Editor's Desk

Listen to the Music

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Listening, Criticism, Keeping it Local, New York City) Permanent link
Have you noticed that so many conversations in the world of opera now focus on one general area — audience outreach and product access? Whenever I speak with opera-company directors, in particular, they say surprisingly little about the quality of what is being put onstage; instead, they mostly want to talk about how they will continue, in these challenging times, to put bodies in the seats. More to the point, they want to discuss how they will continue to put young bodies in the seats. Recently, I was on the phone with an executive at a major West Coast opera company. I wanted to ask her about the company's programming thrust for the coming season. Before I knew it, she was performing a lengthy commercial for her efforts to involve all of the local comic-book artists in the opera scene, and how such initiatives were vital to bringing in the opera newbies. By the time I hung up, exhausted, I had forgotten why I'd called her in the first place.

I support this push for new audiences in opera, but I think I may be coming at it from a slightly different angle. Implicit in all of the arguments about the need to lower the median age is the suggestion that all of those older people currently filing into the theater are engaged, tuned in, fully responsive to what's happening onstage — and that it's crucial to get younger audiences to function in the same way.

I would hope we could get the new audiences, wherever they may come from, to do much better than that. I do not believe for one second that most of the senior citizens I often find myself surrounded by in New York really have a profound connection to the music that the younger generations will have trouble matching. I think many older people, in New York especially, were brought up with the idea that attending live performances was crucial to being culturally well-rounded. They may be paying to fill the seats, all right. But I’m not sure they're filling them in a meaningful way. 

One recent example, among many: in mid-June, I attended a concert of the New York Philharmonic, with Ludovic Morlot conducting. On the first half, the orchestra played the lovely Prelude to Khovanshchina, followed by William Walton's Violin Concerto, impressively performed by the wonderful Gil Shaham. The woman in front of me dozed off as soon as the Mussorgsky began. The man next to her waited until the Walton to start bagging his Zs, and he came to only when the audience broke into sustained applause at the end of the entire concerto. Behind me, a man wrestled with his hearing device, pitched at air-raid level. My favorite, though, was the lady to my left, who, before the music started, bitched endlessly at her husband about the jacket he was wearing. Later, she wondered aloud why it took so long to rearrange the stage for the Walton. Throughout the first half, she restlessly leafed through her large-print program notes without once looking up at the stage. In the middle of the concerto's exciting final movement, she said, to no one in particular, "You’d at least think the program could mention that Gil Shaham comes from Israel." What could any of these people really have taken away from the evening other than a hefty Visa bill for dinner and a parking garage?

As a journalist, I prize evenings such as this. It’s wonderful to be able to look around and eavesdrop on the people sitting near you, because you can learn a great deal about where we’re heading culturally. But my greatest hope for the succeeding generations of ticket holders is that they'll be more tuned in than those who came before them. spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW

Yellow Tail Wine's Operatic Offense

(Observations, Adam Wasserman, Listening, Criticism, Commercials) Permanent link

Opera and television occupy decidedly different spheres of my life, and, truth be told, I'll almost always choose the former over the latter. Television usually only fits the bill when I'm looking for a quiet night in, with minimal impact on my grey matter or wallet. And — as someone who really only finds inner peace after a stressful day by watching onions caramelize — I'll often default to just three channels during the course of an evening in front of the tube: the Food Network, the Cooking Channel and the Travel Channel. As a result of occupying what I assume is a rather predictable gustatory demographic, the number of times that I've encountered the below commercial for Yellow Tail wine in the past few months now stands somewhere close to the number of pages currently stuffed into Charlie Sheen's police file.

Fellow opera-goers, I ask you: is this not the lamest, most odious commercial ever aired? If any of you are like me, the appearance of this ad must also prompt your family and friends to burst into laughter at the conspicuous rising of your blood pressure, that pulsing vein in your neck, your violent clenching of the chair arms, followed by obscene gesturing at the television and an apoplectic descent into the nadirs of the English vocabulary. Let me say, unequivocally, that I despise this commercial more than any piece of advertising I've ever encountered. According to the information accompanying the YouTube video, the ad was created by the Burns Group, an agency known as such a conspicuous arbiter of good taste that its other clients include Fruity-Cocoa Pebbles, Beck's Beer and Hebrew National hot dogs.

I suppose what makes this ad so fundamentally insulting to me as an opera-goer is that, in addition to it being obvious that the director knows nothing about the art form he's skewering, it's viscerally repellent. Clearly filmed on a shoestring budget — it was shot on location in the perennially teeming vacation spot that is Rovinj, Croatia — the spilled wine looks like thick strawberry Kool-Aid and the voices are out-of-sync with the actors. Most notably, though, their voices are off pitch and abysmal. They're not just bad parodies of trained operatic voices — they also happen to bad. Could the folks at the Burns Group really not find a pair of young, conservatory trained singers that could, at the very least, do this lame jingle justice?

The tagline for the ad, "Great wine doesn't have to be expensive," seems to suggest that the commercial's creators equate opera — or some terribly conceived signifier for it — with the one label that still seems deserving of derision in an era notable for the relative degree of political correctness in commercial advertising: elitist. The truth of the matter is that opera isn't nearly as snobby or — with the popularity of Live in HD screenings and rush ticket programs — expensive as the commercial's creators seem to think. Nor, for that matter, is Yellow Tail's shiraz anything even approaching "great." (According to the company, Yellow Tail's chardonnay is "best served at backyard temperature," while a recommended food-pairing for its merlot is a chicken sandwich. Bacchus, it seems, has become a fan of KFC.)

Maybe I'm being oversensitive about a mindless portrayal of an art form that I love, or maybe it's just that this ad seems so completely devoid of any of the redeeming characteristics attendant in the other commercials that have drawn opera as inspiration. (Ghirardelli Chocolate and British Airways, which both use Lakmé's flower duet, and Johnsonville Italian Sausages, which ran a commercial with Domingo's "Di quella pira" as its soundtrack a few years back, stick out in my mind as particularly effective.) Either way, it's rare that I see a commercial that strikes me as so repugnant that I'll actually go out of my way to avoid a company's product — let alone write a 700 word screed about it. Yellow Tail has done the deed. I'd rather have a glass full of bits of cork. spacer 

ADAM WASSERMAN

Bad Press

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Criticism, Advice) Permanent link

Not long ago I was introduced to a New York voice teacher, an ex-singer who had kind of a half-baked career and is still looking for someone to blame for it. When she found out that I worked for OPERA NEWS, she said, "Oh ... well, we all know how you get into that magazine, don't we?"

"Actually, no," I said. "How do you get into it?"

"Oh, come on — everyone knows that the singers' publicists pay for that kind of coverage."

Well, that's news to me. In the twenty-two years that I have worked for OPERA NEWS, I've witnessed many jaw-dropping incidents with people who work in the music business, but never has a publicist offered to pay to get a client into the magazine's pages. Who knows how people get these ideas about what goes on behind the scenes at our publication? If publicists paid to get their clients into the magazine, does anyone honestly think I'd still be living in a small one-bedroom apartment and planning budget trips on Expedia? But this little episode did get me to thinking about why people talk so much about music publicists, assigning them such a significant role in the way the business works.

I'll tell you something: many of them are quite insignificant. What's more, many of them are quite unnecessary.

Now, institutional publicists can do a great deal of good. Large symphony orchestras and opera companies need good P.R. and marketing people, and they can be of enormous benefit to the singers who perform with those organizations. (I'm not so sure about some of the smaller organizations: there's one group in New York that changes publicists the way I change rolls of paper towels, and it never seems to make any difference.)

But I think that every single one of my OPERA NEWS colleagues agrees with me on this point: an individual singer or a conductor has the greatest need of a publicist when the career has grown so unwieldy, so complicated by millions of details, that a publicist can act as kind of a combination of clearing house and production stage manager. A lot of singers — younger ones, especially — sign on with publicists because they are under the impression that publicists will bring them greater visibility and that greater visibility will yield more work. Back in the day when cultural departments in media outlets ran wider and deeper than they do now, and when everyone was reading the same magazines and newspapers and watching the same T.V. shows, that might have been the case. But the whole media scene has changed so dramatically. I'm not a member of the Greatest Generation, and I hate to sound like one, lecturing those darned kids on the importance of a proper work ethic. But: the best way to secure more work for yourself, to build your career, is by showing up on time for rehearsals, knowing your music, performing your heart out, not making a pest of yourself with management — in other words, doing your job. That way, you have at least a fighting chance of being re-engaged.

Whether you are a young singer or one in mid-career, a publicist really can't help you get work. If you are a young singer, what most publicists are going to do is charge an exorbitant monthly fee. Most likely you will be charged every time the publicist has lunch with someone like me for the purpose of pitching a story. One thing I think a lot of young singers don't understand is that a lot of editors and writers keep their eyes open — they can spot young talent and develop an interest in it without some paid handmaiden spoon-feeding information to them.

Now, I know that this is not always the case. There are some editors who rely heavily on publicists to supply not only the story idea, but the whole package — the writer included. I think this is a horrifying practice: at OPERA NEWS, we tend to resist the idea of the publicist recommending a writer, because we automatically assume that what we're going to get is a piece that the publicist has unduly influenced.

There are good publicists around, too — smart, seasoned pros who really know how to pitch a story and don't whine if you say no. But I'm afraid that they're outnumbered by the publicists who don't do their homework, pitch story ideas that have appeared in the magazine only a few months earlier, or alienate the editors by trying to use various forms of bullying or emotional blackmail to get their way. I'm not going to mention any names, not even the names of the good ones, because if I do, the "others" will be calling me wanting to know why their names were included, and why they thought I always liked them, and wondering what they've done to offend me and how they might make it up.

The music business is in a shambles, and it simply can't — or shouldn't — support the number of publicists who have hung out a shingle for themselves. So, especially to those struggling young artists, I would say: use that money that you were saving for a monthly P.R. commission to hit that sale at Barneys or Bloomingdales. Buy your grandmother that Three Irish Tenors CD she's seen advertised on TV. Hire someone to teach you how Wozzeck really goes. spacer 

— BRIAN KELLOW

 

Critical Conditions

(Observations, Elizabeth Diggans, Criticism) Permanent link

In the July issue of Vanity Fair, James Wolcott's column discusses the evaporation of the traditional print movie review. A skirmish between Salon.com contributor Andrew O'Hehir and a growing number of print reviewers who've recently lost their jobs has been waged in the blogosphere. O'Hehir wrote that whining about their plight made the canned critics look like a "bunch of ginormous great babies." Ouch. Apparently, the role of the print movie critic has become, if not quite obsolete, at least inconsequential. After all, deep down, don't we all consider ourselves competent movie critics? We go to the movies we want to see for whatever reason makes sense to us (and sometimes the reason can be pretty ridiculous and possibly embarrassing). Do we go just because a critic tells us we should? Probably not.

So should live-performance criticism suffer the same fate as film criticism appears to face? In a word, no.

A well-written, carefully-considered live-performance review not only tells its reader something about a once-in-a-lifetime experience (that exact performance is never going to happen, even with the same artists at the same theater in the same production, more than once) but ideally offers something more: background information on the piece and possibly its composer or creator, its production history and why the specific performance in question is special (or not).

I like to think I've learned something after reading a review, and I also like to think the reviewer has been to a lot more performances of the work (or at least studied it more closely and knows far more about it) than I. Theatrical experiences should be described, dissected and criticized (or praised) by the best writers we can find. How else will future generations know what they missed when we're no longer around to tell them how much better theater was in our day? Sure, YouTube is a gold mine, but isn't it really best for samba-dancing babies (ginormous or not) and well-informed beauty-pageant contestants educating us about international problems? spacer 

— Elizabeth Diggans


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Current Issue: April 2014 — VOL. 78, NO. 10