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January 11, 2010

Classical music world off to a shaky new year

Haven't even got half way through January, and the classical music world is looking rather shaky.

The tremors started as 2009 was winding down. We're still dealing with the fallout from a study by the NEA, backed with further analysis by the League of American Orchestras, that emerged over the past couple of months, revealing that audiences for the symphony, opera and the like are aging and dwindling more than previously thought -- and not being replenished. So much for the commonly held belief that folks who reach upper middle or lower senior age are apt to gravitate to the fine arts.

There was even bad news last month about listenership for classical music stations taking a 10 percent plunge when a new, supposedly more accurate, ratings system was introduced.

Now, in the early days of 2010, we've got orchestras in two cities, Cleveland and Seattle, experiencing intense troubles over negotiations. The Clevelanders are threatening to go on strike because musicians are unhappy over salary reduction proposals from management. (The $152,000 average compensation for players last year is not winning them a lot of sympathy in the blogosphere.) 

Things aren't exactly rosy in other places. The New York Philharmonic just reported

a deficit of more than $4 million last season, and anticipates another $4 this season; the Baltimore Symphony will, when the official audit is completed, reveal a substantial deficit from last season.

And, as if things weren't depressing enough, the fat lady can't even get on stage, let alone signal that the opera ain't over. Daniela Dessi, a respected soprano who falls comfortably between anorexic and obese, walked out of a "La Traviata" production at the Rome Opera after director Franco Zeffirelli criticized her weight. He was quoted in news reports saying, "A woman of a certain age and plumpness is not credible in the character of Violetta ... She is is not exactly the kind of woman who is likely to die of tuberculosis." She fired back, "You don’t sing with the body but with the voice." (Dessi told the press she is 143 pounds and about 5'3.)

I'm not sure which of these items discourages me more. I hate to think that culture is losing its grip on the public at a greater clip than feared, although none of us can have believed that classical music would thrive in an age when reality shows are mistaken for reality; when so much attention is paid to superficiality, inanity, triviality and talentless buffoons; when, to borrow an Oscar Wilde observation, people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

And I certainly don't like the sight of orchestras having labor strife. With the country still weighed down by the recession, and with players in so many orchestra having given back money and benefits to help keep their organizations afloat, this sure seems, well, risky to be insisting on salary retention. This may be the toughest economic time for the arts ever, and it should be a time when all sides find common ground, pull together and just get on with it, for the sake of the greater good. If audiences are now getting older and smaller at a faster rate than before, how ironic if orchestras were to drive people away with picket lines now.  

Maybe Daniela Dessi's problems pale in comparison with the other stuff, but I find it a really annoying story. It's just the latest indication of how, over the past several years, the opera world has gone slightly nutty, has tilted so far to the visual side of the equation that the whole point of opera is getting lost. It's about the singing, stupid -- the quality of the voice, the artistry of the phrasing, the ability to communicate the essence of a character first of all vocally, with the dramatic element added to the equation, not replacing the aural. It just bugs me to keep hearing this singer-must-look-the-part argument, whether from directors or critics. Opera is a difficult balancing act, with all sorts of components that need to work in harmony, but if there's any tilting, I'd rather it be toward the ear, not the eye. 

Oh well, I'd suggest you fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy year.       

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:31 AM | | Comments (4)


sigh . I am a Chinese colledge student and I love classical.I have some kind of thought that after the period of superficiality ,man will eventually realize the meaning of the things that is only needed for our minds.Art will never die as long as there are a few outstanding people who are willing to sacrifice for it.

I second that sigh. Thanks for commenting. TIM.

Don't know if this made its way through the grapevine to you, but St. Louis is on the brink of losing its only full time classical music radio station this year, with KFUO 99.1 FM being sold out to a "Christian contemporary radio" outlet, thanks to a sleazy sweetheart deal brokered by a majorly conflict-of-interest-challenged lobbyist and lawyer named Kermit Brashear (needless to say, he's a Republican). One recent article about it by Sarah Bryan Miller of the Post-Dispatch is here.

The bad news just keeps coming. Thanks. TIM

Wait a minute. Most of what you cite is occurring in the US. Aren't there more classical enthusiates of all ages in Asian and European countries? The classical music "world" may not be in such a dire state as your describe. That said, your comments are another indication of how the US is losing it's way in the maze of popular "culture".
Franco Zeffirelli's mind seems to be more geared toward films. No one ever criticized certain male opera singers who were on in years and far
from buff when singing leading male roles.

What about South America which gave us Martha Argerich and Gabriella Montero? I believe it is in Venezuela where children are educated in classical music at a very young age and are given more opportunities to learn to play instruments than in the US. We need to include classical music appreciation in our elementary through high school curricula. You'd be surprised to see how well children respond to Mozart.

No argument there. Too bad there's no stimulus money for music education in our public schools. Without a massive change in the system, there won't be huge audiences for classical music in the future. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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