Posted by: ronontheroad | April 15, 2015

A cultural wasteland

I was listening to the radio the some time ago – should have been the traffic news but instead a discussion between an art critic and the presenter (a gruff Yorkshireman). They were talking about recent announcement of funding for a (North of England) opera company.

It was quite acrimonious – the presenter taking the view that opera is elitist (only 10% of people go to the opera) and expensive – if the ticket price couldn’t cover the cost of the production then “they’re doing it wrong! “. I felt the art critic was a little uncomfortable here – admitting he was not an opera critic – “well if you want to live in a cultural wasteland” was his strongest argument in support of the arts.

The topic was opera, but could easily apply to other genres of live performance like musical theatre.

And that got me wondering – about value for money, the importance of arts and culture, and particularly on the intangible benefits of (particularly) music in our individual and corporate life.

I won’t deny that opera – full production, large cast,  full orchestra – is inherently expensive. Think about it: how many people on stage, in the pit; what about the backstage crew, the costume team, the set designers, lighting,  sound, props; and the front of house team? You may be aware of some of them for the 2-3 hours that you are in the theatre, but don’t forget that the have been preparing and rehearsing for the performance for weeks or months.

Against that though there is a whole service industry: programmes are designed,  printed,  delivered; sets and costumes are designed and realised; lighting and sound rigs are hired; the theatre is built, maintained, and managed. Where there is a theatre, there is also a need for cafes, bars, restaurants, parking, and other infrastructure.

Of course it is possible to make cuts – Benjamin Britten was a proponent (and inventor) of “chamber opera” using smaller scale orchestra and fewer cast members – or to put on selections (opera companies performing short extracts in people’s workplaces at lunchtime) but there is something about going to a live performance of a large scale work that we do not experience every day.

But I want to think beyond the “pounds shillings and pence” and think about the intangible, dare I say spiritual, importance of art in general and music in particular.

Shakespeare wrote:

“the man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.”

Humans respond to music, to storytelling, to fantasy: I’d suggest we need music and storytelling, an escape from the mundane.

I will be watching a musical later in the week – Oklahoma!, thank you for asking – performed by a local community musical theatre group. I will make a prediction: characters will break into song (often for no apparent reason), the inner dilemma of a character’s thoughts will be represented by the medium of dance. The lighting designer will create mood and setting to enhance the costumes and sets.

It’s not real life, but in the words of the Man in chair from Drowsy Chaperone:

“I-uh-I know it is not a perfect show, the spit-take scene is lame and the monkey motif is labored…but it does what a musical is supposed to do! It takes you to another world and gives you a little tune to carry in your head for…for…when you’re feeling blue, you know?”

I’d prefer to have a little tune to carry in my head than be in a cultural wasteland.

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