The State of the Arts in the New Millennium
April 29, 2014
As I put pen to paper or rather fingers to keyboard, I have an immense sense of excitement about the timing of ConcertIA’s inaugural concert last month, one month ago yesterday. The community members responded enthusiastically to the music, ConcertIA musicians convened from all parts of America and had a joyous process of rehearsals and performance. We have already met so many wonderful people on this road, the bright road to our future and I am very proud to call myself ConcertIA’s artistic director. Here’s to ConcertIA! May we inspire and delight you, touch your hearts, entertain you and bring joy to the world through music and the performing arts!
A few of my old students suggested that I start a blog about music. ConcertIA’s blog page is the perfect place. This page will be a platform for topics that are trending in the field, musings from me and hopefully engaging discussions with readers about some of these topics. Please comment! Here are a few thoughts about the closing of many opera companies.
A few weeks ago, I overheard a woman in a café say “Opera is dead. Look at New York City Opera, San Diego Opera and now Indianapolis Opera. What’s the point?”. The point is now more than ever very specific. Administrative bumbling and mis-management of money in national and regional hallmark companies is rampant and has been for years. The decision to close the doors of opera companies and the terrible Minnesota orchestra situation was not suddenly made overnight. Since 2008, all of these companies at one time or another, were failing due to mismanagement. It wasn’t a lack of artistic vision or the the artists themselves. It was either administration or the corrupt boards. Getting back to eavesdropping on that café nay-sayer, now is exactly the time to start new ventures and a new way to look at chamber orchestras, operas, the needs of the community and the needs of the performers.The old way of looking at the arts has to change in the new millennium or it – we – will perish. ConcertIA is set to do exactly that. It’s our quiet revolution.
Opera is a strange creature, different on every continent. It is almost too simple to say that Europe can sustain any opera theater in any town more readily because the government heavily subsidizes the arts. This is not the only reason that it is easier. Attending any performing or visual arts event is part of the daily culture. In Europe, the theaters are present as physical and cultural structures of the community and have been since the 18th and 19th century. People GO to the theater. They attend regularly, buy season tickets and are educated as audience members. Young people go because it is part of their cultural upbringing. In America, it is more challenging because it is not a part of the general culture. Americans go to movies. Granted, no town in America has a theater system like Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Literally, there is a theater in EVERY small Burg in Greater Germania. Ours is a pop culture of movies, commercials, super stars and sports heroes. Regional opera has had a tough go in America. The1% subsidize it, grants are furiously written to the tapped NEA and state arts agencies, fund raisers become the most important mission of the company, grants with educational components to elementary schools are a regional company’s bread and butter and in short, the artists become the least important commodity.
Enter what I call “turbo opera”.
For the majority of regional opera companies, turbo opera is a financial necessity. The shorter the rehearsal period, the smaller the budget. Singers arrive completely prepared (often paying privately for coachings on their own dime) and have 1-2 days of musical rehearsals. The staging begins immediately and instead of developing a show, bodies are moved around like furniture in the shortest time possible. The orchestra has the fewest amount of rehearsals to save money. It is a rushed process, one driven from dollars and cents rather than the process that the singers and musicians want and deserve to have. “The process” is what was promised them in their university days but never becomes reality at the regional level. I’ve seen some pretty miraculous “turbo opera” shows and regrettably, some awfully forgettable. ConcertIA is about the creative process. The process coupled with dignity for the actors/singers, orchestra musicians, chamber musicians and directors. We believe that we can create this in the new millennium, funneling our financial resources into the artists’ salaries and not into lavish sets and costumes.
Chamber opera at its best. Smaller scale, better acting, better singing and better sound from the orchestra. Think Eleanora Duse and you have the artistic mission statement of the company.
A few more thoughts.
I opened the newspaper last week and read that the Iowa City Community School District has decided to solve their $3.6 million budget problem by cutting parts of the music program in the school. On the chopping block are all the 4th grade orchestras and all general music classes for high school students; exactly the demographic that the arts needs to cultivate. As I pondered the inspiring words I wanted to write as my first blog post as ConcertIA’s artistic director, I hoped to find lofty and highly philosophical words to impart, but the reality of the 21st century’s state of the arts comes down to one word: grit. You have to have true grit to be an artist in today’s American society.
I see many talented people that are learning that diversity using their talents is the answer to survival in the arts. Gone are the days when an instrumentalist can plan on an orchestra job after spending 6 to 8 years in their college education mastering excerpts and going into tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Gone are the days when vocalists can hope to stand on the stage of the Met and sing roles in expensive productions. The instrumentalist has to learn how to improvise, do web design, and/or be a sound engineer. The singer may have to learn business skills to market a private studio, direct a musical, play another instrument. To survive in the 21st century, we cannot ever rest on our talent and certainly not rest on the experience of college classes that we took, dissertations that we wrote or hoping for that “one” perfect audition to take place. We must be pro-active in our search for opportunities, learning new skills, adding to our skill sets and in short, constantly re-inventing ourselves in order to survive.
Many of you know my brilliant idea man/husband, Jeffrey Agrell. We talk a lot about the state of the arts over our morning tea. He told me about a book The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin. Godin says that we are in a new “connected economy” and that we must get out of our comfort zones because the “safety zone” – the choices and behavior we have all been trained to make – has changed. Godin writes “those places that felt safe – the corner office, the famous college, the secure job – aren’t. You’re holding back, betting on a return to normal, but in the new normal, your resistance to change is no longer helpful…..there is still a safety zone, but it’s not in a place that feels comfortable to you. [It is in] the place where art and innovation and destruction and rebirth happen.”
This is ConcertIA: a place for innovation, and yes, destruction of some old patterns of thinking and doing and in the end, a glorious rebirth.