Classical music world off to a shaky new year

Haven't even got half way through January, and the classical music world is looking rather shaky.

The tremors started as 2009 was winding down. We're still dealing with the fallout from a study by the NEA, backed with further analysis by the League of American Orchestras, that emerged over the past couple of months, revealing that audiences for the symphony, opera and the like are aging and dwindling more than previously thought -- and not being replenished. So much for the commonly held belief that folks who reach upper middle or lower senior age are apt to gravitate to the fine arts.

There was even bad news last month about listenership for classical music stations taking a 10 percent plunge when a new, supposedly more accurate, ratings system was introduced.

Now, in the early days of 2010, we've got orchestras in two cities, Cleveland and Seattle, experiencing intense troubles over negotiations. The Clevelanders are threatening to go on strike because musicians are unhappy over salary reduction proposals from management. (The $152,000 average compensation for players last year is not winning them a lot of sympathy in the blogosphere.) 

Things aren't exactly rosy in other places. The New York Philharmonic just reported

a deficit of more than $4 million last season, and anticipates another $4 this season; the Baltimore Symphony will, when the official audit is completed, reveal a substantial deficit from last season.

And, as if things weren't depressing enough, the fat lady can't even get on stage, let alone signal that the opera ain't over. Daniela Dessi, a respected soprano who falls comfortably between anorexic and obese, walked out of a "La Traviata" production at the Rome Opera after director Franco Zeffirelli criticized her weight. He was quoted in news reports saying, "A woman of a certain age and plumpness is not credible in the character of Violetta ... She is is not exactly the kind of woman who is likely to die of tuberculosis." She fired back, "You don’t sing with the body but with the voice." (Dessi told the press she is 143 pounds and about 5'3.)

I'm not sure which of these items discourages me more. I hate to think that culture is losing its grip on the public at a greater clip than feared, although none of us can have believed that classical music would thrive in an age when reality shows are mistaken for reality; when so much attention is paid to superficiality, inanity, triviality and talentless buffoons; when, to borrow an Oscar Wilde observation, people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

And I certainly don't like the sight of orchestras having labor strife. With the country still weighed down by the recession, and with players in so many orchestra having given back money and benefits to help keep their organizations afloat, this sure seems, well, risky to be insisting on salary retention. This may be the toughest economic time for the arts ever, and it should be a time when all sides find common ground, pull together and just get on with it, for the sake of the greater good. If audiences are now getting older and smaller at a faster rate than before, how ironic if orchestras were to drive people away with picket lines now.  

Maybe Daniela Dessi's problems pale in comparison with the other stuff, but I find it a really annoying story. It's just the latest indication of how, over the past several years, the opera world has gone slightly nutty, has tilted so far to the visual side of the equation that the whole point of opera is getting lost. It's about the singing, stupid -- the quality of the voice, the artistry of the phrasing, the ability to communicate the essence of a character first of all vocally, with the dramatic element added to the equation, not replacing the aural. It just bugs me to keep hearing this singer-must-look-the-part argument, whether from directors or critics. Opera is a difficult balancing act, with all sorts of components that need to work in harmony, but if there's any tilting, I'd rather it be toward the ear, not the eye. 

Oh well, I'd suggest you fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy year.       

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