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Comment: CBC, Canadian Opera and artists caught between rock and hard place

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(Adrian Raeside cartoon)

It’s natural to be mad at the CBC for its steadily eroding classical programming, at the Canadian Opera Company for not working out a deal to keep its productions on the air and at the artists’ unions for not agreeing to pay reductions in this week’s news about Saturday Afternoon at the Opera.

As well as being a focal point of frustration, this is a potent case study of how the traditional models of making, distributing and consuming music and opera are falling apart before our bewildered eyes.

We are caught in a complex web of interrelated factors that involve everyone in our society.

Most prominent among these is the public broadcaster versus the general public.

Once upon a time, not that long ago, Canadians believed in a set of shared cultural values that gave the performing arts equal play with popular entertainment in the art of nation-building, which included the need to set up a taxpayer-funded broadcasting system.

There were no audience surveys behind this endeavor; it was a question of values.

But, as is the case everywhere in the West, where economies of production have become economies of consumption, there is less and less real surplus wealth. Budgets must be cut, and all marginal activities eliminated.

Canada has a large and ready audience of classical music and opera fans, but not nearly as large as the audience for other forms of music. Radio and television ratings don’t lie, and a pragmatic manager will cut the least-popular shows, regardless of cultural value.

We’ve lost one source of inexpensive performing arts for all (I’m assuming it would cost each Canadian taxpayer $50 to $75 a year to ensure a CBC capable of the kind of performing arts programming it delivered in the 1970s) in favour of streaming audio and video from anywhere in the world on the Internet.

This brings us back to the Canada of 1920, where gramophone records and touring companies and orchestras brought the world to us, but not necessarily vice versa.

National Public Radio and PBS in the United States, neither of which is on firm financial ground, depend on tens of millions of dollars of donations from individuals and charitable foundations every year.

The Metropolitan Opera would not be able to offer $25 movie tickets to see its productions if it weren’t for millions of dollars of private and corporate money donated every year.

How, I ask shaking my head, does this make more sense than a modest slice of my personal tax dollars going towards opening up possibly unknown cultural vistas for every one of my fellow Canadians?

Then there is the issue of the live audience, no longer nurtured by the small epiphanies of the Saskatchewan farm boy hearing Russel Braun or Isabel Bayrakdarian sing and, as a result being turned into a lifetime opera devotee.

The Canadian Opera Company, and every other performing arts presenter, needs to work that much harder to build audiences. This means spending money on marketing including, as we saw in yesterday’s news, finding $150,000 to ensure that the public broadcaster can diffuse its work.

This is $150,000 that, each year, had to be raised anew from generous donors and corporate sponsors whether or not the stock market was up or down, and whether or not interest rates were enough to generate a basic level of income on investments.

There isn’t a single performing arts presenter that isn’t worried sick over the natural demographic bulge that predicts the imminent retirement and inevitable return to dust within a quarter century of the wealthiest and most generous generation of arts sponsors and consumers in human history.

People who watch the music business are also clear on the fact that the majority of people are paying less and less for the music they consume.

Even the Canadian Opera Company, which has rarely had to resort to discounting, is currently offering a buy-two-tickets-and-get-a-third-free promotion. Someone has to pay for each of those freebies, even if it isn’t the ticket buyer.

Then there is the whole issue of the middle class, on which rests the 150-year-old notion of performing arts for all. We know that the middle class in the de-industrialized West is being swallowed up, little by little, into the growing canyon between rich and poor.

And let’s not forget the artists themselves, who spend nearly 20 years of their lives (assuming they start at age 5) learning and perfecting their art, accumulating the same student loans as MBA students do, amassing the same specialized skill set as a neurosurgeon, to discover that they can land two working gigs a week at $150 each.

The very few who land permanent orchestral jobs make great salaries, but these are only as stable as the forces that bring ticket buyers and donors to the concert hall. There are dozens of orchestras and opera companies in the United States right now who have let it be known that these salaries are unsustainable.

Through all of this muddle, the CBC decided it would do what it could to uphold its original mandate by getting presenters to foot the bill for live broadcasts.

The presenters gladly oblige if they can raise the money, but the Canadian Opera Company has been able to only just keep itself out of a deficit, and that was before the current discounts on tickets.

The musicians, who know full well what sort of pressure their employers are under are, with good reason, pushing hard not to see their fees reduced.

The managers at the CBC and the arts presenters have, I assume, not volunteered to cut their wages in the process, believing that they are working all the harder on trying to work out ways for their companies to survive.

So there we have it, an uneasy stalemate in a perilous economic, demographic and cultural landscape.

Rather than wringing our hands or pointing fingers, those of us who care about the arts need to be as imaginative and resourceful as ever.

That’s so easy to write — and so hard to do.

John Terauds

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