Saturday, July 2, 2016

Update on the Met

Terry Teachout has a substantial piece about the Metropolitan Opera's financial problems. He reveals one interesting detail that might be significant:
The Metropolitan Opera, America’s biggest opera company, sold a lot of tickets last season—660,500, to be exact. But, then, it had no alternative, for it had a lot of tickets to sell. The Metropolitan Opera House is a 3,800-seat monster of an auditorium, vastly bigger than it needs to be. Bayreuth, by contrast, seats 1,925; La Scala, 2,030; and the Vienna State Opera, 2,200. To keep its doors open, the Met must fill those extra seats, and it’s no longer doing so. Two decades ago, the company earned 90% of its potential box-office revenue. That figure has been declining steadily in recent years and dropped to 66% last season, an all-time low that’s been the talk of the opera world ever since it was disclosed in May. As a result, Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, has been forced to raise ticket prices to an average of $158.50 per head. On Broadway, the average price is $103.86.
A 3800 seat hall is pretty hard to fill. On the other hand, we are talking about New York, a city of eight million people, a lot of whom are very wealthy indeed. Teachout mentions criticisms of the Met that focus on their old-fashioned repertoire and bloated, trashy productions. He also mentions "cost disease" which he describes as:
Cost disease is the term used by economists to describe the condition of a business in which wages go up without a corresponding increase in productivity, not because the workers are lazy but because the business itself is constituted in such a way as to preclude greater productivity. The classic example (no pun intended) is a string quartet. By definition it must employ four musicians, and it takes just as much work to perform a Haydn quartet today as it did two centuries ago. So far, nobody has figured out how to build a new kind of cello that’s easier to play, or sounds so much prettier that concertgoers will pay twice as much to hear it. At the same time, the real wages of musicians have gone up since the 18th century, and the demand for live performances of string quartets is shrinking.
The idea of "productivity" in classical music, or any art form for that matter, is just a bit odd. I recall a satirical piece years ago in which a productivity expert analyzed a performance of a Schubert symphony. I managed to find it online:

Schubert’s Productivity

A company president was given a ticket for a performance of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. Since she was unable to go, she passed the invitation to the company’s Quality Assurance Manager. The next morning, the president asked him how he enjoyed it, and, instead of a few plausible observations, she was handed a memorandum which read as follows:
1. For a considerable period, the oboe players had nothing to do. Their number should be reduced, and their work spread over the whole orchestra, thus avoiding peaks of inactivity.
2. All twelve violins were playing identical notes. This seems unnecessary duplication, and the staff of this section should be drastically cut. If a large volume of sound is really required, this could be obtained through the use of an amplifier.
3. Much effort was involved in playing the demi-semiquavers. This seems an excessive refinement, and it is recommended that all notes should be rounded up to the nearest semiquaver. If this were done, it would be possible to use trainees instead of craftsmen.
4. No useful purpose is served by repeating with horns the passage that has already been handled by the strings. If all such redundant passages were eliminated, the concert could be reduced from two hours to twenty minutes.
In light of the above, one can only conclude that had Schubert given attention to these matters, he probably would have had the time to finish his symphony.

If you want a more complete discussion of "cost disease" you can find it here. A sample:
The symphonies' financial problems are rooted in what has come to be known as the "cost disease," a term coined in 1966 by two then-Princeton economics professors, William Baumol and William Bowen, in a study of the economics of the performing arts. "The labor requirements for the music are set by the composer. For the most part, you don't toy around with that," Flanagan says. Furthermore, it takes 25 minutes to perform a Haydn symphony. Speeding up the playing or substituting a robot or digital device for one of the players doesn't appear on any music director's solution list, at least not yet.
I think this is a pretty clear example of what Gilbert Ryle called a "category mistake" where something is misunderstood by fundamentally placing it in the wrong category. In business, one must always be seeking to increase productivity by things like manufacturing more of the product in less time, with fewer materials and by lowering labor costs by using robotic manufacture. All very sensible things if you are making cars or widgets. But if your "product" is the performance of a symphony, then this is simply wrong-headed. So while the application of the term "cost disease" to symphony orchestras or opera may seem quite clever, it really fails to comprehend the nature of what is going on.

A symphony or an opera is an "aesthetic object" not a consumer product like an automobile or a fish stick. The production of it involves meeting aesthetic objectives which are different from the kind of productivity that we look for in most things. Believe me, no-one would be happier if the cost of symphony going went down every year as the quality went up, as we are used to with consumer products like the iPhone or the latest car design. But it is hard to see how this is even remotely possible with classical music.

If the standard business model is inappropriate then what would a better one look like? Perhaps we could compare attending the symphony to attending university. I don't want to overburden the comparison, but we do not typically think that the best measure of a university is the kind of raw productivity measured by simply how many students graduate with an A. We do have a sense that there are better and worse schools not because of any simple metric, but rather because of the quality of the education obtained. If you are studying with really outstanding scholars and critics in the humanities and Nobel prize-winning research scientists then you are getting a higher-quality education than you would with the rather more ordinary teachers at your local community college.

Similarly, high-quality aesthetic productions have to be measured by the aesthetic results, not by simple economic metrics. Look, it would be an easy task to throw together a budget grand opera in your high school gym. You hire a few local musicians, give them two rehearsals with a local conductor, throw together a pick-up chorus, paint some sheets for a backdrop, hit the regional conservatory for their leading voice students for your solo singers and there you have it. Cost, minimal. Aesthetic results, minimal as well. What would you pay for a ticket to this production?

The real question regarding the Met or any opera house or symphony orchestra is whether the aesthetic results are outstanding, merely adequate, or substandard. How demanding are the tastes of the audience? How affluent is the community? If you have a demanding audience and an affluent community then I can't see why they wouldn't be able to support a high-quality symphony or opera.

But, you know, we just seem to have an aversion to even admitting that aesthetics exist, let alone are worth paying for!

Here is a performance of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe conducted by Trevor Pinnock. You can check out just how unproductive those oboists are:


Marc Puckett said...

Teachout is quite right about the Met in HD in theatres: I see the same people there as I do at Eugene Opera performances; I don't go regularly-- perhaps two or three broadcasts a season, less often now than I did six or seven years ago-- but I've never seen e.g. a group of young people who look like they might be in a music class at the university or in school &c &c. I don't understand it; Cinemark will do group discounts, even. Myself, I don't go so much because it is to my sensibilities just like watching a big screen television-- you know it's a live broadcast but... I prefer to listen, if I can't be in the concert hall.

Bryan Townsend said...

I have never attended one of those broadcasts as there is no venue close to me.