Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
Some Things You Should Know
January 10, 2012
Los Angeles Opera had a big day today with two announcements that may stir up some feelings good and bad in several different quarters. First off, the company paid off half the $14 million principal on a loan the company took out in 2009 from Bank of America that was guaranteed and supported by the County of Los Angeles. (This early partial repayment will lower the overall cost of the loan to the company in the long run.) This development, discussed at a County Board of Supervisors Meeting, also included a proclamation honoring the contributions of Placido Domingo to the company and city and a round of “Happy Birthday” sung by those in attendance. Good for him and good for Los Angeles Opera. As supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky is quoted as saying, the loan "was the right thing to do." Well, he’s almost right. Actually the right thing to do would have been for the county (and perhaps less-attractively Bank of America) to just give Los Angeles Opera the money. The regressive concept of arts funding in the U.S. has somehow led people to believe that loaning a major cultural institution money with interest is somehow radical philanthropy. In a year when the City of Los Angeles was willing to back hundreds of millions of dollars in bonds to secure a new football stadium downtown, the notion that anyone would find a loan the size and kind of LAO’s is simply ludicrous.
And then there was this. The company also announced today that it’s recruiting social media savvy folks for what it’s calling “tweet seats” for the February 8 final dress rehearsal of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, which will star Mr. Domingo under the baton of James Conlon. The idea is that participants will tweet about the rehearsal as it happens and this notion will likely fire up all those parties that worry such an event spells the end of life and culture as we know it on earth. I continue to fail to see how such an initiative is so threatening to some people. Standards for acceptable audience behavior have changed widely over the last few hundred years and I imagine they will again at some point. In the meantime, I sincerely doubt there is a huge number of people dying to pay upwards of $100 to $200 a seat to witness an opera or other event for the first time now that they think they can tweet or text during it. Whether or not something like “tweet seats” at a dress rehearsal or anything else brings about increased interest or access to opera or other arts, I couldn’t say. If so, then great. But I feel certain that the expressed anxiety over social media as a sign of cultural degradation (or more dramatically the loss of humanity) is decidedly misplaced. Opera and classical music have survived indoor plumbing, the steam engine, television, and atomic energy. Opera and its audiences will make it through this as well.
What I'm talking about is the notion that the only art (or entertainment) worth having is the most popular one that supports itself in a free market economy. Or the idea that if the public is unwilling to simply support it out of their own pockets directly by buying tickets and donations, that it shouldn't exist.
And while I don't think that public or government funding is a cure all for everything, I do think that there is a tendency to be selective in this country about how we view public support for all sorts of things. Governments dump all kinds of money indirectly into sports, filmed entertainment and other ventures via tax breaks, use of public land, etc. And yet this never amounts to "taxpayer support" in these same minds while the relative pittance of cash funding that performing and other fine arts ventures receive by comparison is regularly held out for scorn as a waste of money in some sort of populist driven fantasy of a culture war.
I have zero affinity for Twitter, personally, and I'm a bit skeptical about it's larger impact on arts marketing... but if LA Opera can get a handful of twits excited about their production and gain a bit of social cred' in the process, more power to 'em. I doubt that we'll be seeing Tweet Seats at an actual mainstage performance anytime soon... a dress rehearsal is the ideal context.
As for the partial loan repayment, indeed, that's terrific news. Though everytime I see one of these LA Opera stories, I wonder what they're going to do with themselves when they no longer have Placido to trot around. I don't blame them for using him as much as they possibly can, but I do hope that there are other baskets with other eggs waiting in the wings.