Anthony Tommasini is on holiday; in his place yesterday (the "critic’s
notebook" feature on the front page of the New York Times arts section),
the Metropolitan Opera ran a 2,000-word
fundraising drive under his byline. Or maybe he wrote it himself; if he
did, the Met couldn’t have wished for anything more fawning.
ChevronTexaco, which has been sponsoring the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday-afternoon
radio broadcasts for the past 64 years, is pulling the plug at the end of
the current season. (They now have other corporate priorities.) The broadcasts
cost $7 million a year, and the Met doesn’t have that kind of cash to
Tommasini makes it as clear as he can that it’s ChevronTexaco who’s the villain
in this piece – he even calls down the wrath of Wotan on what he calls
"the merged company that has pulled the plug". The contrast, you see,
is with the virtuous pre-merger Texaco, which underwrote the broadcasts for
62 years, and whose CEO said in 1999 that "sponsoring the Met has become
part of our corporate DNA".
The difference between Tommasini and Teachout is that the former clearly sees
the potential demise of the broadcasts as disastrous for global civilisation,
while the latter is less sympathetic, saying that "I don’t believe
in sinking money into obsolete cultural ventures that have largely outlived
their utility, and it occurs to me that the Met’s radio broadcasts—at
least as presently constituted—may well fall into that category".
His argument is that
the future of classical radio lies not in what has come to be called "terrestrial
radio" (i.e., conventional radio broadcasting) but in satellite and Web-based
radio, which make it possible to "narrowcast" a wider variety of
programs aimed at smaller audiences. I suspect that’s where the Met
really belongs—not on terrestrial radio. And if I had to guess, I’d
say that the Tony Tommasinis of today would be more likely to listen to the
Met on their computers than on high-quality radios bought by their parents.
He’s wrong. The Met radio broadcasts reach 11 million people – vastly
more than will listen to classical music on their computers worldwide over the
course of a year. Tommasini makes the point that the broadcasts "have been
a cultural lifeline for generations of listeners, both those who live in places
far removed from any opera company and those who may live just a subway ride
from Lincoln Center but can’t afford to attend". Teachout, it would seem,
would restrict them to the lucky inhabitants of the affluent side of the digital
divide, those with satellite radios and broadband internet connections.
Teachout even gripes that he’d "like to know how many of the Met’s
11 million listeners live in the United States" – as though non-US
listeners are second-class opera buffs, about whom we shouldn’t really care.
Terry, those non-US listeners might well number millions in Latin America and
China – people who are certainly not going to get satellite radios any
time soon. Would you deprive them of what is quite probably their only access
to opera just because they’re not smart enough to live in the USA?
Teachout just doesn’t get it: he writes that he’s never listened to the broadcasts,
implying that therefore there’s something irrelevant about them. But Teachout
is a member of the cultural elite that they aren’t aimed at –
the people who, if they fancy some opera, can just hop on the subway to Lincoln
Center, pull out some of their disposable income, and experience it live. If
those people never listened to an opera on the radio, it really wouldn’t matter.
It’s everybody else – those without easy access to an opera house
– who are the people that the radio broadcasts are trying to reach.
That said, I do agree with Teachout on the subject of what Tommasini calls
"compensation to commercial radio stations" – something which
accounts for an undisclosed chunk of the cost of the broadcasts. Subsidising
the wide dissemination of opera is a good thing indeed, but I’m not sure it
should go so far as to directly contribute to the bottom line of for-profit
But I also think that the whole debate is a little bit overblown. For the fact
is that the Saturday broadcasts will go on, even if the Met can’t find a big-name
corporate sponsor to replace ChevronTexaco. The Annenberg Foundation has already
given $3.5 million to keep them on the air, and both Joseph Volpe, the Met’s
general manager, and Beverly Sills, its chairwoman, have personally pledged
that the programme will continue.
Why? Certainly, it’s close to their hearts for all the reasons that Tommasini
rehearses. But, more prosaically, it’s crucially important if the Met is to
continue to receive funding from the large foundations. Tommasini’s article
appeared on the same day that George Hunka blogged
about how "Lincoln Center Theater, in particular, has an active education
department that seeks to bring young audiences into the theater (mainly for
the benefit of funders and New York Times reporters, it appears)".
I’m not nearly that cynical, but I’m sure that Volpe has done his maths: if
he doesn’t spend a couple of million on the radio broadcasts, he would risk
losing much more than that from the kind of foundations that are very keen on
public outreach, and very dubious about throwing money at institutions which
cater only to the rich opera-going elite. Anthony Tommasini can stop losing
sleep: the Met has every interest in ensuring that these broadcasts continue.