubristic trash which will come to “abduct” operatic culture.  Well, this is unlikely, except just possibly in Germany, but it could happen, I guess. It seems like it is happening, actually, by some barometers.

Mac Donald doesn’t address the underlying cause of why opera administrators, and in some cases the public as well, are duped by the excesses of Eurotrash.  I can suggest at least one reason; the narrowing of the repertory.  I know “opera lovers” who only like a half dozen or so operas, and aren’t even interested in anything else.  And in America, you could probably retain most of your audience with Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Die Zauberfloete, Rigoletto, La Traviata, La Boheme, Salome, and an occasional Ring cycle.  Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating.  But the situation with the repertory is unhealthy, and it may be that in order to attract new audiences mangers feel like Eurotrash is a “Hail Mary” option. And this despite booming ticket sales, because ticket sales are necessary, but not enough.

This is why elites are important. Elites, or even pejoratively, snobs, perform a useful function.  Whether they are sincere or not, they provide a kind of bulwark against unrestrained lowest common-denominatorship.  Consider talk radio or network TV to get an idea of what lowest common denominatorship can come to mean.  It’s unfortunate to have the Lyric Opera put on Pirates of Penzance, charming as it is, as they did a few years ago, because lesser houses can handle this! ( I think that there were significant budgetary issues here, which of course one needs to take into account).

I understand that what I am about to say may appear arrogant and insufferably elitist, which it is not my intention, and in my considered judgement the idea I’m espousing will create a better operatic climate:

Opera is special, and needs to be handled specially, because of its intrinsic cultural worth, and because of its dauntingly high price tag, which means that you simply can’t charge enough for tickets to sustain it by traditional marketplace mechanisms. Like most marketplaces in the entertainment sphere, an operatic marketplace will eventually create a lowest common denominator, a custodial culture rather than a creative one, when left without special handling by cultural and funding institutions. 

Opera houses, when desiring to put on new works, will choose anodyne pap which 10,000 people don’t mind hearing, and won’t withdraw their subscriptions because of, rather then some challenging work which a tiny minority really loves, but some irate customers might write letters to the editor about. This is to some extent true of productions, as well, which is why I worry about the Eurotrash lunatics.  They may spoil it for truly gifted directors, like Robert Carsen, for instance.  A case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, or even the tub itself.

Works like Moses und Aron, for instance, need to be put on occasionally (not as often as Carmen, O.K.!) even if there isn’t a big public for them, in Chicago or New York, at least, if not in Des Moines or Detroit.  Why? Why provide a product without a big enough market? Because opera is special, and the work is great, and needs to be kept alive.  Why is it great? Because elite professors write books about it? Well, la-di-dah! …yes, partly because recognized experts value it.  Products in science and industry, intended to improve our lives, are supported all the time by various underwriters, products of which the public is unaware, but need.  Maybe we need some culture, as well.  I guess I am an elitist, because I don’t think of opera as entertainment, but as something much more, which deserves promotion as well as protection from the ravages of an undiluted marketplace model.

In America, the word elite,  when applied to a snooty opera lover, is a dirty word.  But I’d like to point out that we Americans worship elites all the time;  athletes (who at least exist in a meritocracy), the super-rich who are notorious for being super-inane, amateur TV singers who couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, etc., etc. These elites get many advantages, and media saturation almost forces us to participate, at least passively, in their elevation.  Popular culture is all too pervasive, and authentic culture has to keep apologizing for itself. Recently, in the Chicago Tribune, the, I think, head of National Endowment for the Arts, a poet, lamented precisely this.  That the average American can’t name living poets, conductors, scientists, etc. constitutes a cultural crisis was the point she made, and a good one it is.