I read this article yesterday morning, and I was thinking about it all day, through practicing for auditions, through feeding my daughter dinner, and still when I got to rehearsal at Opera Philadelphia yesterday evening (I’m a chorister in their upcoming production of Nabucco). Our director, Thaddeus Strassberger, mentioned the article and the situation in which New York City Opera finds itself at the beginning of rehearsal, and thanked us all for being there and for our willingness to keep giving our time to creative endeavors like Nabucco.
While I find that I don’t disagree with some of Mr. Nolan’s points, I find that his overall argument is fundamentally flawed.
First of all, a quick survey. How many people here own a television? A nice laptop? More than one car? More than three changes of clothing? How many of you have running water? Since the majority of my limited readership lives in first world countries, I assume that most responses are ‘yes’ (save for my fellow city dwellers, many of whom own only one or no cars). Mr Nolan has called on us, the top 1% of the world’s wealth, to reconsider where we donate our dollars, and calls upon us to forego making donations to ‘frivolous’ endeavors like opera. One’s definition of frivolous could extend to that second car, the larger television, or the faster internet connection (or, for that matter, the car, the television, or the internet — you have running water, what more do you need since the children in Africa have much less?). However, I have yet to read reports of Mr. Nolan selling all his ‘frivolous’ possessions and donating money to babies in Africa (He might have done this, I shouldn’t assume he hasn’t, but I feel like someone on Gawker would have covered it if one of their correspondents suddenly sold as his material possessions and turned into a male Mother Teresa). “However, in a world of limited money and resources, we must make choices. A dollar given to one cause is a dollar not given to another cause. The relatively small number of people wealthy enough to give large sums of money to charitable causes are in high demand. The need of charitable causes for funding far exceeds the available funds at any given time.” This is the first place I take issue with his article. While I understand he’s probably referring to super wealthy people, I would argue that small amounts can add up and make the difference, which is why organizations like Kickstarter and Watsi are successful. New York City Opera, the company Mr. Nolan is so keen on us not donating money to, is using a kickstarter to attempt to raise funds to keep their company running. You can donate here if you feel so inclined.
“Could that same $20 million in charitable donations be better spent elsewhere? Well, if you believe that saving human lives is a better use of money than producing operas, then yes. That money could purchase nearly seven million anti-malaria nets through the Against Malaria Foundation, which is rated as the world’s most effective charity by the ethical philosopher Peter Singer. Singer’s group estimates that a human life is saved for every $1,865 donated to the AMF. So, for the cost of producing one and a half seasons of opera in New York City, more than 10,000 deaths in developing countries could be prevented.” I don’t disagree with any of this statement. He’s right; money donated to these causes could save lives. Money donated to the Red Cross, United Way and many others can help those in need. Smaller organizations like Watsi allow you to donate money to the individual in need to help them receive medical attention that can save their lives or improve their quality of life without any of that money going to administrative expenses, which are definitely a necessity for larger organizations like the Red Cross, United Way and Oxfam, just to name a few. But what are we saving lives for? Last night, Thaddeus made the point that we don’t fight a disease like cancer just to beat cancer; we fight to beat cancer so that we can continue to live our lives. Fighting a disease with nothing to live for doesn’t give us much incentive to live. With the plethora of diseases that the world faces with each passing year, it seems like a rather tall order that Mr. Nolan is proposing that every monetary decision we make fall between someone’s life and something less important. How much thought do you place in every purchase you make? Do you choose a store that sells the product you need for more because you think they treat their employees fairly, or do you go to a place that charges less for the item you need, even though they may not treat their employees fairly? Do you choose to patronize a local business verses a big box store because it supports your local economy? Mr. Nolan proposes we place life and death at the core of our monetary donations, even though there’s no way to know if that money is going to save someone’s life or if it’s going to pay the administrative costs at an organization like AMF. While AMF funds research and treatments that allow people to receive treatment for a disease like malaria, many of my colleagues in music will tell you that opera is essential to who they are as a human being, and that being involved in opera is so much more than a job. There’s a reason many of us in music work long hours for little money, hold down multiple jobs at a time and sometimes even work for nothing in order to raise money for companies that we sing for (that’s rare, but it does happen). That doesn’t even begin to cover the number of people who make their living in the theater: singers, dancers, musicians, conductors, directors, stage managers, supernumeraries, marketing and administrative employees and others. All of these people make their living through organizations like New York City Opera, and many of them would be out of a job if a company like that closed. This also doesn’t include the thousands of people who go to the opera, because an experience like attending the opera is like nothing else, and many feel that is an essential part of their humanity (more on that later on).
“Perhaps the charitable donors who might give money to the New York City Opera are only interested in causes here in New York City. In that case, consider the fact that there are currently more than 50,000 homeless people in our city. A donation of $20 million to, for example, the Coalition for the Homeless could go a long way towards addressing the needs of those in crisis.” Again, this is a point I don’t disagree with. But the New York City Opera isn’t receiving tax payer dollars; it’s asking that private citizens make small donations to ensure they can continue to contribute to American culture. Where was this impassioned argument when the city of New York donated tax payer dollars, private donations and gave tax breaks to baseball? Several million dollars went into creating baseball stadiums while schools and mass transit suffered in New York City. I must have missed the Mr. Nolan’s impassioned article calling for that money to be spent on poor children or homelessness in the city of New York. Maybe you enjoy baseball? That’s great. Do you think we should spend tax payer dollars, private donations and grant tax breaks on it? People in baseball make millions of dollars and no one tells the MBA and the NFL that they are shouldn’t be spending that money on star players because there are impoverished countries in Africa (Football and baseball salaries are sometimes upwards of $20 million; Eli Manning of the New York Giants is slated to make more than that this season, and I don’t see him out there curing malaria). Why is opera different? Is it because you think it’s for rich people? Have you looked at the prices of baseball or football tickets? One could argue that America’s pastime has become unaffordable for most of America. You can get a $19 ticket to see opera at the Metropolitan Opera house. It’s more than that to go to a baseball game, and it’s definitely more than that to go to a football game. The Met also does HD Broadcasts in local movie theaters, and Opera Philadelphia does a free showing of one of their major operas on the National Mall in Philadelphia each year.
When the towers fell on September 11th, 2001, people grieved. They grieved for loved ones lost and injured, and they grieved for a way of life that was no more. Many found an outlet in song. Singing together, praying together and being together is what helped some people find the will to go on. On October 28th, 2001, Renee Fleming, an american opera singer, sang Amazing Grace at a memorial held at the ruins of the World Trade Center. I don’t think it’s at all coincidental that it was an opera singer that was asked to sing a simple song to help unite and comfort those who were grieving. They didn’t ask the popular singer of the day, they asked an opera singer that many people probably hadn’t heard of. You can watch the video of her singing and discussing the experience here. In the darkest hour, her instrument gave voice to those who mourned. The technique and the lessons she has learned as a singer have been taught and passed down through many generations before, and the unique sound and feeling they are able to create in people isn’t found in any other kind of music. In 1842, Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Nabucco premiered at Teatro alla Scala in Milan. Verdi wrote this opera shortly after his wife and two children died tragically, after saying he would not compose any more operas. The impresario at La Scala convinced him to set this libretto, which was the story of the Jews as they were assaulted, conquered and exiled from their homeland by King Nabucco of Babylon. The third act chorus, ” Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate / “Fly, thought, on golden wings,” spoke of the Hewbrews’ desire to return home. This chorus resonated so strongly with the Italian people that it became their anthem as they sought to unify their country and remove the power of the Austro-Hungarian empire from it (that is a really short synopsis of the Italian battle for unification). The point is that opera helped unite these people; opera helped pull people out of grief and Opera has survived for hundreds of years because there is nothing else that involves art, music, dance and drama the way opera does. It resonates with people in a way that nothing else does.
I’ve been an opera singer for almost ten years. I have two degrees and I have a lot of different jobs. One of the most fulfilling experiences I’ve found as a performer has been school outreaches. I’ve sung in schools in some of the worst parts of Philadelphia, where many children come from broken homes, homes where their parents could be involved in drugs and where many times they may not get a full meal before they come to school each day. While I’d love to be able to feed and help clothe every one of these children (and I don’t see anyone like Mr. Nolan rallying to make sure these kids have appropriate resources and healthcare), I can’t. But every one of them loved the opera performances we gave them. They sang along, they were engaged with the stories and they asked lots of insightful questions at the end of the performance. Many opera companies, both large and small, have educational outreach programs designed to reach children of all demographics, and it’s one of the most effective ways to teach children about different kinds of music. Children who are involved and exposed to music consistently do better academically (see study from Canada here) than those who don’t. Arts education is ALWAYS the first thing to be dropped from school curriculums, despite constant and overwhelming evidence for how beneficial it is for young minds. Philadelphia has an amazing program called Tune Up Philly whose goal is to “nurture children by keeping them engaged in success through weekday out-of-school hours music instruction. Through its Tune Up Philly program, Philadelphia Youth Orchestra organization believes that music education is a powerful vehicle for children to master skills that will enable them to acquire valuable tools for cooperative learning, teamwork, academic success and self-esteem.” I’ve seen first hand how programs like this affect students, and it’s always amazing to see kids becoming passionate over what they can accomplish as musicians.
Are producing operas more important than saving lives? Of course not, and I doubt that many would argue that point. But what I will present is the idea that art needs to be preserved otherwise it will not survive. It cannot be neglected until we are finished solving the great injustices of the world and expect that it will still be there waiting for us. You wouldn’t leave the Mona Lisa in a moldy attic until the Louvre was ready to display it, would you? No, you would keep the painting in a safe place, ensure it was temperature controlled, and constantly check to make sure this wonderful and iconic piece of culture and history wasn’t damaged. You’d put time, energy and money into preserving it. Art as a whole, which includes music, dance, painting, and other forms of artistic expression, are not divorced from life. One person’s ability to fund charitable work or opera does not make another’s ability to bring joy to people through opera insignificant. Art cannot survive without those who are willing to make it and subsequently, willing to fund it when times are hard and it can not support itself.
“I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” (John Adams) If we focus solely on living to see the next day, as Mr. Nolan has proposed in his article, we miss an essential part of living, and the experiences that accompany it. ” A dollar given to one cause is a dollar not given to another cause.” While what Mr. Nolan has said is true, it implies that the second cause is genuinely without merit, which I argue that opera is not. The world is not as black and white as he insinuates in his polemical article, and to dismiss the value of cultural institutions is to undervalue the worth of culture as a whole.