The Sad – and Happy – State of the Arts

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The Sad – and Happy – State of the Arts

by Elena Greco

February 9, 2011

the opera singer 475x500 There’s a lot of talk about the sad state of the arts these days. There’s a lot of bemoaning the loss of government funding, the commercialism and cheapening of opera, and the lack of work for singers. All of this is certainly true. But I think something important is being overlooked here.

With government cuts to the arts, the arts become much more dependent on wealthy individuals and corporations. And once that happens, there’s even more commercialism in the arts. There seems to be a belief in this country that only the wealthy can afford the arts, and that if we want to present our art, we must do what the wealthy will support financially, instead of what creativity dictates. When that happens, the arts become less creative, less honest, less inspiring, less enjoyable and less valuable. I submit that we’re not at the mercy of anyone, but only limit ourselves in believing this. I think one way we can get around that and the problems I just mentioned is by thinking creatively, something it seems to me most creative artists are not doing. There’s really a great opportunity here.

Art is not dead, even without the usual financing. Why? Because creative artists are alive and well, and art does not require money; it simply requires artists who have a commitment to creative expression at the highest level. I think the current close association of financial accountability with the creative arts is unhealthy for the artists and for art. Artists certainly deserve to be paid for what they do and have a decent standard of living. Please understand that I am speaking of the nature of bringing art to the public, which is a different matter, and one which has become totally intertwined with commercialism lately in our culture. There’s no reason that this has to be so. But you’re not going to change people’s opinion by complaining about it. You have to do something about it.

The current classical music scene is a relatively modern invention. Paying $100 to go to a large concert hall and watch a beautiful, anorexic singer wearing a $10,000 dress sing “perfectly” (with a perhaps less than majestic instrument and a lack of real artistry or uniqueness) is something that arose in the last few decades. A century ago, music was a much less formal occasion and was an inherent part of any culture. Individuality was respected, even celebrated. There’s no reason it can’t still be this way.

I will speak about singing in this Post, but what I’m saying could apply to any of the creative or healing arts (I consider healing and creativity to be closely intertwined because I believe they come from a similar place).

Mutual promotion

I propose that one way we can support the arts during these times is by helping each other in simple ways that benefit us all. I’m a big proponent of promotion that benefits all parties. In my earlier career, one of the things that made me uncomfortable about being a professional singer was the self-promotion that seemed to be required. What I’ve found this time around is that I’m comfortable doing promotional work as long as it benefits others, too.

An example of mutually-beneficial promotion is a group I host once a month called The Music Salon™. I have a website that serves as the repository for information about the group, the current month’s program, all the past programs the group has performed, and a list of everyone who has performed with the group, along with their picture and biography. I use The Music Salon Past Programs and Salon Personnel pages for mutual promotion. If someone looks at the Salon Personnel page, every person who is on that page gets a free advertisement; if someone is perusing that page, they might come across someone who fits perfectly with a need they have. Conversely, if someone does a web search for one of the people who has performed at The Music Salon, they will come to the Music Salon page, or one of its related web pages, which benefits The Music Salon. It ALSO benefits everyone else listed on those pages, so that everyone on that page receives the benefit of a search done for anyone on that page. So far there have been three instances where people have connected through the Personnel or Past Programs pages with either longlost friends or directors looking for someone to sing a particular role. I’m very happy that my website serves that purpose. I plan to continue doing that, and I hope that others follow suit.

This kind of mutual promotion doesn’t cost a cent, and I believe it is crucial right now. First, because it is such a difficult time financially, and second, because this it the first time we’ve had the opportunity to reach so many people so quickly thanks to the internet. Viral marketing, which allows us to reach many people almost instantly and without charge, is wonderful, but I think it’s even more wonderful when it’s done in a way that truly benefits everyone, not just so that it disseminates information quickly for advertising purposes.

Facebook® is a great example of that. If I post a notice about, for example, my Blog, everyone who is a Friend of mine will see it, and anyone who is a Friend of those people, if they happen to go to that Friend’s timeline, will see my post and possibly read my Blog post. They will be people who likely have an interest in what I’m doing, because they’re Friends with my Friend, rather than someone who might be offended by an unsolicited email. (Yes, I know that not every Friend will see every post due to Facebook’s filtering mechanism, but you get the idea.) Commenting on, or Liking, someone’s Post supports them and makes them feel heard; it also gives you a small amount of free promotion. And it’s entertaining reading everyone’s Posts (well, most of the time). What’s not to love about this? Everyone benefits.

The same goes for producing concerts or events with other performers. You each get the benefit of the others’ promotion and mailing list, and you can share the cost of the venue and production, making it more affordable for all of you. And a performance with multiple performers is almost always more interesting to the audience than just one.

In addition, I think it’s important, if you’re promoting something, that you give the recipient of the promotion something of value, so that you’re not just blasting them with a request or an advertisement. Give them something pleasant to look at, listen to, brighten their day or inspire them. This is not only a sound marketing tool, but again creates an environment of mutual benefit, rather than pure commercialism. This makes the world a better place for all of us.

Make it affordable

It has become such a big deal and so expensive to go to live, professional performances that people are staying away, particularly when they find that those performances really are not very interesting or exciting and don’t live up to what they were expecting for the exorbitant price they paid.

If you produce a performance yourself in a low-cost venue, you don’t have to charge much. People will come to your performance when you charge a price they can afford. If they get a good live performance, and if they like you, they’ll come back again. This seems obvious, doesn’t it? But in this new age of marketing, I think people forget sometimes that liking a product is what brings people back to it, not force-feeding them or brainwashing them with advertising and impressing them with ever-increasing digital magic.

Give a concert, and charge a fee that everyone can afford. That’s how we bring the arts to the public and get them interested. People don’t want to – and mostly can’t – pay $100 now to see a concert, or even $50. The guy who runs your neighborhood deli – what could he afford to pay? How about your neighbor? How about you? The arts are for everyone, not just the wealthy. So why charge a price only the wealthy can afford? In other cultures, music is an innate part of the culture. People sing and play instruments at the drop of a hat. The arts are here to enrich our lives and express our humanity, so let’s make sure they can be experienced by everyone. Gear the price you charge for your performance to the audience you want to be able to enjoy your art, not what you think it’s “worth” or what it cost you to produce. I really believe if you make music with the idea of creating and giving, rather than focusing on the bottom line, the rewards will come to you.

People who perform in bars and supper clubs and cabarets who develop a following don’t do it through looking great or having great press or management. They do it because people who listen to them in very informal circumstances like their music and enjoy their performing, and they come back to hear them again and again. And they tell other people about them. And before long, someone who’s really good has a good following. There’s no reason the same can’t work for us.

I’m not suggesting we should abandon the expensive productions of the Met, for example, or the experience of a Carnegie Hall recital, both of which I love, but to expand our idea of what classical music is. In past eras, it has been much more a part of popular culture than it is right now. I’m not advocating one or the other, but suggesting that we expand our vision of what it is to be a classical musician and what it means to be “successful” in the business of making music. Is commercial success your only gauge? Or the number of people who see your performance? Or the degree to which it augments your career? Or the amount of enjoyment people get from your performance? I think it is very important to know what you want to happen to others as a result of your performing, in addition to what you want to get from it yourself. If you really think about this, it might surprise you.

Nude? As in, naked?

About the contract clause regarding singing nude. Yes, I’m off topic, and I’m sorry to diverge, but I have to say something about this. Singing nude? Really? I can’t believe people are even discussing this, much less doing it. Would you have wanted to see Pavarotti sing in the nude?

For those of you who would think, Oh, now, I have to spend three hours a day in the gym instead of one because now I have to sing nude, and I have to lose another 30 pounds even if it costs me my high notes … rest assured that not everyone has lost their mind. Opera is about illusion. As for those unfortunate people who don’t understand that, or who have no imagination, you don’t have to listen to them, or work for them. People who hire you to do this are not really interested in your talent or your career.

Can the beautiful, skinny naked woman dance onstage and simultaneously sing opera? This is the producer appealing to the lowest common denominator in the audience, and the audience really deserves more respect—to say nothing of the singers and the music. Do you honestly think Joan Sutherland would have sung nude, if she were coming up right now? Would she have said, Oh, my, I have to lose 80 pounds so that I can sing in the nude? Of course she wouldn’t.

Opera is not the circus! It is an art and tradition worthy of respect. It can be made relevant and exciting to current audiences, but not through cheapening or debasing it with tawdry gimmicks. The excitement comes from performers who are unafraid to be different, unafraid to be passionate in their singing, rather than trying to be marketable, and it comes from thrilling, well-produced singing. There are very few performers like this right now because of the cheap commercialism that is creeping (marching?) into opera. I advocate a rebellion! Let us sing the way humans are intended to sing: freely and passionately and with abandon and to hell with those who don’t appreciate it. No one can change this but us. Yes, the opera world is now plastic and superficial and media-driven, but you really don’t have to buy into that. You can still make music with integrity. They can’t produce operas without us!

Please celebrate and revel in what you are, not what you are not. Whatever the standard is now, it was different in a different age. Botticelli then, Twiggy now; soon it will be Botticelli again. Just don’t worry about it. Worry about being healthy. (But if you’re obese, that isn’t healthy; we should all be fit if we hope to sing well.) Superficial parameters about appearance only apply if you’re on camera or DVD or television, and isn’t opera really about live performance?

In live performance, people don’t care if you’re fat. They don’t even care if you’re ugly. They don’t care nearly as much about what you look like as they do about the show you put on and the music you make, and whether they enjoy your performance and are inspired by it. If you’re fat, don’t sit around bemoaning that you’re fat, or hating or starving yourself; go out there and give a “Fat Girls Sing Verdi” concert. Invite all your fattest friends who can sing beautifully, and give a really great performance. Believe me, people will come. (I hope that I have not offended anyone with the use of the term “fat.” Please know that I have never been skinny and do not consider the word derogatory. I am irritated by the obsession about thinness. Is anyone ever remembered by posterity because they were thin? “She was a truly inspiring person, one of the thinnest of the century.” Is that what you want on your tombstone?)

Who are you?

You know who you are as a professional singer, but who are you as a singer? How does your being express itself through singing? That is what holds the key to being an artist.

If you want to go the professional route, the YAP, the emerging professional performances, and try to make a lucrative traditional career and a big name for yourself, I’m not knocking it at all; by all means go for it! It can be exciting and rewarding. But if you truly love music, and not just the idea of being famous, don’t let the lack of paying work or the strangeness of the industry right now stop you. Go out there and make music. You’re creative artists; think creatively. Think outside the box, even when it comes to your musicmaking. Especially with your musicmaking.

If you want to find out who you really are as an artist, as a creative person, and where your heart really wants to take you creatively, what your destiny is as an artist, I recommend you research that. I can help you with exploring that territory, if you’re interested. If you’re already having a good career, doing this will ensure you don’t wake up 10 years from now when you’re a “successful” singer and wonder where you went. It will also make you a greater artist.

Express yourself

In my zeal to encourage you to do your own thing, you’ve probably figured out that I’m not talking about the usual concert format, with the requisite number of songs in a set and the expected programming. Not that that would be a bad thing at all; I would just like to see people be a little more imaginative. How would you do your concert if no one would judge you for it? Let your imagination run free. The possibilities are endless, and it baffles me why people do the same thing over and over. Be creative!

I am producing an educational, multimedia concert series about Spanish art song, something I love. I love to teach, I love to sing, I love entertaining an audience, I love graphics and multimedia, and I love Spanish art song. This concert series lets me do what I do best and express myself fully, while contributing to the audience through education and entertainment—my great passion. What is your passion? Go to town with it! Take it to new limits, allow yourself to conceive of new ways to present it. There is a way to allow this vision to come forth organically rather than approaching it intellectually (stay tuned for a future blog post….).

You can make music on your own terms and you can offer something that people have been missing—a quality, live performance that they can afford and truly enjoy. It doesn’t have to cost a fortune. You don’t have to use an expensive venue, and it doesn’t have to be impressive. All that matters is that it’s entertaining, that it’s genuine, that it’s alive, and that it is as pure an expression of creativity as you can manage. For that, you have to know who you really are and why you’re making music.

We’ve never lived in a better time for making music on your own terms. With viral marketing through the internet and social networks, with your own website, with digital photography you can do yourself, with professional quality recorders with which you can record yourself, there is no reason you can’t have a successful performance with a full house without employing anyone, and without anyone hiring you. Of course, there are recording engineers who can produce top-quality recordings for you, and high-quality photographers and marketing professionals who can help, too, if they are within your budget. The point is that virtually every singer can produce an exciting, high-quality, well-attended performance on their own now with a little self-exploration, energy and commitment.

So get creative! See where your imagination takes you, and make some music—for everyone’s sake.

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