The End of Opera?

The business cycle is a model in economics describing the ups and downs of the economy and the effects on various sectors, from the labor market to manufacturing to the financial sector to households. When I learned the business cycle, we didn’t talk about the arts (nobody ever mentions the arts in “regular” school), but as a regular visitor to many of New York’s cultural institutions, it’s clear to me the kind of damage various institutions experience. In this Financial Times article, Colin Tweedy explains, “Private money tends to disappear the moment a slump happens, but reappears fairly quickly once recovery kicks in. Government cuts, meanwhile, can take years to be implemented.”
As an operagoer, I’d say that I’ve benefited from the economic downturn: the Met has offered cheaper rush tickets and HD broadcasts in an effort to maintain audiences (though admittedly, these programs were initiated before the recession). While a resident of Baltimore or Connecticut now has no opera to go to, I benefit from choice, and ‘recession specials.’ But working artists have precisely the opposite experience. For every cancelled or trimmed production, fifty or more people lose a job. Many endowments are down 30% (even Harvard’s and the Met’s) – what kind of a hit is a singer’s income taking, or a set painter, or artists participating in small, independent theater? Fortunately (though perhaps unfairly), income and benefits for unionized musicians and crew aren’t taking much of a hit, but the arts are definitely ailing. I wouldn’t say that this makes me sad; I believe in cultural evolution and change. If the market for a particular type of art is no longer large enough to sustain itself, then that art form doesn’t have a place.
However, opera is not going to disappear. There are still audiences and supporters. But today, opera has a different place in society. It is no longer an essential component of high society, but it’s not quite trendy either. While many institutions are making valiant efforts to make opera popular again, more needs to be done than making it accessible (HD or cheaper tickets) or weird (Twitterdammerung?). The arts are not part of the culture that’s passed on to young people. Kids who are given a chance to learn about music in an interesting way (not your basic music appreciation course) or to participate in exciting art (whether a student orchestra, one-act opera, or musical) develop an appreciation for it that will last into their adult years. Many institutions have highly successful education programs, like NYPhil’s school partnerships and YPCs, NYCO’s in-school workshops, or WNO’s programs.
Arts education can’t be left just to elementary schools and institutional partnerships; it needs to carry on in high school and college. I know many college students who used to play one instrument or another, but now no longer participate in any kind of art or music. While I don’t advocate required cultural enrichment, increasing the presence and prestige of arts on or near campus would have a big effect on students’ awareness and activity.
As I transition to college this fall, I can impact the way that my classmates appreciate the arts. I may have the chance to direct as soon as sophomore year, and I hope to work on a project that will interest many students. Whether a new, political one-act opera, a work of performance art, or even a play, I hope that I can use my organizational, artistic, and leadership talents to create a work of art that will enrich the Princeton arts community.


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