Onstage and online: Can Louisille's arts scene survive the Internet? [Arts]

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This article appears in the November 2010 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.

The arts in America are facing their sternest challenges ever, and they are not all recession-related. The Metropolitan Opera, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and a number of prestigious festivals are marketing their glittering product to home theaters in high-definition downloads of dazzling quality, and at a relatively low price. Can our local arts groups compete? Does this and other developments presage their extinction, or will the worldwide reach of the international companies offer a chance to reverse the aging and decline of the local audience for live arts groups?

Naturally, directors Rob Birman at the Louisville Orchestra and David Roth at Kentucky Opera see hope and opportunity for their companies, but others are less sanguine. Baltimore Opera has closed down, and Cleveland Opera, formerly a powerhouse of regional operatic vitality, is threatened with restructuring and possible demise, with half its staff laid off and a season in limbo. A number of regional orchestras have shuttered.

Management at Cleveland Opera is blaming competition from live relays of Met performances, which are shown in movie theaters all over the country, including Louisville. Roth, Fund for the Arts head Allan Cowen and Broadway Series founder Brad Broecker (and I) say this is a crock: Cleveland’s vast 2,000-seat hall stands in a deserted downtown. The style of performance needed to fill such a hall — vast choruses, large orchestra, loud singers — are a financial anachronism in today’s creaking economy. In other words, Cleveland Opera’s business model is outdated.

But will new technologies and economic forces snuff out high numbers of regional companies? The doomsayers have plenty of ammunition. Audiences for live arts events are visibly aging. Whole generations — the young, the married-with-children and the working middle-aged — are seldom spotted in theaters and concert halls amid the sea of gray hair. (There are exceptions: Kentucky Opera has recently had success in attracting the young with prom-like, dress-up, champagne-toasted premieres.)

Meanwhile, Metropolitan Opera high-definition relays, live from the stage of the Met to a multiplex near you, have been a phenomenal success. In its first year, 2006-’07, general manager Peter Gelb’s “great gamble” played a repertory of six operas to 325,000 viewers and listeners in 248 cities worldwide, 60 of them in the U.S. Last season, an estimated 2.4 million people watched nine operas in a staggering 528 U.S. cinemas (including two in Louisville, Tinseltown and Stonybrook). The total number of cinemas worldwide in 2009-’10 was 1,135.

This season’s schedule comprises 11 operas, including two installments of the Met’s giant new high-tech “Ring Cycle”: Das Rheingold (performed in October) and Die Walküre (due in May). The range of the Met performances could never be matched by a regional company. It runs from light comedies like Don Pasquale, starring the enchanting Anna Netrebko, through titans of the 19th century repertoire, all the way to modern works like Nixon in China. The casts include all the world’s current “greats”: Netrebko, Natalie Dessay, Bryn Terfel as Wotan in the Ring, Juan Diego Flórez (the most enchanting tenor in the world at present) as Count Ory, and René Pape (the greatest bass singing today) in the title role of Boris Godunov. The list appears endless.

David Roth responds, realistically: “The Met has a budget of $280 million; ours is $2 million. Met HD tickets are $22; our cheapest are $25. We cannot compete on spectacle or price. Where we can compete is on the whole experience.”

And the Met broadcasts are the tip of an iceberg. The Berlin Philharmonic has an entire season’s subscription available on download to your computer, live, in real time and backed by an archive of past concerts. Through this paid-for-at-home series the Berlin Phil is reaching out to acquire not just new listeners but a new contributor base. Rob Birman sees this as no threat: A digitized Berlin Phil, to his mind, is no competition for a live Louisville Orchestra experience. He says that if other regional orchestras, like Cincinnati Symphony or Nashville Symphony, were readily available online, that might be a concern.

Besides, who wants to watch a concert on their laptop? No one, I say. But connect the laptop to a small projector and home theater speakers and the answer becomes: I do! What would I download? The prestigious Swiss festival in Verbier, which now simulcasts in broadband for subscription, for one; and what was recently the world’s hottest arts ticket (a performance of Die Walküre from the Bayreuth Festival), which was available this year in real time, for another.

Festivals like Bayreuth, Glyndebourne and Salzburg are open-air events that take place over a short season, usually in summer, and condense their entire year’s work into a brief performance span. The alternative is the repertory system, where performances are spread out over, typically, the winter months. But all the most successful medium-scale opera ensembles in America are now festivals: St. Louis, Glimmerglass, Santa Fe, Central City. With their complete experience of a pretty setting, picnics on the lawn, warm nights and cool drinks, they remain the most successful format — outside of the largest cities — for experiencing opera in the United States.

Kentucky Opera has made a step in the direction of a festival format with its condensed fall season. I believe it could go further and contain its season in one month, presenting a “first night” every weekend so that locals attend one opera a week during the festival. Visitors to the final weekend, like out-of-towners who can see several performances in a short period of time from the Humana Festival of New American Plays, could buy the whole repertory condensed into those final days. That way national critics might come, and so will the tourists, to get three productions in one weekend. Marketing, tourism and production dollars can be concentrated into one month, with huge savings, increased clout and greater public-relations impact.

Traditionalists might shriek at this suggestion, as expected, but history may judge that Roth’s decision to move his entire season into the fall, and more particularly, into the cozy spaces of the Brown Theatre, rather than the acoustically sterile Whitney Hall, as something that saved his company from extinction.

Not surprisingly, he was adamantly opposed by a section of the old guard who are often, alas, the bulwark of his financial support, and also, I argue, opera’s deadliest foes. By resisting all modern work (meaning anything written in the last 100 years, Turandot apart), by insisting on all operas being performed in languages none of them speaks or understands, and by expecting all operas to look the way they did in Granny’s time, they close the doors to any form of progress. (I know supertitles, projected translations of the lyrics, are great for some non-comedic works, but they turn the experience from primarily a listening one into a reading one, and come between that visceral connection between the artist and the listener.)

So how is Roth to win? “Where we can compete,” he says, “is in the complete experience: an evening out, dressing up, having dinner, coming into this elegant hall, the Brown Theatre. We are creating a social experience you cannot get in the cinema.”

Cowen, top executive at the Fund for the Arts since 1976, emphatically endorses Roth’s view. Cowen says that, “The complete experience — from the glass of champagne when you arrive, through the experience of a beautiful performing space, to the after-show party — is what will win out in the end over any impersonal experience in the cinema.” He notes the adjacent luxury and facilities of the Brown Hotel and English Grill, envisions a stage-door bar where artists and public mingle after shows, and believes the beauty of the Brown Theatre is a great plus.

Birman has a different strategy from Roth, and foresees a time when you can be a devoted supporter of the Louisville Orchestra and not actually attend a single concert. A re-imagined orchestra will reach into the community in traditional and in new ways. It will continue to play schools, and its members will teach young musicians, but it will also be evident in the malls, in churches and other places where people congregate. It will have a training function and an advocacy arm, and by touching large numbers of people peripherally and in different ways, aggregate a pool of public support complementary to those attending concerts.

But Birman, one of a small group of administrators who have raised the management profile of Louisville’s arts groups a long way in the last five years, also admits to seeing problems ahead. Euphemistically he states: “The general view in the industry just now is that there is oversupply (too many small orchestras, too many concerts, too many players on full-time contracts), and the consensus is that this will shake itself out through some pretty unpleasant choices.” He foresees a decline in the number of orchestras nationwide, saying, “We are churning out graduates from conservatories at an amazing rate, most to the unemployment lines.” In some ways, the supply of musicians, and not public demand, is driving output.

While seeing no immediate threat from digitized orchestra downloads to your computer, he says: “The greatest danger of digitized accessibility is that young people look to technology to feed their entertainment needs, at the expense of the live experience. Kids won’t grow up sharing the live experience . . . and inherently, what we do is social.”

Ronald J. Murphy, investment banker, analyst and longtime board member of the Fund for the Arts, concurs: “My own children were taken to everything — opera, ballet, concerts, plays. Now they’re grown up and, on their own, they don’t go to anything. They are much more into technology and the delivery system. If they want music, they want it instantly, personally, on hand.”

Murphy, from his years of experience on the Opera board, says of Met HD relays: “I think they are a threat. Some of us are interested in experiencing the very best, and in a small city like Louisville you rarely hear ‘the very best.’”  And there’s the lure of the big screen. “You see better and hear better than at any live performance,” Murphy adds. “At present, live opera in Louisville has a small core of devotees who are keeping things going — maybe 1,200 people.”

Dwight Hutton, executive director of the Louisville Ballet, sees no present danger from HD relays, as his is a three-dimensional art form that has rarely been impacted by the movies or television. “Ballet in 3-D, or as holograms, might be a different matter, but there is no sign yet of a market for that,” he says.

He is similarly undismayed by the aging demographic. “Baby-boomers are aging; they want to see beautiful young bodies in motion,” says Hutton. “So I say: Bring them on!”

While Roth publicly says he sees Met HD Relays as feeding the appetite for opera, privately, he has concerns. “Our observations suggest that the relays are not growing the audience; (they are) simply attracting the same core audience.” In the early years of Met HD relays, Kentucky Opera had a lobby presence, handing out synopses, cast lists and generally being useful to the attendees. Roth will not be drawn out to comment on what now appears to be the Met’s refusal to allow Kentucky Opera a continuing presence at Louisville cinemas. He will say only that there are contractual arrangements between the Met and the cinemas to which he is not privy. If it is true that Kentucky Opera is not now allowed a presence at Met cinemas, that’s a pity, and at first sight, seems petty.

Murphy’s conclusion is that “in the end, everything is driven by demographics. The Met is playing in a field of nine million people, many of them affluent and well-educated. Here we don’t have the numbers or the level of sophistication; in the long run the demographics are very negative for the arts.”

*****

So is it all gloom and doom for the live arts in Louisville? You’d be surprised after reading all the above just how much optimism is still around.

The biggest worry, if all this talk about missing generations, incommunicative younger people and demographics is true, is the aging of the audience.

The bad news is that the audience is aging. The good news is that one American, allegedly, turns 60 every 10 or so seconds! Allan Cowen says: “The largest part of the American population is over 60. Why should we be troubled if we are serving the largest part of the American population? . . . I think it is just a natural progression from liking rock and pop to an appreciation of other kinds of music.”

The bad news is more that the arts rarely capture the young and middle-aged in their audience nets. The good news is, as Trish Pugh Jones, a recently retired co-architect of Actors Theatre’s growth years, recalls: “We never did attract middle-aged people — it has always been about the young and the old!”

Brad Broecker, Louisville’s Broadway guru, onetime orchestra manager and all-time box office champ, echoes that view. His opinion of Met HD is that it’s “absolutely wonderful” and that it “presents an enormous opportunity to feed the appetite. I don’t believe the maximum appetite for opera in Louisville is three operas a year.”

Since Pugh Jones and Broecker have between them probably sold more tickets than anyone else in Louisville’s box-office history, they’re obviously worth listening to.

Cowen thinks future success will mean reinventing the way we present arts. “Louisville is not the big-time. We try to be a smaller big-time,” he explains.

“Why not, instead of trying to hire established artists,” Cowen asks, “tour the conservatories, find the best young conducting graduates, singers, technicians, management and development people, give them a job and an affordable apartment? Let them make waves for a couple of years, then move on. Let’s be famous as the place where great artists cut their teeth.”

*****

What I find really interesting is that opera and the other arts may continue to attract audiences by going back to the future — back to the days when it was as much about dressing up, eating well beforehand and meeting friends over an intermission drink as it ever was about the performances.

For their first 250 years, plays, opera and ballet were primarily social events. The idea of putting the lights out and forcing attention on the stage was one of many pesky reforms introduced by Wagner. Up until then the audience chatted (some still do), ate ice cream, played cards and made amorous assignations, oblivious to some of the goings-on onstage. (Indeed, to this day, a useless act-two aria, added to gratify a singer’s vanity, is still known as an aria di sorbetto, because it is seen as a chance for the audience to make a quick visit to the gelato stall.)

As for the choice between digital excellence and live routine, Broecker, for one, chooses both. “The city needs Vincenzo’s and it needs inexpensive local bistros” is his way of putting it.

Perhaps Louisville can buck the international trend. Roth may have a point when he says that as long as there are people who have the passion working to promote live arts, then audiences, in one form or another, will follow.

I also offer this: The current crop of administrators at Louisville’s opera, ballet and symphony offer, if any group can, a better than even chance to perpetuate this city’s rare talent in that direction.

Photo: Courtesy Louisville Magazine