Monday, April 19, 2010

On With The Show?

This weekend, in my continuing attempt to understand this metropolis, I took a guided tour of the Metropolitan Opera House.  I have lived here for many years, and I have in fact attended more than one such performance at the world-renowned concert space, but never before had it occurred to me to look underneath its hood (nor had it occurred to many others: there were three of us present on this particular spring day).

To my surprise, throughout the tour I found myself fascinated, awed, stunned, and somewhat appalled.  It is safe to say that the productions that occur inside this behemoth would dwarf even the most ambitious of pop music productions.

To wit:  the stage itself is the size of two adjacent basketball courts.   Above it hand four stories of constructions which exist for the sole purposes of raising and lowering large objects and making cast members appear to fly.  There are 50 trap doors within the stage to allow for the entrance of chorus members or fire. 

This is just the performing space.  In each of the wings there is an elevator with a 625-square-foot platform for raising and lowering set pieces.  (despite the enormous space contained within the opera house, only one week's worth of scenery can be housed at any given time).   There are floors dedicated  only to the production of costumes.  Stars' costumes routinely cost upwards of $20,000.  Wigs are hand made with a mix of human and synthetic hair, and each hair is hand-placed through a wire mesh.  This process takes approximately 36 hours per wig.  Chandeliers in the lobby.  containing 49,000 crystals each are raised and lowered to indicate the start of a performance.  The ceiling of the main house is coated in 23-karat gold leaf.  Indeed, the closest the structure comes to a show of restraint is in its wood paneling, all of which was derived from a single African Rosewood 6 feet in diameter and over 100 feet in length.

One wonders how such a decadent performance space can exist, particularly when it covers only 30% of its expenses with ticket revenues.   Despite rare attempts to modernize, the institution is largely dependent on deep pockets that will undoubtedly dry up in the not-too-distant future, when the audience for this spectacle does the same.  At this point, I wondered, what will become of this behemoth?

At best, I suppose, it will become a museum of sorts, not unlike the palace at Versailles;  at worst, it will just melt away like the ice palace of St. Petersburg,  and we will be left to read about it in fiction.  Either way, there can be no doubt that the model of this New York institution is decidedly out-of-step with the way in which the average citizen experiences music, whether it be classical (or, as a professor of mine once maddeningly deemed it "Western Art Music") or pop.

Indeed, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the grand spectacle of live performance was the only way to hear music of any kind.  This changed in the 20th century with the advent of recorded music, causing some to opine that music would become completely divorced from live performance and be rendered the sole domain of the living room.

Of course, even the idea of listening to music with other people in the living room seems quaint today, when we are one step from having permanent soundtracks implanted in our brains.  I would note also that, as the scale for listening to music has gone from concert hall to living room to tragus, so has the means of production shrunk in size from 110- piece orchestra to 12-man big band to rock/hip-hop trio to dude with a laptop making mash-ups.  Given this climate, one wonders what the fate of live music will be.

Although I doubt that live music will be expunged from our lives at any point in the near-future, it is for most certainly becoming more of an event and less of a regularity.  While large festivals like Coachella, Pitchfork, and SXSW may seem grand, they are in fact quite economical by comparison to, for example, the 157-show ZOO TV tour.  In addition, I would suggest that regular concert venues in major cities will continue to "unionize" (corporatize?) as we have seen in New York with the "Bowery Presents" phenomenon.

Of course, there will always be room for live performance, and there will always be room within it for opulence and ostentation.  But, as we have seen with the music of our youth, and as we will undoubtedly see with New York's primary opera house, such opulence is not sustainable. 

Below are streamed some songs from some lesser-known pop records of the last 15 years which their makers have decided to refer to as "operas."  In conclusion, I include the Crystal Castles remix of the Little Ones "Lovers Who Uncover."  I'm including it solely because it is awesome, but I'll justify its inclusion by pointing out that "Crystal Castle" is a lot like "Ice Palace" (new record out June 7!).

Fiery Furnaces - Chris Michaels

Drive-By Truckers - Women Without Whiskey

Prince Paul - Prince Among Thieves


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