Thursday, November 22, 2007

Perilous Ploys

As the arts have been forced into keener competition with commercial entertainment in an attempt to snag the consumer's leisure dollar, the perverse power of specialty marketing has come under closer scrutiny. While 1990 witnessed half the corporations in America trying to embrace "green marketing" in their efforts to cash in on the popular appeal of environmentally sound products, 1991 has become the year in which Mozart's name dominates arts marketing.

Under such umbrellas as the "Mostly Mozart" Festival, "Mainly Mozart" Festival, "Glory of Mozart" Festival or Davenport, Iowa's "Quad Cities Mozart Festival," arts marketers are leaving no score unturned in an attempt to sell Mozart to the masses. For organizations like the San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Opera (which regularly perform Mozart's music), the international celebration of the bicentennial of Mozart's death has given an added boost to their efforts. Enough people are already familiar with Mozart's name to help sell tickets to performances of his music. However, the breadth of events which comprise San Francisco's "Mozart And His Times" Festival make one wonder just how all-inclusive any marketing umbrella should be.

During the 1970s, a study done by the Seattle Opera revealed that each tourist dollar arriving in town for the Pacific Northwest Wagner Festival rolled over 7.5 times in the local economy. Further studies have indicated that the arts are an invaluable magnet for tourist dollars and that the spill-off into restaurants, parking lots and other businesses has a definite impact on the local economy.

Fifteen years ago, when Kurt Herbert Adler attempted to launch a citywide summer arts festival, he was a few steps ahead of his time. San Franciscans were not yet ready to support such a venture and, although Adler was determined to have the San Francisco Opera pioneer the creation of such a festival, the requisite funding and audience were not in place which could ensure that a summer festival might become a yearly event.

It's no secret that the City of San Francisco hopes to use this year's "Mozart And His Times" Festival as a means of attracting tourist dollars. Of equal importance, however, is the festival's importance as a means of justifying more arts funding from the City's hotel tax fund.

Stretching the definition of a festival in an attempt to include everyone can dilute the focus of the event. With more than 50 resident arts organizations participating in this year's citywide festival -- no matter how thin their artistic connection to Mozart -- artistic administrators hope that "Mozart And His Times" can act as the catalyst which will strengthen San Francisco's artistic community and foster future festivals.

That's all well and fine when the marketing message matches the product. But what happens when the message and product veer off in opposite directions? Americans live in a world of superlatives, where every media event is billed as the hottest thing since the invention of the wheel. And building brand loyalty is a difficult task.

With a Barnum-like intensity, opera is often portrayed as the biggest, grandest and most spectacular art form on earth. Unfortunately, one encounters many operatic occasions in which a performance is a dud and the audience leaves the auditorium severely disappointed. On such nights, one can't help wondering if an extremely expensive art form hasn't fallen victim to its own hype.

I witnessed this phenomenon last fall, when the New York City Opera presented a new production of Ravel's L'Enfant et les Sortileges in a production shared with England's prestigious Glyndebourne Festival. Designed by Maurice Sendak and directed by Frank Corsaro (with animation sequences by San Francisco artist Ron Chase), this production did a superb job of capturing the fantasy elements of an opera wherein the inanimate targets of a little boy's reckless abuse (chairs, teapot, etc.,) gang up to torment him. In many ways, L'Enfant et les Sortileges is the French equivalent of Where The Wild Things Are (the opera based upon Sendak's award-winning children's book with music composed by Oliver Knussen).

Now, a double bill of Where The Wild Things Are and L'Enfant et les Sortileges might have been quite fascinating. But instead, Glyndebourne and NYCO opted for a double bill of two one-act operas by Maurice Ravel: L'Enfant et les Sortileges and L'Heure Espagnole. Because of the strength of Sendak's name recognition as a marketing tool, a solid week of performances was scheduled. In what looked like a practice drill for the New York City Ballet's upcoming performances of Nutcracker, flocks of youngsters could be seen in the audience.

What's wrong with this picture? Part of the problem may be that, to my knowledge, neither Sendak, Corsaro or Chase live with any children. And, although L'Enfant et les Sortileges boasts a strong appeal to intellectuals who like to fantasize about the inner workings of a child's mind, it is hardly what you would call a children's opera. Ravel's score is distinctly remote from the sounds today's children listen to and, even with Supertitles, the plot is incomprehensible to most of the adults in the audience. While the easy association for a marketing professional would be to exploit Sendak's name to the max as a means of boosting box office sales, marketing Ravel's double bill as an entertainment for children is a serious mistake.

As fate would have it, my sister (a children's librarian) accompanied me to this performance. After the show, we shared our surprise and indignation about what was being marketed to New Yorkers as a piece of "family entertainment." Having interviewed Maurice Sendak and seen much of his work, I'm acutely aware that the famed American artist-illustrator has a dark streak to his mind. As a professional librarian, my sister has witnessed recent Sendak books (which she and other librarians are loath to recommend to parents) being hyped to the trade as the ideal gifts for children.

Whatever differences of opinion my sister and I may have had about the performance itself, one thing became crystal clear: An opera company attempting to introduce children to opera through a highly intellectual offering like City Opera's double bill might, in reality, be performing a gross disservice to the art form. Why? A production like this one stands a better chance of alienating young operagoers from the art form for life than it does of converting them to budding operaphiles.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on May 30, 1991.

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