December 12th, 2011 § 1 comment

“There is competition everywhere.”

I have to admit that the preceding quote from Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb is true, but I like to think that the ever-struggling arts might take a more collegial view than the one espoused by Gelb in an interview with The Guardian. In that story, Gelb defends The Met’s practice of requiring that venues which show “The Met: Live in HD” series of movie theatre simulcasts may not show the work of other opera companies (the English National Opera is cited specifically). My previous admiration for Gelb’s innovative work in the field of cinema screenings of performing arts is now severely mitigated by my dismay over the exclusionary tactics of the United States’ largest performing arts organization.

I’m not upset as an opera buff – far from it. I might see one opera a year and that tends to be plenty for me. Instead, I’m struck by the fact that while movie studios themselves were forced, decades ago, to divest themselves of theatre ownership precisely to prevent such exclusionary booking practices, an enormous not-for-profit has effectively reinstated it when it comes to using such venues for one cultural discipline. Speaking like a corporate shark or a mob boss who doth protest too much, Gelb says, “We don’t force movie theatres to take our movies; we don’t hold a gun to their heads. They could take the Royal Opera instead if they wanted to.”

Gelb cites the limited repertoire of opera in general, and competition for singers and directors as a cause for his exclusionary tactics (I’ll leave it to you to read the rest of the argument); it’s worth noting that he fails to cite any concurrent or similarly expansive efforts to expand operatic literature or showcase young talent, which surely would alleviate some of his worries. But I cry only crocodile tears for his dilemma, much as I do for the poor beleaguered owners of sports teams who apparently cannot make a buck on their franchises valued in the hundreds of millions, even when they receive corporate welfare to build ever flashier and more exclusive stadiums. The fact is, this past weekend in Manhattan, in addition to the actual Metropolitan Opera performing Faust on stage, you could see that production in at least four major movie theatres on Saturday, while on Sunday, at a single venue of which I’d never heard, you could glimpse Don Giovanni live from La Scala in Milan. I have no idea what the national or international theatre ratio or audience attendance might have been.

Because of my marginal enthusiasm for opera, I immediately began to wonder whether this kind of us-or-them mentality applied to theatre at the movies as well. Although I was aware of past cinema screenings of Roundabout’s The Importance of Being Earnest, the Broadway production of Memphis and a few shows from London’s The Globe, it seemed that the National Theatre’s NT Live series was hugely dominant. Were they similarly anti-competitive? Not at all, per Mary Parker, senior press officer at The National: “We have no limitations – venues that show our broadcasts can show anything else they want, we have no exclusivity as part of our contracts.”

I hesitate to plant my flag so firmly on this particular issue, because I believe that live performing arts are best experienced live in person, not projected on a screen; I likened these screenings to PBS broadcasting writ large when they began. But I have come to realize that I have been privileged to spend my life in Connecticut and New York, supplemented with frequent travel to London, so while these cinema screenings may not be essential for me, they are a lifeline for those less fortunate and with less access to cultural capitals than I have enjoyed for most of my life.  When I spoke with Nicholas Hytner of the National almost a year ago, he voiced strong sentiments about accessibility and exposure through NT Live; indeed, it was that conversation which turned my own thinking on the topic.

But ultimately I’m concerned less about this single aspect of cultural programming, cinema screenings, than I am about collegiality and cooperation (or lack thereof) in the arts. While giving due respect to Gelb and The Met for pioneering this expansion of arts programming, they are now setting the worst possible example by trying to exclude their peers (and they have few anywhere in the world as it is) from sharing their achievements through advancements in technology by owning the category. This is not about competition, as Gelb would have it; this is about cultural monopolization.  Should any arts organization that receives public funding be allowed to undertake initiatives that explicitly deny others?

At a time when all of the arts must find strength in numbers, in unity, in the sharing of ideas and resources, Gelb and The Met are espousing the corporate mentality of Gordon Gekko; it stands in stark relief against the slow-motion implosion of its one-time neighbor, the New York City Opera. It is as if the Met wants not only to be the Yankees of American Opera, they want to be the Harlem Globetrotters too, dazzling us with their skills, but assured of never losing a game. You need never ask not for whom or when the fat lady sings, Mr. Gelb, since given your druthers, she would apparently sing only for thee.

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  • Steve

    Sure, opera is in competition. So is theatre. But we’re not competing with other theatre. We’re competing with television and movies and holiday parties and staying at home and reading a good book. Or just staying at home, period. When there are two shows playing in DC that I want to see, I rarely am forced to choose between them. Rather, I’m forced to choose between them and the many, many other things I could do with my evening (or HAVE to do, since I’m frequently in rehearsal).

    I doubt that theatres helping support (and sometimes even promote) other theatres do so at a risk to their bottom line. It would seem that promotion of the artform would benefit everybody. If I choose to see a play at Woolly Mammoth Theatre over staying home and streaming Netflix on Tuesday, then I’m more likely to choose to see a play at Arena Stage on Thursday. 

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