Will the real anything please identify itself?

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….

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

9 thoughts on “Will the real anything please identify itself?”

  1. What was with that random post by Lesley Rosenthal a week back? Will you be soliciting a reply from her?

  2. When James Thurber was told by a French reader that his stories read even better in French, he replied, "Yes, I tend to lose something in the original."

  3. Well in any case, the solipsism police are definitely real.

    And Thurber isn't an extreme case. Poe, as translated, is a great French poet.

  4. I am not a frequent opera-goer. Listener, yes, but not goer. I happened to see "Lulu" at the opera house in Barcelona a few weeks ago, however, and so I had a recent experience that drew me immediately into this post. Furthermore, my all-time favorite experience of opera is Zefferelli's "Traviata.". I doubt I would have made it all the way to the end of "Lulu" if I hadn't seen it live — for sure, I would not have watched it on TV — but despite my sore neck (the result of sitting where I could afford and, thus, where I was able to see only one side of the stage), the images, music, and drama of "Lulu" to play out in my mind and I am grateful to have had the unexpected opportunity to attend. Which all boils down to, I guess, that I have no idea which experience is the real anything.

  5. And Thurber isn’t an extreme case. Poe, as translated, is a great French poet.

    I've heard that King Lear is much better in Yiddish.

    I can make a case that the experience of baseball is more real on TV,

    I disagree. Yes, you can see better than from the bleachers, but you lose some of the reality. I remember going to a game for the first time, as a youngster, after having watched them (on primitive B&W TV). What struck me most was the fact that what looked like routine matters on TV – a grounder to shortstop, a fly ball to the outfielder – involved difficult and impressive feats. On TV it looks easy to pick up the ground ball and throw the runner out. In real life you appreciate the challenge, maybe because you really see how fast and irregularly the ball is moving, and how long the throw is. That sense never left me. I guess I'm saying that even a big-screen TV loses the sense of scale you get in real life.

  6. The difference between watching baseball on TV and seeing it in person is a difference of kind, not degree.

    At the stadium, you are cheering or booing with other folks. The difference is real. Closest to the live-cheer while watching on the tube for me was when the Giants won the WS, and folks in the neighborhood whooped, hollered, and set of fireworks. More participatory than observational.

    TV experience is more of an ADD one, where every pitch, play, action gets repeated, broken down, sliced and diced.

    Live you are at the pace of reality, and you only get to see it once. (mostly)

    Some people do both – go to the game and listen on the radio at the same time.

  7. Another thing that doesn

    t come across on TV is a home run. You can't appreciate the distance and power these guys have on television. On the other hand, there is stuff you can't see at the ballpark, like what the pitcher is doing. In HD you can even see the spin on the ball.

  8. Wagner was writing for an audience of one. He may have been the most pathologically self-absorbed human being who has ever lived and every bar of his music reflects that. It would be most symbolically appropriate to perform his operas with a solid wall of tempered glass at the lip of the stage, six inches thick. One of our most wasteful failings as a species is our tendency to take megalomaniacs at their own estimation of themselves. Wagner's enduring reputation is a prime example of a culture-wide failure of skepticism.

  9. The Bobs,

    Another thing that doesn't come across on TV is a home run.

    Yes. Even a fairly long fly ball out is impressive in person, as is the catch. You see the full high arc of the ball in its proper scale. TV can't show that.

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