The Persistence of Vision

A formal place setting provides a convenient template to caricature extreme operatic voice specialization

A formal place setting provides a convenient template to caricature extreme operatic voice specialization

I’d like to start this post with a 20-second video. Excuse the tacky music.

That’s the first kiss in cinematic history, filmed on Thomas Edison’s camera at his studio in West Orange, NJ, in 1896. It was the first film to be criticized as scandalous, and brought demands for censorship. (N.B. The title of this post refers to the theory explaining, at least in part, the ability of the mind to conceptually “fill in the blanks” between a series of frames or pictures; the same theory that kicked off the development of cinematic invention and production in the 19th century.)

As we continue this journey exploring the development of the opera industry in 20th-century America, I think it’s really important to make a few observations about the film industry around the same era. As we see around us daily, the worlds of opera and cinema inevitably collide. Both are art forms that fall under the broad categorization of “entertainment.” Though I fiercely advocate against treating opera AS cinema (or any other art form/genre, for that matter – subject matter for a future blog post, but for now, if you’re interested, check out Ep. 2: “Define ‘Buxom’” of my podcast, “Operative”), the two industries mirror each other extensively. So we’re going to go down that road for a second, and I hope you’ll indulge me. You’ll see why this is all important, and I promise to tie the threads together in just a few paragraphs.

To start, a potentially surprising fact: in the earliest years of the film industry (1890s-1900s), actors were typically not identified/credited in the films they performed in. You can see why, when you think about it, from both the perspective of the actor and the producer. One of an actor’s main skills is their voice, and these films were silent. Appearing in a silent film was basically like performing pantomime, which was a typically unrefined art form and often downright crude. (The closest modern-day opera industry equivalent that I can think of would be a renowned opera singer being asked to perform in a mic’d production. Or, perhaps, the Hartford Wagner Festival’s abandoned plan to perform the complete Ring cycle in 2014, accompanied by a virtual orchestra. Some of the singers who had agreed to perform in this HWF production received an email from musicians in the Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra warning them that if they did not resign, “the live musicians of this country will remember you for the rest of your career and treat you as a traitor to our art form.” There’s a lot more on this Facebook page.) From the producer’s perspective, the last thing you’d want is for these actors to gain prestige and power and start demanding more money, especially at such an early stage in the industry’s development.

As films gained popularity in the first decade of the 20th century, these actors reconsidered their stance – and producers realized that they could actually make a whole lot more money by using the stars’ names (or pseudonyms). So, their names started being known around 1910, and they began to make significantly more money and achieve celebrity status, fueled by the phenomenon of fan magazine publishing, like Motion Picture Story Magazine (1911) and Photoplay (1912). In 1916, Mary Pickford made history by becoming the first actress to sign a million-dollar contract.

And the upward trajectory continued. In 1928, Clara Bow became the highest paid movie star – at $35,000/week – right around the same time that “talkies” (sound films) were introduced. Some actors and actresses survived this transition to sound films, and many didn’t make the cut. The film industry continued its dramatic rise. By 1939, there were more movie theaters in the United States (15,000) than there were banks. The number of theaters per capita was twice that of the mid-1980s. The industry’s executives received enormous percentages of profits. Stars like Bing Crosby and Claudette Colbert received payment in excess of $400,000 a year (almost $7 million today). Hollywood survived through WWII, and in 1946 all-time highs were recorded for theatre attendance.

Then some really interesting things happened in the late-’40s through the ‘50s, and it’s here that the film and opera industries intersect. In my view, the four most important events of this period, as they relate to the film and opera industries, are (in no particular order):

  • the United States vs. Paramount Pictures U.S. Supreme Court antitrust case ruling in 1948, which forced the end of the “Studio System” (this is a fascinating story in itself, which I don’t really have the space to go into – I’d recommend reading this Wikipedia article to familiarize yourself with what happened and its dramatic impact on the industry. To cut a long story short, large Hollywood studio conglomerates known as the “Big Five” – Loew’s/MGM, Paramount, Fox, Warner Bros., RKO – owned and controlled every piece of the film industry, from production to distribution and exhibition (“vertical integration”). This enabled these studios to create a vast majority of cheap, mediocre films [several of which would be sold with a single A-class film as a mandatory package deal], while eliminating the possibility of independent competition.)
  • the popularity of television sets, leading to a gradual decline in movie-theatre-attending audience numbers
  • the introduction of the LP (Long Play) record by Columbia Records in 1948, suddenly increasing recording capacity from less than 5 minutes per side to 22 minutes per side
  • the rise of trans-Atlantic commercial air travel

The TV thing was a big one. Many shows that debuted in the ‘50s are still popular – or at least familiar – today, including hits like I Love Lucy (1951), The Honeymooners (1951) and Lassie (1954).

So there was this incredible rise in competing forms of entertainment, thanks to the film industry, and film stars were achieving a new level of autonomy and receiving pay checks that could well have made opera singers of the day jealous. From the general public’s perspective, there became fewer and fewer reasons why they might go out to a theater to see a film when they could see many of the same actors on TV in their own homes. About 10.5 million U.S. homes had a TV set in 1950. C.A. Swanson & Sons introduced its first “TV dinner” in 1952, and sold 5000 units that year. It became hugely popular, and the following year 10 million units were sold. Even more incentive to stay home to fulfill one’s film-watching desires.

But, of course, people still wanted to go out. And with the introduction of charge cards in the ‘50s (Diners Club, American Express), consumers were encouraged to make more spontaneous purchases and not be so concerned about having cash on hand. Drive-ins achieved the peak of their popularity late in the same decade, but the quality of these films typically wasn’t high. Roger Corman, the producer/director known as the “B-movie King,” created many low-budget films for drive-ins, with titles like Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957) and The Blob (1958).

All this to say, it was the perfect time to get those people who no longer embraced the movie-theater-outing to go explore other entertainment options – like opera – instead. One can definitely imagine that opera singers of the time were ready to experience a similar kind of stardom that Hollywood actors had attained over the previous decades (culminating in the ‘50s phenomenon of Marilyn Monroe), and consumers were ready to embrace another set of newly-formed stars whom they could experience on a “night out.” And the main obstacle that had prevented this happening up until this point – this obstacle being the fact that almost all the major opera singers came across the ocean on passenger liners from Europe, necessitating longer stays and the performance of many leading roles in a single season – was largely eliminated with the rise of commercial trans-Atlantic air travel. (N.B. When the Boeing 707 began service on the New York to London route in 1958, this became the first year that more trans-Atlantic passengers traveled by air than by ship. )

And so, over this period of time, the “Star System” in opera was born. And the operatic landscape changed dramatically. Remember how in the Metropolitan Opera’s 1904-’05 season, Marcella Sembrich sang 9 principal roles, Enrico Caruso sang 6 (his debut season), Giuseppe Campanari sang 7, etc.? Well, for contrast, here is a list of the most frequent principal singers at the same company in 1965-’66 (a season comprised of 25 productions):

  • Mirella Freni (her debut season) sang 2 roles: Mimi (La bohème) & Adina (L’elisir d’amore)
  • Teresa Stratas sang 2 roles: Lisa (The Queen of Spades) & Périchole (Périchole)
  • Birgit Nilsson sang 4 roles: Leonore (Fidelio), Salome (Salome), Elisabeth (Tannhäuser) & Venus (Tannhäuser)
  • Gabriella Tucci sang 3 roles: Marguerite (Faust), Leonora (Il Trovatore) & Aida (Aida)
  • Regina Resnik sang 2 roles: Contessa (Le nozze di Figaro) & Dame Quickly (Falstaff)
  • Renata Scotto (her debut season) sang 1 role: Cio-Cio San (Madama Butterfly)
  • George Shirley sang 4 roles: Fenton (Falstaff), First Prisoner (Fidelio), Narraboth (Salome) & Count Almaviva (Il barbiere di Siviglia)
  • Nicolai Gedda sang 2 roles: Faust (Faust) & Nemorino (L’elisir d’amore)
  • John Alexander sang 2 roles: Pinkerton (Madama Butterfly) & Des Grieux (Manon)
  • Jon Vickers sang 1 role: Gherman (The Queen of Spades)
  • Robert Merrill sang 3 roles: Valentin (Faust), Count Di Luna (Il Trovatore) & Renato (Un ballo in maschera)
  • Cesare Siepi sang 2 roles: Méphistophélès (Faust) & Don Giovanni (Don Giovanni)

As I mentioned before, the other thing that happened right around this time was the development of the LP record. The careers of the singers listed above coincided perfectly with the beginning of what we now call the “Album Era”, which helped propel them to celebrity status. Suddenly opera singers could travel and perform on both sides of the Atlantic frequently and with ease, and demand increasingly high fees like their film counterparts. Operagoers in New York City could see several international stars in a single season, and could listen to their recordings at home, in a sense sustaining their presence even in their absence. A number of opera singers became celebrities of the highest, most popular order.

Speaking of fees: around the same time, after the destruction of the Studio System in the film industry, movie stars started signing independent contracts to share in a percentage of the box office profits from films in which they starred, rather than receiving a salary. James Stewart was one of the first, and earned $600,000 for one movie alone (“Winchester ‘73”, 1950).

So what did the birth of the Star System do to the opera industry? Well, for one, it introduced the idea of “specialization” among singers. Why would you sing seven roles at one house, when you could sing one role at seven houses? It’s a no-brainer. Martin Sokol, in his 1981 book “The New York City Opera: An American Adventure,” writes exactly that: “Fast travel has made major talents available to theaters throughout the world. Specialization in roles has grown, because a singer may now perform a small handful of parts for many different companies during the course of a season, rather than being limited to one or two companies and being forced, by economic necessity, to perform a more varied repertoire.”

This vocal specialization has become increasingly focused since this time, narrowing the sights and imaginations of countless arts administrators and limiting work opportunities for singers across the board. Singers became objects to put in pigeon holes. And in the immortal words of Jessye Norman, “Pigeon holes are only comfortable for pigeons.”

The other thing that the Star System did was eliminate the ability of a company like the Metropolitan Opera to create a unique company product. I’m talking about a unique artistic product.

THIS is the big point.

In order to be successful, any business, in any industry, must provide a product or service that its consumers cannot get elsewhere; OR – and this is a big “or” – one that is cheaper or more convenient than a product/service offered by a competitor. The goal is to have as significant a portion of the market share – that is, the percentage of the total market served by a particular company – as possible.

The “product” that the Metropolitan Opera consistently presented, from roughly the 1950s on, became one of curated celebrity appearances. This worked for a while, because these singers actually WERE mainstream celebrities. But they aren’t anymore. And it’s not because of a difference in talent level (it is, in my opinion, a little to do with vocal training, but – again – subject matter for a future post); it is almost ALL because of the particular environment in the mid-20th century, outlined above, that set the stage for these singers to become major stars and mainstream celebrities.

In opera, as we know, it is all about the solo singers. The orchestra and chorus both heighten and provide an environment for these solo singers, and enhance the consumer’s experience of these artists.

Which leads me to the following statement: there is nothing – I repeat, nothing – about the Solo Singer Product that the Metropolitan Opera puts on its stage that makes it truly unique to the Metropolitan Opera, other than the fact that it is physically located on the Metropolitan Opera’s stage. And when I say “unique,” I mean in a national context.

I understand this is a huge statement to make. But hear me out. When every single cast of singers is assembled from scratch (and overlap does occur, but is very rare), it means that neither the Lyric Opera of Chicago, nor Houston Grand Opera, nor the Metropolitan Opera, nor LA Opera, nor Washington National Opera can create and present an artistic product that is inherently different to that of their A-tier competitors. Companies and their stages become revolving doors, undermining the continuity of their own product. Sure, the weather varies from location to location, as does the house size, as does the General Manager’s vision, and these and other factors shape the unique “vibe” of each company. But there is no truly unique artistic through-line. I’m sure the General Managers at each of these houses would like to think that their own vision and approach to management provides a unique artistic through-line; but this is not the case, because each company and its director is – by absolute necessity – engaged in trying to figure out how to adjust business models to take a step towards sustainability, and how to find new (often younger) audience members, and how to find solutions to other problems facing the industry. Like it or not, the age of the liberated, visionary General Manager has declined into virtual nonexistence.

A comment I hear frequently from arts administrators and supporters is, more or less, the following: “Young people these days have issues with commitment. They can’t commit to spending money; they can’t commit to spending several hours in a room experiencing music. Thanks, i-Whatevers and the rest of technology, you’ve really messed shit up.” This is an exaggerated statement of the argument I took home after reading Michael Kaiser’s new release,“Curtains? The Future of the Arts in America.” Well, my argument is that young people don’t have any more issues with “commitment” than this older generation had when they were that age. In fact, these same “young people” will spend hundreds of dollars on a ticket to see Beyoncé perform live in nine months’ time. The difference? They know what they are paying for. They are paying to experience the unique artistic product that is Beyoncé. They know that it won’t fail them. They know what to expect, and they are willing to shell out big bucks to experience it live. And they know they can’t experience it anywhere else.

And THAT is precisely what the mainstream opera industry in the United States is lacking.

Next time, we’ll take a closer look at the point in time when the Star System – our status quo – started failing, and how this coincided with the slowing (some would say declining) rates of opera attendance in the 1990s. And I’ll make some observations about what I believe needs to be done in order to save the root system of this tree that is all but dead from the ground up.

Because if we do nothing, our industry will continue its decline. And by “decline,” I’m not just talking about ticket sales. I’m talking about MORALE. I’m talking about the fact that, due to a lack of hindsight, foresight and transparency, this industry is inadvertently serving pure bullshit to countless hundreds of artists who have the most incredible talent, who have the most unique things to say, who are NEEDED by our communities, who have ZERO work and ZERO opportunities, and meanwhile are forking out tens of thousands of dollars each and every year and getting nothing in return. We, as an industry, are eating our own young, and it’s despicable.

Those are my thoughts. More to come on December 1st.

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