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Susanne Mentzer

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Facing the Music

Posted: 08/21/11 06:25 PM ET

Let's face it. With the stock markets yo-yoing and Congress behaving as it is, the arts are a pretty low priority in the short haul. Relying on government funding seems to be a losing proposition and has been for some time. I find it hard to argue with that right now, much as I bite the hand that feeds me. This does not mean all is lost. I firmly believe the arts and humanities will not disappear. They have survived wars, depressions, recessions and worse. I do believe there might be a need for a change in the performing arts model, most specifically in classical music and opera (CMO).

A sobering financial reality is that performers and staff of CMO organizations need to make a living wage, receive benefits, pay for school loans and support their families, like everyone else. How can all this translate into a less expensive, high quality, more accessible "product" but still cover the above? Orchestras are crumbling right and left from the weight of wages, retirement benefits, combined with fewer charitable donations and poor endowment income due to the state of the economy. There is a trend now towards pay for play, which is the way most soloists are paid, and assures no stability.

Personally, I only know the non-profit model so I may be talking out of my ear. Should we be thinking outside the holy non-profit box? Charitable deductions may not exist forever. The advertisers of for-profit events rely on reaching many people. The thimbleful of audience members for CMO does not seem important to them. Can we encourage sponsors to wave the bottom line to sponsor altruistically? At one point the large sports and celebrity agency IMG also had a classical musician division that did not make money but the leader, Mark McCormack felt it important to keep the arts going. Mr. McCormack had an untimely death and that model fell apart.

Then there is the audience. Most live CMO events need a commitment of time and sitzfleish. How do we attain this when our culture is so accustomed to 30-minute television shows, tweets, blogs, news crawls, pod casts and on-demand content?

There are different camps when it comes to the imaging of classical music events. Not everyone is comfortable in a marble hall with plush red upholstery and chandeliers. Heck, I am still uncomfortable shopping at upscale department stores. On the other hand, I also remember attending San Francisco Opera as a standee when I was a student and it was quite an exciting and heady experience.

Is it possible to lose the image of a lofty activity for the wealthy? At one time that image was everything. There was an allure to attending a dressy event to watch people in formal black wear, tuxes and tails make wonderful sounds. In this day of anything goes we might benefit from adding "un-diva like" appearances in accessible places.

Are we backed into the corner of bigger is better?

It might be time to pare down to smaller, more grass roots efforts to keep OCM in our culture. Kudos to the few groups that are performing in a relaxed environment, bars or non-palatial locales, even in public spaces. The intimacy factor can be wonderful. Some opera companies have used singers to seemingly spontaneously burst into song at a local market or on public transportation. Maybe CMO should be presented with the same enthusiasm as sports events. The simulcast events from the San Francisco Opera at AT&T Park are a big hit.

As with sports, performances that are live, in real time, can have that "anything can happen" excitement. Any CMO fan knows that a performance is tantamount to a marathon.
Reviews could be like sports stats:

Johnny Smithini sang eight totally in tune high C's during last night's performance, breaking his own personal record, giving him a high note average of .346.

(I must note that performing in Italy feels like a spectator sport, with fans nearly breaking into brawls over the leading soprano's performance. Taking a bow there is truly frightening. One doesn't know whether to laugh, cry or duck.)

Outreach programs are great but some only expose people to OCM. If only it were as easy as "monkey see-monkey do." The more successful programs seem to include participation. At one time in the far past 20th century there were outlets for amateur musicians to use the talents that they learned high school. There were community chorales, orchestras and bands. One did not necessarily need to be a professional musician to enjoy performing. These same people added to the audience for professional OCM. In today's world it is professional or bust, for the most part.

Granted, learning classical music is great for the brain and should be a given whether there are outlets or not, but that argument seems to fall on deaf ears and does not seem to motivate many except parents playing Mozart CDs for their infants.

Thank goodness a few amateur groups still exist, yet they are fewer and far between. My personal favorite is the doctors' orchestra's comprised of ... you guessed it -- physicians. Many teens put together rock, punk, metal, folk bands in the family garage. How many actually put together classical music ensembles? A capella vocal ensembles seem to pop up from time to time. They have low overhead, no instruments and quite a portable product. Easy.

Where is the MTV for classical music? How about award shows for classical events? I love listening to the NPR show "From the Top," which features young classical musicians from around the country. It includes personal profiles and interviews. Their web site states:

From the Top shares the stories and performances of pre-collegiate musicians with millions each week. Each program provides a compelling and entertaining window into the world of a diverse group of young people, who pursue life with passion, determination, and joy. From the Top is an independent organization based in Boston.

I would suspect the audience it reaches is already enthusiastic. That is tantamount to preaching to the choir. Wouldn't it be great if it could be aired on commercial radio and TV a la American Idol?

How about focusing on the people who make the music? There are a few summer programs where the audience comes to hear young upcoming talent and also to observe open master classes. I am always impressed with the number of people who do and who, for the most part, seem to be retirees. The Aspen Music Festival and School, Tanglewood Music Center and The Music Academy of the West are three such venues.

Try getting to know an instrumentalist or singer.

I suggest reaching out to a young artist. One could encourage and follow a young instrumentalist or singer as they develop through high school and college. Sit down with these musicians and ask questions about the process. Attend their performances and take them to lunch. Observe a lesson with their master teacher and maybe even try to do what they do. Learn first hand from the inside. Yes, financial patronage is great, as old or older as classical music itself, but not everyone has the means. We all can share time and interest.

I have always thought that if someone could just sit in the middle of an orchestra or stand next to a singer onstage they would have a totally new perspective. When I sit on stage with an orchestra during a Mahler Symphony the floor shakes and the energy of the 60 or more players is palpable. There is an incredible dynamic occurring that has nothing to do with volume.

For us to save, respect, and popularize the arts, drastic changes need to be made. Unfortunately, I do not have answers but I do have questions which, as they say in counseling, is a start. No doubt these are not original ideas but I am throwing them out there in hopes of a new perspective from readers. If you are a fan of CMO please share this article with someone who is not.