Alex Ross noted a couple months ago that the Metropolitan Opera’s new $16m Ring cycle was beginning . Is this a good use of resources in tough times? he asks. He makes a good try at arguing that Wagner, at least, is opera for everyone (Wagner’s views on the relationship of art to society were acute and humane; it’s all laid out in Die Meistersinger if you want to skip the heavy prose, and no, he was not writing only for an elite). Unfortunately, Ross gets his numbers wrong. According to the Met’s 2009 annual report, it received $3.2m from governments directly, not $698k, (still only about 1.3% of its $267m budget). But it also received about $100m in contributions, and these were almost certainly tax deductible at the highest rate. It doesn’t pay income tax on its endowment income, which itself is the fruit of gifts in past years, deductible to the donors. A tax deduction or exemption is a government subsidy that the donor gets to direct across a wide variety of possible recipients, by matching it about 2:1 with his own money (less in states that mirror the federal deduction in their own income taxes): public money. It pays no property tax on its house, warehouses, or offices even though the police and fire departments are ready to serve it if needed, just like any other New York business, and the public schools welcome Met employees’ children. So the Met is more like 20% government supported. Ross rather lamely justifies the expense of opera by assertions about its wonderfulness for those who get to see it; I agree about the latter but neither of our preferences butter any parsnips.
Opera is intrinsically expensive (though as Bob Frank and Phil Cook explain, the solo talent is almost certainly extracting rents), but people willingly pay almost $150 for the average seat, about $40/hr; the rest of us kick in maybe another $10. What should we compare it to; an hour of psychotherapy? An hour in a museum? A hour at a rock concert?
How about seeing the same production in HD on a big TV screen, either at home, where I was just watching Mark Morris’ wonderful Met production of Orfeo Tivo’d off public television, as a small part of my monthly cable bill, or in a theater for $25? Sandy Borins has a post comparing live opera to the second of these and reflects on the cross-elasticities of demand for Live from the Met TV and regional opera, considering their different advantages (close-ups, sound management, convenience, opportunity to interact with other audience members and performers, etc.). Is opera on TV an inferior substitute for the “real thing”, OK only if you can’t afford to attend live (or don’t live in an opera city)?
The big question this comparison raises for me is more general, about the nature of reality. Consider some examples:
- Live opera in a traditional opera house
- Live opera in HD TV.
- Opera as cinema, produced as a movie and not just filmed on a proscenium stage (there isn’t much of this, but the Zeffirelli Traviata is an amazing experience despite the cuts; I wish there were more like it)
- Baseball live
- Baseball on HDTV
and just to stretch the envelope
- A movie actress live at a dinner party
- A movie actress on screen, including possible body double and possible plastic surgery, certainly including arts of makeup and lighting
- A movie actress on a magazine cover, Photoshopped into perfection of form and complexion.
Live opera is historically and traditionally authentic, the experience the composer and librettist had in mind for you, right? But that in itself doesn’t make it better or even more real; in fact the experience inside your head when you hear Wagner, even sitting in the hall at Bayreuth, cannot be what Wagner planned for you because you have heard Puccini and the Beatles, and he had not. Nor can you hear it without an obbligato recollection of the Nazi’s conscription of him as a poster boy for limitless evil, or for that matter of your date the first time you went to the opera.
Fourth-row seats in an opera house of 2-3000 seats are not at all the same as seats in the back of the balcony, either. From the former, as in the HDTV presentation, you don’t need binoculars to see facial expressions or costume details. On the other hand, opera singers are singers first and actors (and physical specimens) second, and we are conditioned by other performing media to expect characters to look good (or bad, if they’re heavies).
I’ve decided that while I like to go to the occasional ballgame and eat a hot dog, I much prefer the HDTV experience, especially now that my personal TV has grown so large that the pitcher’s frown is literally life size and eight feet away. From the seats I’m willing to pay for, I can’t tell what kind of pitch was just thrown, and the TV sports broadcast has all sorts of added-value hi-tech gizmos and information useful to a non-expert fan (of which the coolest is the blue/yellow yards-to-go lines they digitally draw on a football field; I have to remind myself the running back can’t see the yellow line he’s diving at). I can make a case that the experience of baseball is more real on TV, even though watching a game played in an empty stadium, or no stadium, would be weird in the extreme.
As Borins points out, Live from the Met will feature technically “better” performers than a local opera company can afford, so one could say it is better opera. But set and setting matter, and the possibility of pausing the TV, or watching an event at my convenience, or rewinding to catch something again, greatly dilute the intensity of focus that applies to something happening live and irretrievably. I’m sure I pay closer attention to music (maybe not sports) when it’s live and I’m surrounded by people attending to the same thing. The psychology of listening to/watching your home team play, compared to world-class stars who can be from anywhere, is complicated; would you pass up your child’s first piano recital to listen to a CD of Pollini, or even to go to a live concert?
In the end, I don’t think good video is an inferior version of live performance; it’s different and it’s not simple to say which version is more real. While the business model has yet to sort itself out, I hope both can coexist, just like traditional and experimental, provocative productions of the same opera.
Now, which is the “real” actress, and did her boob implants make her less real? In this context, I always remember when people came to check out my first daughter as a newborn. They were looking at an inert, sleeping infant, and I remember myself thinking, holding the inevitable sheaf of photos in my hand, something like “why are you looking at her, when I have the real pictures right here?” (Recall that before George Eastman invented babies in 1892 to create a market for the Kodak, humans reproduced in a completely different way…I think new people just arrived as young adults from out of town, on the train or stagecoach.) The real instances of my kids, and yours, are certainly not their pictures, but this is not so clear for people whose experience by others is overwhelmingly as images or in parts they play. Harpo Marx was a witty and charming conversationalist, but not for me, in fact for a very few people compared to those for whom he was a mime. Furthermore, though I know it’s a highly biased sample, what’s occasionally thrust before me about the “real” lives of my entertainment and sports heroes and heroines does not usually make me want to engage with their offstage selves, either in contemplation or in person. I do not think I would have been Wagner’s friend, certainly wouldn’t want him dating my daughter.
I write and teach just enough to wonder whether the real me is the considered, rehearsed, edited instances (that will outlive my corporeal and dinner-table instance, even if not by much) or the me that improvises “real life” at other times. Most of you reading this have never met any of the RBC gang and never will; if we had a party and you came to it, would you have engaged with more real versions of us?
sszzzztt……..bzzzz….crckle that must be the solipsism police messing with my internet connection to stop this post pppphphhhhttt….