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Playing Chicken With A Hornet’s Nest: A Follow-Up About Opera

This post brought to you by the Department of “That Escalated Quickly!”

I’m not sure where to begin, other than to say that this is a post I’ve been mulling over for a while.  My previous post, in which I called for an end to the Metropolitan Opera’s opera quiz, generated more traffic to this blog that any post written by me or anyone else.  It created a firestorm on Facebook on a fan page for devotees of the Met’s HD broadcasts, a crossfire of vitriol and insults on a radio colleague’s personal page, and a reasoned but tense debate on a social media forum for classical music public radio personnel.  In a stroke of bad luck (some would say karma), I caught a nasty case of stomach flu not long after publishing the post, adding a bit of intrigue to a very crazy 48 hours.  Thankfully, a few close friends and colleagues told me to take an internet break, which I did – and it’s why I stopped responding to most of the noise.  But it’s time to respond now.

A lot of the critiques of my post centered around the fact that I admitted to not being a regular listener of the broadcasts.  This is a reasonably fair point, but the flip side is that I was writing about why I generally choose not to listen.  If you’re devoted to something (and for the sake of argument, let’s say it’s frequenting the same restaurant on a regular basis), chances are your complaints about that restaurant will be slim.    If you’re not a regular diner at that restaurant, but you experience what you feel to be unfriendly service or poor food on the occasions that you do go, your opinion of that restaurant suffers.  But maybe you know the owners, or you believe in the restaurant’s mission (let’s say it’s farm-to-table, which is all the rage these days), and you think it has the potential to offer something valuable to your community.  Rather than giving up on it, you provide feedback.  As a non-frequent diner with constructive criticism, that kind of feedback should be very important to the restaurant’s owner, whose business’s survival depends on a growing customer base.  Similarly, as someone who enjoys opera immensely in person, but who has issues with its presentation on the radio, my opinion should hold some water.

Unfortunately, it appears the Met doesn’t appear to see it that way in terms of its radio product.  I didn’t hear much from the Met itself regarding my post, although I did see a comment on Facebook from an associate producer of the Met’s broadcasts asking if I had “learned my lesson” from the WFIU opera debacle in 2013.  Putting aside the fact that a) a critique of one element of the Met broadcasts is not a call to eliminate the broadcasts completely and b) this person’s comment was rather unprofessional in the world of radio (a more appropriate response from a program producer to a carriage station employee would have been to facilitate a further conversation), it illustrates a greater problem the Met has as an institution: it thinks it is above any form of criticism, given its high (perhaps highest) prominence in the world of opera.  That’s not a road I want to go down right now, as this is a radio blog, not an opera blog, and I’m sure many of the readers of this blog are well aware of the Met’s dwindling audience and financial woes. The point is maybe the Met should listen to more people like me who feel pushed aside by its arrogance.

Another critique of my post was directed at my claim that opera on the radio is automatically at a disadvantage because the visual element of opera is missing.  Here’s my favorite quote (hashtag-LOL):

You’re entitled to your need for visuals in order to enjoy opera, the same way that some unsophisticated people “need” sugar to enjoy espresso.

Gag me.  If this attitude  is typical of people who claim to be fans of and ambassadors for opera, then opera is truly doomed.  I hope it isn’t.  I did have a more constructive conversation via text message with a college friend of mine, however, about this topic.  She is a trained operatic mezzo-soprano, and said to me:

Your article confirms my frustration that instrumentalists haphazardly write off opera and singing as illegitimate classical music contributions because “without the stuff that isn’t singing it’s lame.”

Guilty as charged, I guess, kind of?  I am a pianist, but I don’t think opera is lame without visuals, I just think it’s missing something important.  I never said that the music isn’t awesome.  If the visuals aren’t important, why did the Met spend $16 million on the incredibly complex sets for the Robert Lepage production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle?  Food for thought.

Another text I got from my friend gets closer to the heart of my argument:

I think what sucks about your personal opinion piece is that you, yourself, don’t seem all that interested in taking the plunge to learn more about opera, and you’re one of the educated few who might actually find something redeeming about the art form from those uber intellectual discussions/quizzes.

Here, I think she accidentally makes my argument stronger.  First of all, by saying “actually find something redeeming” she implies that finding anything redeeming about the quizzes is rather difficult.  More broadly, though, there are varying levels at which someone “takes the plunge” in learning about anything in life.  I am admittedly not an opera expert, but I enjoy it, and there are plenty of tidbits I pick up frequently that I find fascinating.  Just the other day I was reading about the first performance of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” and how it was an absolute disaster.  Evidently composer Giovanni Paisiello had written his operatic version of the story several years prior, and sent his minions to the Rossini premiere to raise a ruckus.  Paisiello was basically an operatic Kanye West (rumor has it, before the final act, one of the minions said “Imma let you finish.”).  That’s the kind of stuff I want to hear about opera on the radio, not a bunch of experts listening to ancient recordings trying to identify the voices of divas long departed or listing the complete Donizetti roles sung by whoever.  There is no value in that knowledge for anyone who’s trying to learn more about the art.  There are plenty of more scholarly resources out there for those who want to delve deeper into opera (or anything else for that matter).

This leads me to another quote, from a fellow public radio music director:

If the opera audience is largely an “elite” group of older listeners, who value something like the traditional quiz/intermission features, why not just let them have what they want….As someone who has made it a personal and professional mission to cultivate newer and younger audiences on the radio at local performances, I’ve discovered that there is a time and place for everything. The Met radio broadcasts are for opera lovers who are either pretty knowledgeable, wish they were more pretty knowledgeable, or THINK they are pretty knowledgeable. I think that’s why they sound pretty much the way they always have.

This is the crux of the problem, and it is one of mission.  In a world with a growing number of options for listening to music of any type, do we as radio stations really want to be using our FM frequencies to facilitate private clubs for small groups of experts?  When you say something like “why not just let them have what they want?” in regards to the die-hard older opera crowd, what you’re ALSO saying implicitly is that that programming is NOT for everyone else’s enjoyment. We should never say, explicitly or implicitly, that any of our programming is not meant for certain people, or meant ONLY for certain other groups. That goes against the very mission of all of public radio, not just classical music radio.  There has to be a middle ground for radio stations and program producers (including those at the Met) to cast a wider net for the radio audience.  As for the deeper, expert stuff, there are many outlets that radio stations can exploit in the digital arena to cater to that audience.  If we do the over-the-air content right, maybe the number of experts will grow, and maybe some of them can lead opera to a brighter future.

One Response to Playing Chicken With A Hornet’s Nest: A Follow-Up About Opera

  1. Stephen P Brown March 28, 2016 at 5:55 pm #

    I thought I’d submitted a comment supporting your point, but I don’t see it there. I am not a fan of either the Met Opera’s radio quizzes, nor the manner in which classical music tends to be broadcast on the radio in the USA in general. Long have I sought a more inclusive middle-of-the-road classical music station that bridges the gap between the commercialism most folk are used to/ can identify with, and the great classical music they are missing out on.

    Like the UK’s Classic FM. People slated it when it started 24 years ago, especially those who revered the affected BBC Radio 3 [lack of] personalities. I loved Classic FM and was chastised almost as much as you have been, Joe. Now? Many more folk listen to Classic FM, classical music sales are up, and orchestra/ ballet/ opera events in the UK are more popular than they have been since 1970s. Many of those former critics have since appeared on Classic FM in interviews and even as hosts.

    I’m with you that the ancient diatribes perpetuating the Met’s exclusivity have no place in a healthy society. But there’s no indication a healthy society is even on their radar, let alone wanted. These people are clearly seeking self-gratification and are not interested in helping to make opera appealing to anyone outside the tribe of zealots already sucked into Metworld, and they are obviously delighted to defend that they get pandered to by something as formerly well-respected as the Met. If they fund the Met, let the Met serve them and retain its deserved elitist reputation. When the Met’s support dwindles sufficiently it will either alter its output (I might be right there supporting it) or die out alongside its current funders (I might be right there alongside whatever replaces it).

    Whatever ‘they’ continue to do, there is still room for others to do their own opera-related quizzes on the radio… hint hint.

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