Art Failure

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The Utah Symphony & Opera is in financial trouble, and though no one is pointing fingers, the fact is, it’s your fault.

You see, both the symphony and the opera — which combined in 2002 into one entity — rely on what’s called an “audience” to make money. They sell what are known as “tickets” to patrons who then sit in chairs and listen to and/or watch the performances. The company gets donations and grants, too, but they still depend on those elusive “audiences” for a large portion of their income.

Attendance has been down lately, and no one is sure why. Some say producing lesser-known 20th-century operas such as “Jenufa,” which is full of music yet contains not a single hummable tune or catchy theme, and which features a woman being slashed in the face with a knife, and which isn’t in one of the acceptable opera languages (French, Italian or German) but in Czech, scares audiences away. Others say advertising and promotions have not been up to par, that even conductor Keith Lockhart’s appearance fully nude in Playgirl magazine failed to entice new audience members.

But I think the real problem is not the material, or the way it’s promoted, but the simple fact that for the most part, PEOPLE DON’T GO TO THE SYMPHONY OR THE OPERA. Oh, sure, some do. Some even go often. But MOST people don’t see more than one or two operas in their entire lives, and attend the symphony only slightly more often.

When you’re trying to convince someone that a particular city is nice, it’s always the artsy things you mention. “My heavens, Salt Lake is a fine city!” you’d say. “It has some great museums, and a world-class symphony!” And it’s true, we have those things, but do you ever go to them? No. (Neither do I, but we’re talking about you here, not me.) Instead, those things languish on the outskirts of profitability, kept alive by generous donations and by the few people who actually patronize them.

The thing is, I’m not sure we really deserve fine art anyway. Last month US&O produced Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” an opera that has the added difficulty of being based on a Shakespeare play. Not to suggest that certain Utahns are yokels who put on their Sunday-go-to-meetin’ clothes and spray their hair up real high when it’s time to go to the ahpruh, but there were some embarrassing specimens at the performance I attended. For example, after some reveling had taken place in the fairy-inhabited woods onstage, the man behind me remarked to his female companion, in a “whisper” loud enough for all around him to hear, “It looks like a fraternity house the morning after a party.”

Now, leaving aside the idiocy of pointing out that a scene depicting the aftermath of a party looks, in fact, like the aftermath of a party, what happened to this man that made him think it was OK to talk during the opera? A blow to the head? A viral infection during infancy? Or was he just from Midvale? (I know we usually restrict our comments about hicks and yahoos to Utah County-ites, but let’s face it, there are many such rubes among us even here in the bustling metropolis of Salt Lake.)

The man made other comments over the course of the show, too, and I hope he is reading this so that he will know what a jackass he is. That’s assuming he even has the class to read an artsy publication such as this, which I should point out is kept alive by generous donations from readers like you.

I should point out that the only reason I attended the opera twice in Salt Lake City is that someone gave me tickets. In fact, one time this person not only gave me a ticket, but also dragged me there, because I didn't really want to go.

This part -- "Or was he just from Midvale? (I know we usually restrict our comments about hicks and yahoos to Utah County-ites, but let’s face it, there are many such rubes among us even here in the bustling metropolis of Salt Lake.)" -- was omitted in publication. I assume this was for space purposes, and not because City Weekly didn't want to break its policy of always ripping on Utah County-ites and never Salt Lakers. The column was 637 words and it's supposed to be 600, so I guess that would explain it.

Also, the explanatory "of time" was added in the final sentence, to clarify, I guess, that readers don't actually contribute money to City Weekly. I guess people might have really thought that otherwise, as they went off looking for the issue of Playgirl that Keith Lockhart appeared in.

This column prompted a few replies, two angry and one full of advertising. This first one (published April 28) was written by Utah Symphony and Opera's marketing director, and it sounds like he's trying to justify his department's work:

I was pleased to read that Eric Snider was one of many attending Utah Opera's recent production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Our ad agency, R&R Partners, helped us sell almost 400 more tickets to this Britten opera compared to last fall's blockbuster "Aida." We did it with guerrilla marketing, eschewing the mass media and reaching potential opera-goers where they shop and dine.

When someone picks up their little black dress from the cleaners, the hanger tells them, "You would look great in this at the Utah Opera." [It's apparently on the hangers for gaudy faux-riche dresses and unfashionable neckties, too.] A romance book shopper is reminded by a bookmarker about "Handsome rogues, heaving bosoms and moonlight trysts. And that's just in the audience. Utah Opera. Experience the Romance."

City Weekly readers have been enjoying [oh, have we?] the fun ads that describe our operas: "You're unmarried, pregnant, and in love with a rogue. Then your secret admirer stabs you. It sounds a lot more romantic when you sing it. [Meh, not really.]'Jenufa.'" That's how you get people to come to an opera sung in Czech! We had a great turnout to "Jenufa," with many people experiencing a Janacek opera for the first time [and probably the last, but I digress].

After a multiyear decline, Utah Opera sales are already 8 percent greater than last season, and we still have a month of sales to go on "Cose fan tutte." You know, the original "Love the One You're With," written by Larry, Curly and Mozart. [ZING! I hope the opera is as funny as that tagline!]

Sean Toomey
Director of Marketing & Communication
Utah Symphony and Opera

By the way, if ticket sales were up this year, that fact was not mentioned in the Salt Lake Tribune's and Deseret News' coverage of Utah Symphony & Opera. All the stories up to this point were about the decline. I suppose they had to wait until the season was over for the rise in ticket sales to be definitive. Who knows, the one by Larry, Curly and Mozart could tank, and overall sales for the year might be down again.

Then we have this one, from a man who is far angrier than he ought to be (though I suppose that is true of all angry-letter writers):
Shame on Eric Snider for that column about the Utah Symphony and Opera. You're not offering solutions [not my job] but, in fact, are part of the problem [my job].

"Better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt." [I always thought it was "...than to write a letter to the editor and remove all doubt," but OK.] At least your column removed any doubt in this reader's mind. [You'd already heard of me and were wondering if I was a fool? You were thinking of me?! Awww!] "Jenufa" is a masterpiece written by one of the 20th century's greatest composers. [And I am therefore not allowed to dislike it, I guess.] It is a story of redemption and forgiveness and speaks to people of all ages and hairstyles. (By the way, I have much more respect for people with big hair who actually bought a ticket to the opera than oh-so-elitist media types who get in with a comp ticket.) [Whoa, there! I didn't get in with a comp ticket by being a member of the media! The ticket was a gift, yes, but it was from a friend -- and besides, I said nothing about it in the column anyway. This writer is jumping to conclusions.][Oh, and YOU talk about the obtuse, unpleasant "Jenufa" as being a masterpiece, and you look down on those who don't like it, and I'M the elitist?]

I suggest you return to your area of expertise (whatever that might be) [Because for sure if I didn't like "Jenufa," it's hard to imagine that I could be an expert in ANY area] and leave opera, symphony and literature [Hey, how did literature come into this?] to others who are better able to serve the public interest. [He is apparently under the impression that my humor column was a review of the opera, and not, I don't know, say, a humor column.]

In the meantime, educate yourself about music and art forms, and the next time you're tempted to write an idiotic diatribe, you might know what you're talking about ... doubtful, but possible. [If it's doubtful that educating myself would help me know what I'm talking about, then why would I bother educating myself? And why would I be "tempted" to write something "idiotic"? If I know it's idiotic up front, why would I do it? And if I've educated myself on the topic, wouldn't that prevent it from being idiotic? Oh, I am so confused.]

Frank Babbitt
Winnetka, Ill.

Curious as to why a man from Winnetka, Ill., was even reading Salt Lake City Weekly, let alone was so bothered by my column, I googled him. Turns out he's a violist for the Lyric Opera of Chicago -- which produced "Jenufa" in 2000. I suppose the opera companies of America have message boards and such, hence his discovery of the column.

The next week (May 5), this letter was published:
So who is this Eric D. Snider, anyway? [Who indeed?!] Whose brilliant idea was it to send him off to the opera so he could enlighten us all on the local arts scene [Again, someone who has mistaken my column for a review] with his bad impression of Don Rickles? [Don Rickles invented making fun of stuff?] And is he old enough to even know of Don Rickles? [Again proving my theory: No matter how old you are, people older than you will always think you're too young to know what you're doing.]

Really folks: I love the City Weekly. But if you want to increase people's awareness of the arts-related issues in town [which was not, as far as I know, City Weekly's stated goal], publish someone's piece about the symphony or opera who knows "jack" about the subject. [Not someone who knows actual jack, but the metaphorical kind. You know, "jack," if you know what I mean.] In his article, Snider exposed his hand once too often that he really doesn't. [Doh! Once too often! If only I'd kept one of those ignorance-proving remarks to myself!] Ironically, he also seems to wallow about with pride in his ignorance. [The only thing I said about the opera was that "Jenufa" is little-known and features a woman being slashed in the face with a knife, and that its music is neither catchy nor hummable. I stand by that assessment -- which MIGHT make me unknowledgeable about "Jenufa" specifically, but not about opera in general. And the only way it makes me "unknowledgeable" is in the sense of that word that means "disagreeing with this guy."]

If you send over a scholar -- instead of a rude little toady -- his or her criticisms might actually be worth something. [Translation: If you send someone who agrees with me, his criticisms might be worth reading.]

George Brown
Principal Timpanist/Utah Symphony
Salt Lake City

You know, I didn't say in the column that there was anything wrong with the choice of operas, or with the advertising. All I said was that those were two of the theories suggested by some people. What I ACTUALLY said that I thought was the problem was that people don't go to the opera, period, regardless of what they do or how it's marketed. So quit trying to prove how great your marketing is, or how wise your opera choices were, because I never ripped on those in the first place, OK?

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