Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Fighting Elitism In The Arts

For many years, opera was referred to as an elitist acti­vity, the "plaything of the rich." However, what was once the exclusive domain of the privileged few now belongs, irretrievably, to the masses. Today, any city with a decent-sized airport probably has an opera company. Two decades of live performances telecast into the liv­ing rooms of millions of American homes have democra­tized and desegregated the art form by eliminating some of the rigid socioeconomic barriers which once prevented people from entering an opera house. As our nation's cultural landscape continues to change, what was once a 400-year-old European art form is rapidly becoming a popular form of entertainment.

Futurists warn that, in the 1990s, impresarios will discover the operatic audience fragmenting itself into smaller market niches which need to be lured into the theater with new and different sales techniques. They tell us that, even as another recession looms on the horizon, the costs of doing business will continue to escalate without mercy. Only a fool could ignore the handwriting on the wall. With social causes such as AIDS and the homeless having much more urgency than the need to mount a new production of Tosca, opera's fundraisers are going to be forced to work much harder to raise less money in upcoming seasons.

Alas, general directors who spend their time entertain­ing donors at fundraising events (or in their theater's "Green Room" during intermissions) don't always ex­perience the diversity of their audiences on a first-hand basis. Some ofthe harsher realities of professional fund­raising which confront many development directors mean that the main floor and box sections of most American opera houses are now divided according to the priorities of donor seating. Donations are de rigeur for admission to most pre- and post-performance social events.

Thus, despite the influx of new and younger audiences, a peculiar mix of financial pressures is transforming opera, once again, into an elitist art form. Even as this insidious type of economic discrimination is becoming more and more institutionalized, newcomers to the operatic art form are encountering a severe form of in­tellectual snobbism from the old-timers in the audience.

Those who do not enter the theater possessing a musicologist's appreciation of the evening's opera are sometimes looked upon as Neanderthals. Others are regarded as social climbers and/or "Yuppie scum." Dur­ing a recent (and rather tedious) argument about the pros and cons of Supertitles, a well-known conductor turned to me and asked, "Do we really want the type of
people who need Supertitles coming into our opera houses?" I quickly reminded him that without that au­dience, he wouldn't have a job.

While such expressions of economic and intellectual one-upsmanship subtly work to keep the people who make opera at a distance from their audiences, the urgency with which most opera lovers are forced to leave the theater as soon as a performance is over adds another rude shock to the operagoing experience. In most situa­tions, audiences must abandon the warmth of an audi­torium, where they have intimately shared a common dramatic experience with up to 3,000 people, to re-enter the "real world." Some are confronted with the cold sterility of a parking garage; others battle the noisy pressures of pedestrian and street traffic. All too frequently, the emotional high from the performance they've just attended evaporates into thin air.

Like any other opera company, the Opera Theater of St. Louis holds plenty of fundraising functions throughout the year. But, after attending a performance at the Loretto-Hilton Theater, the operatic experience is allowed to linger on one's palate. Since Webster Groves, Missouri, does not exactly bustle with nightlife, after each performance, the cast, crew, administration, and au­dience make a habit of adjourning to the company's gaily-striped "Pavilion Tent" to socialize.

Of course, many audience members head straight for the parking lot as soon as they exit the theater. But for those who choose to stay and visit, the fact that a per­son is alive, friendly, and interested in opera is all that matters. Anyone of any station is free to chat with anyone else. It doesn't matter whether you're dressed in a tux or a T-shirt, in jumper or jeans. The only price of admission is a smile.

Often referred to as America's answer to Glynde­bourne, OTSL also invites its audiences to picnic on the lawn surrounding the Loretto-Hilton Theater (or at the chairs and tables under its open-air tents) before each and every performance. Since many of OTSL's singers have been involved in extensive community outreach work, one notices a genuine sense of family among the artists, administrators, and operagoers gathered in and around the Pavilion Tent. OTSL's special tradition is a phenomenon unique to this pioneering opera company. And it is with great pleasure that the editors of Opera Monthly salute this simple expression of Midwestern hospitality-a coming together of opera lovers which, although born out of necessity, has evolved into a shining (and all too rare) symbol of democracy at work in the arts.

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This article originally appeared in the June 1989 issue of Opera Monthly magazine.

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