Last summer, at the risk of ruining its finances and alienating subscribers, the New York Philharmonic presented a rarely-heard modern masterpiece that turned into a runaway success. This season, the New York City Opera similarly invested in a new production of three modern works that barely sold a third of the house. Both productions involved very good music, innovative staging, and multi-media marketing campaigns. What went wrong for one and right for another?
Before we dig in, I’d like to say that I stand with the commentators who say that it’s not all George Steel’s fault. While the City Opera crisis has been rightly compared to the fall of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, there is one significant difference–the leadership of NYCO is not driven by greed and personal gain. Like many others, I mourn the possibility that City Opera could disappear. If that institution goes, where else in America will young performers and directors begin their careers? Where else in New York will all the company members find musical work?
With that out of the way, here’s a gentle look at what made the difference between the Philharmonic’s success with Le Grand Macabre and NYCO’s marketing failure with Monodramas.
Before you try to get butts in seats you’d better have a good reason to get them there. The Philharmonic could boast that Le Grand Macabre by the venerable Hungarian modernist György Ligeti was a New York premiere, and they partnered with Giants Are Small, whose mission statement reveals the key to the show’s success: “to transform the way the audiences listen to classic music by developing a unique approach which turns classic concerts into a fully visual experience.” In other words, visual tools are put in service of the music.
For Monodramas (our earlier review here), City Opera partnered with artist/entrepreneur Michael Counts, who had never directed an opera before, and whose goal, according to his website, “is to reinvent mainstream entertainment.” Given that the solo-voiced operas by John Zorn, Schoenberg, and Morton Feldman will never be mainstream, Counts imposed flashy concepts onto them. Feldman’s austere Neither had dance moves and a troupe of silent actors. Zorn’s wordless short work was filled with women in burqas and a couple of flappers. In Macabre, every flamboyant costume and evocative image came from the music, whether it was the spooky eye that became the logo for the event, or the spider hat for the head of the secret police or the fat costume for the cannibal prince:
Granted, the Phil had the advantage here as Macabre has a built-in storyline while the Monodramas are abstract. But the moral of this story is clear: choose your collaborators wisely. And if you’re in the business of making music, make sure your collaborators have some background in that too.
If you want to reach a new audience, you need new media. Both companies launched YouTube channels with behind-the-scenes shots and interviews, and their respective websites featured audio clips and pics. But the two don’t compare.
The Philharmonic promos had conductor Alan Gilbert beating a grim-reaper character at Guitar Hero and eating ice-cream cones in a Bergman-on-the-West-Side scene. They were unselfconsciously funny and got several thousand plays on YouTube. City Opera’s effort, Monovlogs, featured more straight-forward sneak peeks and some notables reading Samuel Beckett’s eery poem that makes up Neither, none of which got more than a few hundred plays. Granted, the Phil’s videos have been there much longer by now, but clearly one effort is more attractive than the other. The home pages for the productions are studies in strengths and weakness. The Phil’s has readily accessible costume sketches and sound clips and links to connect. NYCO’s is text heavy, with the standard cast listing and synopsis, and an invitation to pay $10 to hear related lectures. It’s as if they are trying to reach the Cav/Pag audiences with new media.
The Phil’s new media outreach apparently worked. According to this report, at the beginning of the 2009-2010 season only a third of the Phil’s subscribers got seats for Grand Macabre. But by the time the first concert actually took place, the hall was full with single-ticket buyers, who then went on Twitter and Facebook. The rest of the run was quickly sold out (we barely made it).
The lesson here? If you’re going to do it, do it. Obscure works need to be heavily sold, not just put out there with the best of hopes.
This observation walks on thin ice, but for what it’s worth: Monodramas might have worked better in a different season, one with a little bit more standard fare. But when the other subscription options included obscure Strauss, not-so-great Bernstein, and a new (apparently bad) opera by a Broadway composer, there was simply not enough incentive to try yet another something new. The Phil’s 2009-10 season was much more tame, with less than 20% of its programming presenting anything remotely challenging. It gave them the occasion to make the Ligeti a real event, and now they’re building on that success with a second collaboration this weekend with Giants Are Small.
I wish NYCO had found that success, and I still hope they do. If they’re looking for something new that might also appeal to die-hards, why not older opera rep that isn’t done as much, like anything by Britten (it’s in English for Pete’s sake!), or isn’t there this charming Janacek, something about a fox? (And didn’t they do it not so long ago?)